What is turbulence? Is it dangerous?
September 9, 2018
Turbulence is just some sort of change in the air around your plane. Air isn’t nothingness; it’s a fluid, like water. Currents of air move up and down, ripple out, change direction, and change speed.
Some of the things that cause turbulence are easier to predict. Thunderstorms push air up and down, so your pilot will use weather reports and instruments on the plane to avoid the worst of the storm. The movement of air as it’s warmed by the sun causes turbulence. Changes in weather are another cause of turbulence. Mountains and other geographic structures cause turbulence when air moves up or down, and that ripple effect can last a long time. Airplanes themselves disturb the air and can cause turbulence for the flight behind them, which is one of the reasons air traffic controllers give airplanes a lot of space (and why you might have to wait to take off). And the air near the jet streams that wrap around our planet can be turbulent even though the skies look clear; this is called “clear air turbulence.”
Your pilots look for information and clues to tell them where turbulence is more likely to occur, and they will do their best to keep bumps to a minimum when possible. However, predicting and avoiding all turbulence isn’t always possible, and it’s unrealistic to expect that you won’t encounter some bumps at times.
The most important thing to know is that turbulence isn’t dangerous. It might be a bit uncomfortable, but your plane is built to handle the worst. Even in the most severe turbulence, your plane isn’t moving nearly as much as you think!
Much of how we experience turbulence is subjective. A few tiny bumps to one person can feel like the worst flight ever to someone else. Our brains and bodies have a hard time making sense of the sensations of turbulence, and that can make it seem worse or scarier than it really is.
When flying through turbulence, the real danger to passengers is injuries from falling. You can prevent this by paying attention to your cabin crew, only moving around the cabin when it’s safe to do so, and storing your carry-on items properly. It’s a good idea to keep your seatbelt on whenever you’re in your seat, even when it isn’t required.
Some people say that where you sit matters. Sit at the back of the plane and you’ll feel more movement during flight. Sit over the wings, and you’ll have a smoother ride. Is that true? Yes, but the difference may not be significant or particularly noticeable.
Bumps along the way are a normal part of flying. For some people, turbulence leads to unhelpful worries. What if it’s more than turbulence? What if there is something wrong with the plane? That sort of thinking is only going to make people feel worse and make flying even more uncomfortable. You don’t have to love turbulence, but try to watch out for the sort of thinking that drives fears and anxieties. One trick you can try is challenging those thoughts. How many times have you flown in the past? Did anything bad happen? How many times have family and friends flown without incident? You can find more on challenging negative thinking at here.
If you’re interested in learning more about flying and how it works, the following books offer a great introduction and address common concerns:
Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel: Questions, Answers, and Reflections by Patrick Smith
From the Flight Deck: Plane Talk and Sky Science by Doug Morris