Clear-Air Turbulence

bonanza over mtns.jpg

Late one morning in 1980, my friend Joe Morgan called and asked if I could help him by flying some video he had just completed to Charlotte, NC.

“It has to be there today!”

“Sure I can do that.  Let me make sure a good airplane is available at Hangar One.”

Hangar One was a distributor for Beech Aircraft and they often had Bonanza’s available to rent in their Aero Club. 

We were in Chattanooga, TN so a Bonanza was what I wanted to fly across the mountains to Charlotte; that way the flight should only take little more than an hour.

I invited my friend Terryl to accompany me and he was excited to do so.  We picked up the videotape from Joe at his company, Video Masters and departed for Charlotte.

It was a beautiful day with only high cirrus clouds and a favorable 20-knot tailwind.

I decided to stay low, or at least as low as we could given the mountainous terrain.  I think we leveled off at 7500 feet and put the airplane in the hands of the autopilot.

It was a nice smooth ride with a beautiful view of the mountains.

After 30 to 40 minutes, we hit something.  Whatever it was grabbed the tail of the airplane and jerked it up so hard we were thrown hard against our seat belts and then violently slammed back down.  It shocked me how hard the airplane was tossed. 

And, we never saw anything.  There was no warning.

I had read about clear-air turbulence or CAT as it is often called, but that was the first time I had experienced it.  Actually the CAT I had read about was typically caused at high altitude near the jet stream, but regardless of where you encounter it or its cause, the common thing is it’s invisible.  There are no clouds or indications to warn you it is there.

Not only had we flown violently through it, we didn’t know if it might happen again.  And, that possibility was terrifying.  Our pleasant ride was over.  Even though the flight was once again smooth, we remained tense waiting for a reoccurrence of the invisible and violent turbulence.

Although tense, the remainder of the flight to Charlotte was uneventful. 

I figured out the sudden turbulence must have been caused by the winds curling over and around the mountains below and we just happened to fly through an area where two or more waves of air collided.  Like water flowing in the river over rocks of various shapes and sizes.  Sometimes the waves caused by the water flowing over and around the rocks collide with each other causing rotation and resulting in an area of intense disruption.

I was intent on taking all precautions to avoid a similar experience on our return flight, so I climbed as high as I could without the aide of oxygen and flew home in nice smooth air.

This, my first experience with CAT remains in my memory as a frightening experience and one I’d rather not repeat.

Now, after another 35 years of flying professionally I have only had two other encounters with CAT and they were both high-altitude CAT at altitudes above 30,000 feet.  I have no other experience with CAT caused by uneven terrain.

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For more information on turbulence, click HERE