Wake turbulence or weather? Are airlines being honest about incidents?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Wikimedia Commons


We’ve all been on bumpy flights. And, most frequent fliers have at least one flight memory of a trip that went beyond bumpy.

But short of anything involving an actual emergency landing, this friend’s Virgin America story is one of the scariest I’ve heard.

I’ll let her tell it:

Friday, August 30, 2013, my husband and I took a morning Virgin American flight from San Jose to LAX. I spoke to the pilot who was chatting with passengers as we boarded. He assured us a smooth flight as he had just flown up from LAX. He said it was clear and easy, and that we would just “zip down the coast.”

While in our final descent, at about 10,000 ft., we suddenly banked sharply right. Then the plane began rolling violently back and forth. The wings of the plane, visible from our row, rolled extremely rapidly back and forth at extreme angles for several minutes. My husband looked at me as if to say, “That’s it.” We, as well as other passengers, thought we were going to crash. The pilot said nothing during the incident nor immediately after he landed the plane. It was not until shortly before the doors opened to let passengers deplane that the pilot informed us that we had encountered wake turbulence caused by a “heavy” jet that had landed ahead of us.

Many passengers were in shock and several were in tears.”

(A “heavy,” for those who don’t know, is an aircraft capable of takeoff weights of 300,000 pounds or more, like a 747 or 777.)

In any case, nothing was said by the gate agent meeting the plane, either. The traveler and her husband decided to cancel their return flight and drive back to San Jose. She also canceled an upcoming trip to Florida because she doesn’t want to get back in a plane anytime soon.

Afterwards, my friend reached out to Virgin America to tell them about the incident, first on Facebook, including that she had canceled her return and future flights.

Their response, “Thanks for reaching out to us and sharing your concerns. We have logged your feedback and passed it on to management for review. Unfortunately, turbulence is something we’re unable to control; however, our pilots do their best to ensure a smooth ride for all guests. Safety is our number 1 priority and we take your feedback very seriously. We hope you have a stress free and relaxing return flight.”

Did they actually READ the message?

Next, they called guest relations, where a woman looked up the flight on the computer and said the incident was reported as caused by weather. The agent did take her email address and said they would be back in touch if they found anything.

It is possible someone from Virgin America may get back to her with a refund, or partial refund, but no one offered that. And, since she booked the flights direct, there’s no way for me as an agent to get her money back.

But leaving the money aside, “wake turbulence” is the turbulence behind a plane as it passes, the airborne equivalent of a boat’s wake on water. It’s been responsible for a number of crashes and incidents. It is one reason aircraft are carefully spaced, especially upon takeoff and landing.

It’s possible the pilot was mistaken, but she and her husband said he sounded pretty certain of the cause. Plus, it was a crystal clear summer day, even in Los Angeles. Personally, I’m also a bit surprised someone from Virgin didn’t meet the plane and offer assistance.

The traveler’s concern now, which seems justifiable, is less a refund than whether or not the airline accurately reported what happened. If it was an unfortunate freak weather thing, one would hope other airlines were warned. And, if it was “wake turbulence,” as the pilot said, clearly either someone made a mistake or the allowed separation distances aren’t far enough. This means the incident should be reviewed.

(She is contacting the DOT and FAA, so there may be a follow-up post based on their response.)

The good news — as scary as the incident was, there did not appear to be any injuries. However, it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. How often does this sort of thing happen? And, is there any chance the traveling public would actually know?

  • sirwired

    FYI, the 757 is well-known to cause the most severe wake turbulence. It’s bad enough that the FAA has special glide path separation requirements for that single model of aircraft.

    A quick check of FlightAware (though it may be too late by now to do so) should show the flights that landed ahead of this plane. (And checks of those flights should show the equipment type.)

    In any case, the loading limits of modern airframes are ridiculously high; if there were no injuries due to flying baggage, it’s doubtful that the the turbulence was anywhere near what would be required to harm the airframe. Of course that doesn’t make you feel a lot better when you see the wings flexing outside the window, but they are nevertheless designed to handle it.

  • janice hough

    Didn’t know that on 757, thanks.

  • Skeptic

    Good point about the capacity of modern aircraft to withstand this kind of turbulence, Sir. The average passenger’s tolerance for turbulence is far below any danger level in terms of airframe integrity. Unless they are not belted-in when the turbulence occurs, the major risk to pax is from flying luggage, catering cart items, and lap children.

  • MikeABQ

    I guess I don’t understand what this woman is seeking. A refund of her cancelled flight? An apology from the pilot who promised her a smooth flight? A clear explanation of what happened? (Was it weather? Was it wake turbulence?) If there were no injuries or baggage flying about the cabin, why would a Virgin America rep need to meet the plane? This sort of thing (wake turbulence) happens every day; I’ve been through it and I suspect you have, too, Janice. Yeah, it’s scary. The reason there was no announcement from the pilot is because he was flying the d**m plane! When conditions are tough I, for one, want the pilot’s hands on the wheel and not on the button on the intercom. I’m genuinely sorry this woman was so shook up (no pun intended) but this was not the first incidence of this and it won’t be the last. If she got safely to her destination then the airline did its job. If I’m missing something here, please clue me in.

  • janice hough

    MikeABQ, I’ve been through turbulence, nothing like this. And her husband is a very frequent flier. Never been on a plane where people are weeping on the plane, and apparently some stuff was flying around in first. Actually what she wants is for Virgin to have reported it as wake turbulence because the planes were too close, so that they can try to not let it happen again.

  • Skeptic

    The FAA controllers, not the pilots, decide how close a plane can fly behind heavies. Unless a pilot is aware that the controllers are violating separation limits, and successfully challenges the controller to get re-routed, there’s not much they can do to avert this kind of incident. It should nonetheless be reported, not to Virgin but to the FAA.

  • dcta

    We (and she) don’t know that it was not reported.

    Per the Gate Attendants – who is to say they even knew that anything had occurred?

    And I also don’t think the pilot or co-pilot should have been “narrating” the event. When they know there is turbulence coming up, they usually say something but when they are surprised, I just want them to fly the plane.

  • MikeABQ

    OK, Janice, fair enough. I can understand and respect the traveler’s position about correct reporting of the incident.

  • Vevans

    Totally agree…how is it when anything goes wrong…we line up with our hands out? It is really bad luck she had a very bumpy flight, but she arrived safely, 357 miles in less than an hour. What more could she possibly be owed?

  • janice

    sorry if the post wasn’t clearer. For her it’s less about money than about it being reported. And when Virgin said “weather” instead of “wake turbulence” this made her think it wasn’t being recorded, so no one knows a mistake was made. Wake turbulence isn’t supposed to happen with safe separation.

  • Vector

    Wasn’t the reason that TWA 800 crashed was that it followed too close to another craft’s takeoff and the wake turbulence downed it?

  • sirwired

    No. TWA 800 had a spark in some damaged wiring that was routed through a fuel tank.

    The most notable wake turbulence crash was AA 587, which crashed into Queens after the plane encountered wake turbulence and the pilot way over-corrected with the rudder system. In this case it was the over-correction (which resulted in the tailfin getting torn off by the rudder), and not the turbulence itself, that caused the crash.

  • janice

    sirwired, wasn’t the US Airways crash in 1994 wake turbulence?

  • Vector


    Thanks for correcting.

  • Accountability

    Thanks for posting this, Janice. I was on the flight. I have flown for decades and endured my share of very bad turbulence, as has my husband. This was not turbulence like any we have ever experienced. The plane was rolling very rapidly and pitched at extreme angles. The wings were not flexing…that would be an gross understatement. Suffice it to say that my husband who gets on a plane as often as he gets in a car does not plan to fly in the near future. If you were not on the flight, it must be difficult to fathom how bad this actually was. So, what do I want? Accountability…an acknowledgement of what actually caused the incident so that there is quality assurance in order to minimize the possibility of recurrence. It is not enough to say, “well, you landed, so it turned out ok.” Most professions have internal reviews to make sure incidents of error or malpractice are reduced. Do we want a system in which wake turbulence caused by following a heavy jet too closely is whitewashed as caused by weather? Do we want a system in which passengers consider themselves lucky to land safely? Or do we want the system that is constantly looking to reduce error? And yes, a refund should be offered for an extremely bad flight that is caused by pilot or tower error, or a return flight cancelled because of the same cause.

  • bayareascott

    Tower error? That would be the FAA, not the airline, if that was the cause.

  • Ken Wong

    I was on that flight as well sitting next to the emergency window exit above the left wing. We were making a right hand turn for final approach into LAX, then suddenly the right wing dips more into the turn, the pilot tries to correct and the plane violently sways left and right several times until the plane leveled. Several people screamed, some emotionally distraught, didn’t notice anybody in tears, a woman in the row ahead yelled, “oh my god” and made movie references with wake turbulence and top gun oh how planes can crash when we landed which I thought was funny. The pilot came on the intercom several minutes later when we landed to notify us that we “experienced some wake turbulence of a larger plane ahead of us, the kids in the first row may have thought that was a fun ride.” This incident isn’t new for me, I was almost in a crash on United airlines flight 863 in 1998 out of SFO where we lost an engine on take off and almost wiped out a neighborhood on a mountain by 100ft. So I wasn’t distraught as some others was, although it was quite surprising.