Out Of The Clear Blue

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You're flying above the clouds in a beautiful sky when out of the blue, your plane is rocked by turbulence. It can happen anywhere, any time. Aside from crashes, turbulence is the leading cause of airline injuries.

"I had a broken neck, a shattered disk," said former flight attendant Kathy Boyer.

Last summer a savage jolt slammed her to the ceiling and knocked her unconscious. She's still recovering from her injuries. "I'd be grateful at this point if I could drive my car and turn my head shoulder-to-shoulder. "

Nancy Spielberg recalls a near death experience. Her cross country flight dropped hundreds of feet in a flash. "It was a ride from hell. It was death, this is the end, we're going down."

The sister of filmmaker Steven Spielberg and 12 other passengers won $2.2 million from American Airlines for emotional trauma.

Mel Shapiro, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wants to unravel the mystery of turbulence. He looks for clues in clouds over Honolulu. "The little striations are what we call turbulent waves breaking."

When he and a team of NOAA storm chasers go in search of rough air, they go hunting 1,200 miles off Honolulu.

Flight director Jack Parrish says forecasters can predict broad areas, say around storms, where turbulence may occur. But where exactly? No one knows.

"There's nothing on radar, nothing visually. The next thing you know, the airplane is all over the place. That's why we're doing this line of work," explained Parrish.

They fly high and low, dropping sensors to monitor and map the atmosphere. Then, in clear skies, they find it.

What pilots call moderate turbulence is the kind that would make most airline passengers hold on for dear life. But for these scientists, hitting a patch of rough air is like prospectors hitting pay dirt.

"We found the rough stuff, indeed — out of the clear blue skies," said Shapiro.

And made a major find, too. They saw and charted for the first time why one plane at one altitude has smooth flying, while another just above or below hits turbulence.

"The turbulence is not distributed uniformly over deep layers in the atmosphere. It's distributed in very thin layers," explained Shapiro.

The ultimate goal is to develop sensors and lasers for planes to detect turbulent air, but that's years off.

But Kathy Boyer knows the technology is needed. "I wouldn't want anyone to experience what I have experienced."

Scientists are flying into harms way so one day passengers won't. Meanwhile, their best advice: buckle up, it could be a bumpy ride.

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