Within the realm of aviation and fluid dynamics, turbulence is used to refer to fluid conditions in which pressure and flow velocity haphazardly fluctuate. With turbulence, air will move up and down, change direction and speed, and ripple out as the aircraft faces irregular motion. While turbulence is not always concerning, it is definitely an atmospheric condition that pilots strive to avoid due to the discomfort it brings to personnel and passengers, as well as the potential risks it can bring if conditions are very poor. As aircraft are specifically designed to create lift through their individual interactions with atmospheric air, they may vary in their performance during turbulent conditions based on their airframe, flight systems, and other factors.
For aircraft that are specifically designed for transporting commercial passengers, engineers go great lengths to minimize the effects of turbulence on the plane. There are many aspects of an aircraft that affect their performance when faced with turbulence, all of which determine the main design features. Wing loading is extremely important for turbulence, and it refers to the total mass of the aircraft divided by the surface area of the wings. With large wing areas, more force from turbulence will be felt as structures are shaken. As a result, larger wing loading ratios lead to smoother flights.
The flexibility of wings is also important, due to the fact that it will affect the amount of energy that they absorb during turbulence. While stiffer and more rigid wings promote increased lift, a lack of flexibility can create oscillations that detract from overall integrity. Because of this, aircraft engineers often strike a balance between wing stability and flexibility. Despite many older aircraft utilizing aluminum alloys for heavy, stiff wings, numerous modern commercial aircraft are now adopting carbon fiber composites to bolster flexibility. Before a commercial aircraft is finished with the design phase, it will be subjected to a test in which the wings are checked for their flexibility.
To further combat the effects of turbulence, engineers began implementing gust alleviation systems during the 1980s, those of which are computer programs capable of autonomously managing ailerons and other wing controls. While they are not as efficient during strong turbulent conditions, they are beneficial for deterring some of the undesirable effects during low level turbulence which is the most common. While such additions to aircraft initially had a slow adoption, their improvements over the years have made them more common on Boeing and Airbus aircraft.
The positive stability of an aircraft is also crucial, due to it being the ability of an aircraft to return to its original position after displacement. With high positive displacement, the aircraft will be able to naturally return to the initial position it was in before it was affected by turbulence, all without requiring intervention by the pilot. While a majority of commercial aircraft exhibit positive stability to maximize comfort, aircraft like jet fighters will have neutral stability as control is most important. Typically, stability is determined by wing angles in comparison to the ground, wing sweeping angles, and the aircraft’s center of gravity.
If one is searching for the best possible plane to take on the effects of turbulence, it can be fairly difficult as there are many parameters and experiments that would need to be conducted. Additionally, the effects of turbulence will also vary based on one’s seating with the same aircraft, those in the back typically facing increased discomfort as compared to those in front. Nevertheless, aircraft such as the Boeing 787-9 are known for their smooth ride capabilities that are made possible with the use of carbon fiber composites, optimal wing loading, gust alleviation systems, and other advanced features. Beyond such an example, other aircraft such as the Airbus A340-500/600, Boeing 737-800, and Airbus A320 all also perform well in standard turbulence.
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