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Turbulence is the largest contributor to the fear of flying. Though it is a natural and normal phenomenon it is largely misunderstood, creating unnecessary fear in passengers. I hope to ease that fear and show turbulence is nothing to sweat about.
Are you curious about why turbulence happens on some flights and not others?
After piloting thousands of flights and experiencing every type of turbulence and weather condition I have the answers you are looking for.
I have had flights so smooth it felt like sitting at home, to flights so bumpy even my experienced crews got queasy.
As an airline pilot, my responsibility is the safety of my passengers and crew. A responsibility all pilots do not take lightly. We are highly trained in all aspects of turbulence, where it is, and how to avoid it.
This article will demonstrate why even bumpy flights are completely safe. Also why turbulence happens, what we can do about it, and some tips to help calm your nerves if turbulence scares you.
You will be able to prepare for your flight armed with the knowledge of a professional airline pilot!
Is Turbulence Dangerous?
The short answer is No. The longer answer is sometimes.
Turbulence is not dangerous to airplanes. Airplanes are designed to handle all types of turbulent air and withstand conditions much worse than they will ever encounter.
Turbulence feels dangerous because it seems scary and unsettling on the body. It can trigger a response of panic when the airplane moves unexpectedly.
Sometimes the bumps and shaking make it feel like something bad could happen, but you can rest assured the plane is designed to handle all types of conditions.
The reason why turbulence could be dangerous is that there is potential for injury inside the cabin. Passengers and crew could be struck by unsecured items or someone getting thrown around from the turbulence.
In the past 10 years, there has been a decrease in the number of injuries by turbulence. It is an extremely low chance and following the directions from the captain and the seat-belt sign can prevent nearly all turbulence injuries.
The technology and training have led to major increases in passenger and crew safety. I spend the majority of the flight making decisions on how to avoid turbulence and taking every precaution to keep my passengers and crew safe.
The good news is I have a lot of help from technology now.
Now let’s go through some basics to understand everything about turbulences.
What is Turbulence?
Turbulence is a disruption of the smooth airflow going over the wings of an airplane. In other words, turbulence is the bumps, jolts, rumbles, and vibrations you feel while flying. It is normal and routine. However, intense turbulence scares many passengers.
Understanding what causes turbulence will help nervous flyers stay calm during bumpy flights. And the first step to understanding turbulence is a quick understanding of what makes an airplane fly.
As air flows over wings it creates a lift force which keeps the airplane in the air as gravity tries to pull it down. Air flowing around and over the airplane is the source of the magic that keeps airplanes flying.
A disruption or sudden change of smooth airflow over the wing will be felt as turbulence inside the airplane. As already explained, any bump, jolt, rumble, or vibration you feel while in the air would be considered a type of turbulence.
Imagine being on a boat, the ride is smooth when the seas are calm. If the boat crosses into some choppy seas it will be felt as bumps inside the boat.
Another way to think of turbulence is swimming in a calm lake versus swimming in the ocean with waves crashing around you. In the lake, the water flowing around you feels smooth. In the ocean with waves, you can feel the water pushing and changing directions on your body as the waves create turbulence in the water around you.
This is the same principle for an airplane. Instead of traveling through water, it flows through the air. Those disturbances in the air create what we feel as turbulence inside.
It is important to know that none of this is dangerous for the aircraft.
While swimming, water that momentarily hits your body differently does not mean you stop swimming. You just feel it as a bump, and keep going on. The airplane does the same thing. Airflow can approach the wing differently for a moment, create turbulence, and the plane keeps on flying.
What Causes Turbulence?
As a pilot, I wish every flight could be smooth. It makes my job easier and more enjoyable. Imagine sitting in your cubicle and the chair starts shaking as you try to drink coffee and get work done!
We understand what turbulence feels like, but why does it happen?
Since turbulence is felt when airflow changes around the airplane it caused primarily by five main factors:
Another name is convective activity. Simply put, this is air rising and falling quickly because of a thunderstorm. Thunderstorms can be created in several ways but they all share common principles.
Air quickly rises as the storm builds up, and once it is large enough it starts rapidly falling creating hail, thunder, lightning, and wind gusts. All things that pilots work hard to avoid.
In our training, we practice techniques to identify weather trends and have many resources to avoid flying through storms. However, despite avoiding thunderstorms, just flying near them still can cause turbulence due to the changing wind and air drafts.
Flying over and through mountainous areas requires extra planning and care for pilots. Once again, we have specific training for flying over and in mountains.
As wind strikes a mountain, it doesn’t stop flowing. The mountain acts as a ramp and it sends that air flying up and around itself creating a cascading swirling effect.
That’s why it is common to experience some turbulence in and around mountainous areas.
The good news is that nature provides a naturally occurring warning when conditions around mountains are turbulent: A lenticular cloud will form due to the airflow crossing over a mountain.
3. The Jet-Stream
The high speed, upper-level winds from the jet stream can create a massive tailwind and speed up a flight. It also can create the most severe and hardest to predict form of turbulence known as, “clear air turbulence.”
There are no visual indicators of the jetstream. Unlike storms and mountains, pilots can’t see when they will be entering the jet stream. The transition from smooth slow-moving air, to a suddenly fast-moving stream, can create turbulence.
The good news is that with new technologies and training we now have many ways to predict this turbulence and mitigate the dangers from it.
The methods we use to avoid it will be covered further down in the article.
4. Wake Turbulence
Wake turbulence is created by all flying aircraft. It is invisible to the eye, but can easily be pictured by thinking of a boat. As a boat travels through the water you can see its wake behind it. Imagine that, just in the sky behind an airplane.
Wake turbulence is typically a bigger issue around airports. It is usually experienced on takeoff and landing. Bigger aircraft will create more wake turbulence than smaller aircraft. Think about the wake of a cruise ship compared to a small speedboat.
There are rules and simple procedures all pilots follow to avoid encountering this sneaky form of turbulence. In all my thousands of hours flying I have only had a few significant encounters with wake turbulence.
This last one is a little general, and many assume that windy days mean their flight will be turbulent. That is sometimes true. Wind on its own does not create turbulence, but whatever is creating the wind is usually the reason for turbulence.
It is the shift of air or change in direction that disrupts an airplane creating turbulence. Steady winds still mean smooth flying. If the wind suddenly changes from wind-shear that can create turbulence.
Any of the above factors can cause the wind to change and create turbulence on a plane.
Can We Predict Turbulence and Avoid It?
Many years ago there was limited understanding and technology to avoid turbulence. Today, it is safer than ever. There are some really impressive technology and tools available to pilots, air traffic control, and flight dispatchers to ensure safe, smooth flights.
The most common way to avoid turbulence is by using pilot-reports, or PIREPS. Any time an airplane encounters turbulence the pilot will report it to air traffic control. This PIREP is available for dispatchers and pilots to see on their flight planning paperwork and hear while flying.
Air traffic control can keep track of all these PIREPS and create new routes and altitudes that keep airplanes in smooth areas.
While in the cockpit I have access to real-time turbulence maps on my iPad. Many airlines have advanced software and sensors installed to create accurate weather and turbulence maps around the world.
For example, Delta Air Lines has unique software available on every pilot’s iPad. The dispatchers who create the flight plan can use the turbulence data to create a route that should be smooth. The pilots can keep track of any changes throughout the flight, and adjust course or altitude if conditions change.
Smoother flights and turbulence predicting is good for everyone. It means a smoother flight, which creates a more enjoyable experience. It saves fuel by performing fewer altitude and course changes. Ultimately, it means fewer delays.
How Do Pilots and Flight Attendants Handle Turbulence?
As stated above, there are advanced tools to avoid turbulence, which is ultimately the best way to handle it.
However, sometimes there is no option to avoid it. If we wanted to never have turbulence then we could never go flying. But, since this is not an option, we are trained and have many procedures to ensure it is safe.
I hate spilling my drink, and I have made it a personal mission to make sure my passengers never have to spill theirs either. Before each flight, the entire crew will be briefed by the captain on what to expect.
We discuss expected turbulence and even when to schedule meal and beverage services to ensure they can be completed safely, smoothly, and spill-free.
Anytime there is unexpected turbulence the flight attendants can decide to sit down or stop providing service if they feel uncomfortable.
The pilots usually can predict when turbulence is ahead, so before it gets bumpy we will call the flight attendants and direct them to sit down or stop service. At the same time, we will turn on the fasten seatbelt sign.
You should always follow the guidance of the pilots and flight attendants. Turbulence can cause injuries inside the cabin, especially if you are not buckled in.
Some turbulence can’t be predicted. So, it is important to wear the seatbelt even when the seat-belt sign is off. Pilots are always required to wear a seatbelt, even when it is smooth, for this reason.
Do Smaller Airplanes Have More Turbulence Than Bigger Ones?
Many people assume that big planes are safer than smaller ones. Or, that small planes must always be bumpier than bigger ones. I understand why many would think this, but this is not necessarily true.
The design of certain aircraft makes turbulence more noticeable regardless of their size. For instance, sitting in the back of a 757, turbulence can feel more intense in the last few rows compared to the cockpit or first few rows because of how long the aircraft cabin is.
That said, smaller planes at times may be less capable of handling higher wind-speeds and the lighter weight means the wind could move them around more than larger jumbo jets.
Small propeller-driven planes may also experience more turbulence than jets flying in the same areas. Smaller planes may experience more turbulence because of the routes they fly. Larger aircraft tend to operate longer flights. That means they can climb high above the weather into smoother air.
For shorter flights, airlines often use smaller, regional sized aircraft. Even though they are safe, well-designed aircraft, they will stay at a lower altitude on short flights. This puts their flight path within more weather and potential turbulence.
Has an Airplane Ever Crashed from Turbulence?
There is the false assumption that turbulence can take down an airliner. This is NOT true.
Researching accident reports reveal various reasons for aviation incidents and crashes, and turbulence has only been a contributing factor in some.
A contributing factor is anything that had some part in an accident, but not the primary cause. For example. common contributing factors may include fatigue, weather, distractions, or mechanical issues.
There have been some flights that flew through severe thunderstorms and the turbulence within the storm was a major reason it ultimately crashed. However, the turbulence was not the primary reason. It was the severe thunderstorms.
This is an important distinction because the normal turbulence that you may feel on a flight should not cause worry. Even if it feels intense and scary, it will not cause an accident.
The primary problem with turbulence is someone getting hurt inside the plane. That is why listening and following crew member instructions is critically important. When faced with the decision of whether or not I should turn on the seat-belt sign, I always err on the side of caution.
How to Get over the Fear of Turbulence?
After many turbulent flights in my life I hardly even notice the bumps anymore. It is common for me to ride as a passenger heading to or from work while in my uniform.
On multiple occasions, I have had some very nice Grandma’s panic during turbulence and grab my hand. Of course, I don’t mind, and I calmly explain what is happening.
I have found the fear comes from not understanding. Once I have explained to the concerned passenger what is happening they seem to relax and it takes the concern away.
Airplanes are designed to handle turbulence. Looking out a window you can see the wings flexing and shaking. This is a good thing. It is similar to skyscrapers swaying in the wind. They are designed to flex and move instead of remaining rigid.
Airplane wings can move an incredible amount. The amount they move from turbulence is only a fraction of what they are capable of.
Knowledge is the best strategy to combat the fear of flying. Here are the main things to remember if you have a fear of turbulence.
- Turbulence does not cause airplanes to crash, they are designed for it.
- Turbulence is a normal, natural phenomenon.
- The pilots receive rigorous training to handle every situation that occurs during flight, including turbulence.
- There is a significant amount of technology and care put into avoiding turbulence and operating every flight safely.
- Following the captain and crew member instructions will keep you safe.
- Every time you are seated, keep your seat belt fastened.
What is the Best Time of Day to Avoid Turbulence?
Early morning and night flights avoid the worst turbulence. During the day, as the sun heats up the earth, it creates updrafts. Some of these updrafts cause turbulence.
Once the sun is down, the air typically gets smoother. Red Eye flights and early morning flights should avoid turbulence in otherwise bumpy areas. I have noticed typically bumpy routes become smooth when flying in the morning.
If you hate turbulence, consider an early morning flight or a night flight to avoid the most turbulent conditions during the day.
Read my article on the smoothest flight routes that you can take.
How to Avoid Getting Sick from Turbulent Flights
Turbulence also causes many passengers to get motion sickness. Most frequent travelers start to build up a resistance and as a pilot, I almost never get motion sickness.
If you are prone to getting sick on bumpy flights here are some tips to help you avoid the barf-bag.
- Avoid looking at screens or looking down to read books.
- Chew on mint gum or ginger candy.
- Don’t fly on an empty stomach, a light meal will help your stomach stay calm.
- Anti-nausea drugs are typically very effective for most people, but some have side-effects that could be worse than motion-sickness.
- Look out the window. Don’t close your eyes, picking a point outside on the horizon can help stabilize your body preventing motion sickness.
Some Flights Will Be Bumpy, But Don’t Worry.
Sometimes, despite all the advanced technology, planning, and training, a flight will be bumpy. There have been days where the weather and conditions don’t allow for smooth flying.
Your crew will do absolutely everything within their power to ensure a safe flight and it is important to follow instructions.
I like to give a warning on my welcome aboard passenger announcement if we know it will be a bumpy flight. Also to reassure everyone that it will be safe, just a bit bumpy.
Turbulence is naturally a part of flying. There is amazing new technology to help pilots avoid most of it and create a smooth experience for the passengers.
You can sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight. Even if it’s a bumpy one.
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.