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There is nothing quite like the feeling of a perfectly smooth flight. When the sky is so calm, you don’t even notice you are moving.
After logging 3500 hours as an airline pilot, I have experienced every kind of turbulence.
I have also experienced flights so smooth that it put all the passengers to sleep. I’ve even had to wake up a few passengers once we have landed and parked. I like to think it was because of my smooth flying ability, although maybe they were just tired from waking up at 3 AM for their flight.
We all love a smooth ride. But, turbulence is part of flying and no one likes it. It has always been my least favorite part of the job. Imagine if your office starts shaking and spilling your mug of coffee! That is what happens in my office, all the time!
Though we can’t predict turbulence with 100% accuracy, we usually know where the turbulence exists and where the smoothest flight routes are.
Turbulence also makes many passengers nauseous. If you are prone to motion sickness, this list should help you pick flights that will avoid the worst turbulence.
1. Flights over Large Lakes and Calm Seas
Unlike land, large bodies of water maintain a constant temperature throughout the day. When the land surface is heated, it creates updrafts of warm air. When planes fly through updrafts, it creates turbulence.
Because water is resistant to fast heating and cooling, it has smoother air above. I have often noticed my flight become smoother as soon as we pass from flying over land to flying over a lake or the ocean.
However, not all flights over the ocean will be smooth. When flying between Europe and the United States, most flights can encounter the jet stream, which is notorious for creating clear air turbulence.
2. Morning Flights
Even in otherwise turbulent areas, the mornings are a smooth time to fly. After nighttime, when the sun is down, the land cools off, which makes stable air above.
Early morning flights have always been my favorite time to fly. The air is typically cool and crisp. Plus, watching the sunrise at 30,000 feet never gets old.
Unless there is unusual weather, morning flights are almost always smooth. I have done the same route many times, and the difference between bumpy and smooth can be the difference in time of day.
If you are looking for a smooth flight, consider choosing the early morning option.
3. Night Flights and Redeyes
Similar to the early morning flights, flights late in the day are also smoother. Experienced cargo pilots, who mostly fly at night, are used to this smoother air.
Outside of encountering storms, night flights are also smooth. The air is more stable when the sun goes down.
Flying at night and taking redeyes, even in otherwise bumpy areas, are typically smooth flights.
Another advantage of flying at night is quicker flights. There is less air traffic at that time. Airports and airspace are busiest during the morning hours and middle of the day. Come nighttime, most planes stay on the ground. That means shorter taxi times, fewer delays, and more direct routing.
4. Flights North and South of the Equator
The equator creates unique weather across the world. It is the home for most tropical storms and hurricanes. Warm, humid air mixes with cold air, creating all sorts of challenging weather for aircraft.
Any flight route that crosses the equator is likely to be turbulent. Flights that are far enough north or south of the equator will avoid the thunderstorms and hurricane conditions.
5. Flights Avoiding Mountains
The worst turbulence I have encountered has mostly been from flying near the mountains. Mountain ranges across the world all create a unique challenge for pilots and airplanes.
As winds flow into mountains, it creates a swirling effect. Flights going over and near mountains, especially on windy days, encounter lots of turbulence.
Flight routes that don’t pass near the Alps, the Andes, the American or Canadian Rockies, or the Pennines will avoid the worst mountain turbulence.
6. Calm Weather Regions
Other than mountains, areas with frequent storms are turbulent. Typically, cooler, more northern regions with flat land have smooth air and flights.
Storms and turbulence are created from unstable air. So, to avoid bumpy flights, stable and smooth air is best.
Cooler temperature areas have a more constant temperature which means fewer storms and smoother air. If an area is famous for storms, that also means it is famous for turbulence.
7. Flights over Plains and Flat Areas
Since turbulence is in stormy areas and mountainous regions, flights that avoid these areas tend to be smooth. Areas that are mostly flat farms or great sweeping plains will be smooth.
However, most commercial flights will encounter different types of geography. Not many places in the world have the same land for thousands of miles. So, usually, just the portions of flight that go over flat land will be smooth.
8. Bonus: Hot Air Balloon Flights!
Though you probably aren’t traveling on a hot air balloon anytime soon, they are among the smoothest flying vessels. As you remember from above, turbulence is the disruption of smooth airflow. Since hot air balloons just travel with the air, and not across it, they stay smooth!
Even those people who get motion-sickness often should be able to stomach a hot air balloon ride. Plus, the views are incredible!
Which Planes Have the Least Turbulence?
Most large jet airliners will encounter similar levels of turbulence, however there is some difference between them. Typically longer fuselage aircraft feel more of the turbulence in the back cabin. The Boeing 757 and Airbus A321 feel more turbulence in the last rows than up front.
Smaller planes may encounter more turbulence as they typically fly shorter flights. On short flights, the airplane can’t climb as high, so it may be forced to fly through more clouds, storms, and windy conditions compared to bigger planes flying on long flights.
Choosing a seat closer to the front usually will mean a smoother ride.
If you are looking for a smooth flight, consider these different factors. Sometimes it has less to do with where you are flying, instead, when you are flying.
For anyone who loves to travel, turbulence is a part of life and turbulence is NOT dangerous (usually). There is no escaping it. But you can fly confidently knowing that the pilots, flight dispatchers, and air traffic controllers are all working hard to give everyone a smooth flight.
New cockpit technologies also help pilots get real-time weather and turbulence updates. This allows them to choose altitudes and routes that avoid the worst turbulence. Even when flying routes that are notorious for turbulence.
As always, buckle up! And enjoy the ride.
Phil McCain is an experienced U.S. airline pilot. He has accumulated over 3500 hours of flight time across the United States, Canada, and Mexico. He is also a flight instructor, industry expert, and passionate traveler. He currently lives in Detroit, Michigan. Outside of the cockpit, Phil loves to read, cook, run, and explore the world around him. Here’s his website.