If you’re a regular flier, you’ve probably had a nervy flight — or 10 — coming in or out of Denver International Airport.
Denver International Airport is regularly mentioned by pilots and passengers alike as one of the bumpiest airports to fly in and out of in America, if not the world. While hard statistics of this are hard to come by — plane turbulence is, after all, partially subjective — there are plenty of tangible reasons that these annoying, invisible air potholes happen more often above Colorado.
While turbulence is a normal and generally non-dangerous part of air travel — since 1980, only three deaths have been attributed to plane turbulence — for many passengers, it’s also an unpleasant part of the reality of traveling. In more extreme cases — like a plane diversion into Denver in February 2017 — turbulence can go beyond unpleasant and turn into a real-life rollercoaster ride. And butted up against the Rocky Mountains, Denver’s geography makes white-knuckle rides more commonplace than many other locations.
So what causes Colorado’s volatile air turbulence? Above all else, blame the mountains.
The best way to think about how air turbulence works is to think of the atmosphere as a liquid, filled with waves and bumps. Colorado, however, is unique in the fact that huge mountains slice through most of the state, creating more of a topsy-turvy nature to the air above our heads as air climbs and descends in response to the terrain. In short, that’s a large part of why Colorado’s air tends to be a bit bumpier than most other non-mountainous locations.
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During the winter and early spring, however, the air often moves a bit faster and more violently. The jet stream, a narrow ribbon of especially strong winds at the upper levels of the atmosphere, often moves over Colorado during this time of the year. That creates stronger and more unpredictable air flows in and through the mountains, further rattling nerves and beverage carts above the choppy Rockies.
For the Front Range specifically, though, there’s an extra element that can enhance or create air turbulence: mountain waves. As air rises up and over the mountains, it accelerates and sinks on the lee side of the Rockies. That sinking motion, though, isn’t a smooth ride. It’s usually filled with eddies and bumps, particularly if the wind direction is perpendicular to the ridge line — as in a westerly wind coming off a north-south oriented range.
To whittle that all down: If you see stationary clouds in the shape of a flying saucer above your head, known as lenticular clouds, strap those seat belts tight. You’re probably in for a rough ride.
“Think about a boat in an intense sea. Waves up and down,” said Kurt Huerta, a Denver-based pilot for SkyWest Airlines. “For us, going up (into the mountains) means a decrease in airspeed and an increased angle of attack. On the way down, our airspeed increases and our angle of attack as well.”
During the stormier spring and summer months, wind shear is often prevalent along the Front Range, helping create a bumpy ride in or out of Denver. Wind shear is the change in wind speed and direction with height that creates spin, and it often makes for a turbulent ride along the Front Range.
“The trip between Denver and Colorado Springs is especially bumpy during storm season,” Huerta said. “Coming into Denver is always challenging on those days.”
Of course, the winds directly produced by a summertime storm can also shake a plane — or divert flights altogether.
And sometimes, there’s simply Clear Air Turbulence — known as CAT — that comes without visual clues or hints.
Planes are specifically built to withstand all different types of turbulence, and pilots are trained and experienced in dealing with it. Finger-chewing fliers, however, might also be pleased to know that airlines are in the process of testing technology that may help planes better avoid turbulence.
For now, however, fliers will simply have to take comfort in the fact that turbulence is par for the course of flying — especially in and around Denver.
Chris Bianchi is a meteorologist for WeatherNation TV.