Article: Turbulence 101

I’m continuing my work with AVO, the website for those with flight anxiety, and my recent piece on turbulence seems to be quite the attention getter. Apparently, articles about things that go bump in the sky are popular among those suffering from aviophobia. So if you’ve ever wondered about what makes your plane shimmy and shake and whether or not it should concern you, have a look at …

What Everyone Ought To Know About Turbulence

Turbulence. The bane of every fearful flyer’s existence. As if it weren’t bad enough being stuck in a metal tube hurtling through space at 600 miles an hour, we can’t even get from Point-A to Point-B without being tossed around like a washing machine on spin cycle with a lop-sided load.

The truth, however, is that as nerve-wracking as it is, that bouncing, off-kilter washing machine is actually more dangerous than most turbulence you might encounter. In fact, turbulence itself is generally harmless, and most turbulence-related accidents or injuries are the result of falling luggage or not being seat-belted.

To understand why airplane turbulence isn’t the monster we make it out to be, it’s important to understand exactly what causes it. In the simplest terms, turbulence is caused by changing weather conditions. When the planes in which we’re traveling move through these changing conditions, they’re subjected to the forces caused by the changes, and it’s these forces that create the turbulence you experience.

And that brings us to a bit of bad news. Because turbulence is caused by changing weather patterns, and because the weather is affected by climate change, incidents of air turbulence are on the rise. Scientists have warned that as climate change takes hold, turbulence will continue to worsen.

“When we think of global warming we’re usually thinking about the fact that it’s getting warmer at ground level, but in fact, the temperatures are changing higher up in the atmosphere including where planes fly at 35,000ft,” said Dr. Paul Williams, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Reading.

But British Airways captain, Steve Allright stresses that whatever the circumstances, pilots will find the most comfortable path to the flight’s destination. Like the passengers, they experience the same turbulence and would also prefer a smooth ride.

When it comes to the weather conditions that cause turbulence, they can be categorized into four main groups:

  • Wind – At low altitudes, strong winds can produce turbulence, which is why pilots generally avoid taking off and landing in stormy conditions. But the wind is also a factor at high altitudes. Air currents blowing over large mountains create waves of differing pressures, resulting in turbulent conditions. These pressure waves travel not only up to higher altitudes, but forward to great distances, covering large areas.
  • Thermal (hot air movement) – Rising air from the heated surface of the earth can create an updraft. Humid air will form clouds, but dry air will remain clear. In both cases, the movement of hot air causes turbulence, but the clear, dry air tends to catch pilots by surprise.
  • Jet Streams – “Rivers” of fast, narrow air currents called jet streams exist in the earth’s atmosphere. When flowing in the same direction as air travel, these are beneficial as pilots can use them to boost airspeed. However, when they hit a high or low-pressure area, the streams can suddenly change direction, resulting in turbulence as the plane moves in or out of them.
  • Aircraft’s Wake – When planes take off and land, they leave behind a trail of lingering, fast-moving air, which can cause turbulence for other planes that move into the wake. The effect is similar to the slight shake you might feel when getting passed by a large truck on the highway.

Whatever the cause, the intensity of turbulence can vary greatly. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) classifies the intensity, taking into account what is felt within the plane, and the amount of control lost during the turbulence.

LightLoose objects in aircraft remain at restVery common. You can expect to experience it on every single flight
ModerateUnsecured objects are dislodged. Occupants feel definite strains against seat belts and shoulder strapsLess common. You can fly many times and not even experience it.
SevereOccupants thrown violently against seat belts. Momentary loss of aircraft control. Unsecured objects tossed about.Very rare. On average only the most frequent flyers experience severe turbulence.
ExtremeAircraft is tossed violently about and is out of control.Extremely rare. Even the majority of commercial pilots don’t experience turbulence of this intensity in their lifetime

Those of us who are nervous or fearful about turbulence are generally worried about that of the extreme variety. But, as you can see, you could be a commercial airline pilot and never see turbulence of that level in your entire career. Even severe turbulence is highly unlikely; and, as frightened or uncomfortable as we may have been during a flight, it’s possible that what we encountered was still only classified as light turbulence by the FAA.

“Severe turbulence is extremely rare,” said British Airways captain, Steve Allright. “In a flying career of over 10,000 hours, I have experienced severe turbulence for about five minutes in total. It is extremely uncomfortable but not dangerous. The aircraft may be deviating in altitude by up to 100 feet (30 metres) or so, up as well as down, but nothing like the thousands of feet you hear some people talking about.”

But regardless of severity level, we’re experiencing, the big question on all of our minds is probably “can this turbulence cause the plane to crash?” The short answer is No. The truth is it’s such a non-issue, that while we’ve got our armrests in a white-knuckle death grip, waiting for the oxygen masks to drop out of the ceiling, and begging our deity of choice to just keep the plane aloft — the pilot is up in the cockpit merely feeling slightly miffed that the last jolt spilled her coffee.

And, no matter how much you may see them shake, a plane’s wings will not snap off due to turbulence. The wings are made of aerospace-grade aluminum — not the aluminum beer cans and tin foil are made of. Additionally, each wing contains a hidden support system, ensuring that they can’t break off.

In fact, there have not been any commercial passenger plane accidents due to turbulence in the past 50 years. Year after year both the aviation technology and procedures have become safer to the point where turbulence is simply not a safety issue anymore.

Obviously, turbulence isn’t something we can avoid. In fact, with climate change, chances are we’ll be encountering it even more frequently. So, with those unfortunate truths in mind, the next question might be, “Is there at least something I can do to minimize the movement I am going to feel?” On this, pilots and other aviation experts seem to agree: The smoothest place to sit is over the wings, nearest to the plane’s centers of lift and gravity. The roughest spot is usually the far aft. In the rearmost rows, closest to the tail, the knocking and swaying is more pronounced.

 For most of us, just sitting over the wing isn’t going to solve the problem. In fact, the only thing that would solve the problem would be a completely smooth flight. We can’t promise you that, but we can offer some exercises and techniques to help quell the anxiety that might arise when the inevitable happens.

Dr. Keith Stoll, A Harley Street psychologist, says that what anxious fliers feel in response to turbulence is perfectly normal. Although his suggestion for combatting it is anything but (pun intended) — take a deep breath and clench your butt-cheeks! Just the thought of how silly this “breathe and squeeze” coping technique is should help you take your mind off any minor shaking and bumping.

Captain Ron Nielsen, a US pilot, runs courses to help people fight their fear of flying. He suggests that when anxiety strikes, you write your name. “Put a pen in the opposite hand than what you normally use, and write your name. Just keep writing your name.” a pen in the opposite hand than what you normally use, and write your name. Just keep writing your name.” First, writing with your non-dominant hand causes you to focus on what you’re doing and not on the turbulence. And second, it actually crosses over the motor function in your brain, disrupting your thinking.

Captain Nielsen also suggests breathing through a straw. The thought is that by restricting the air intake into the lungs, you will avoid hyperventilating due to your anxiety.

Several experts agree that it’s best not to fight the motion of the turbulence, which will only make you more anxious. Instead, try to relax and let your body sway with the movement, implicitly letting your body know that the extra motion is out of your control.

As we discussed in a prior article, avoid drinking alcoholic beverages. You might think they’ll relax you but being under the influence will make it more difficult to control your imagination. You’ll want to be clear-headed to avoid the unwanted thoughts that often accompany turbulence.

Remember that the flight crew is there for your safety. If you’re feeling especially anxious, if the turbulence or the sounds that accompany it are just getting beyond your control to reason away, it’s okay to speak to a flight attendant for reassurance that everything is going according to plan. There’s no reason to be self-conscious or embarrassed about doing this. You won’t be the first nervous flyer they’ve encountered and they would rather you be calm and comfortable than on the verge of a panic attack.

Don’t forget to practice your mindfulness exercises to focus yourself back in the present if your thoughts start to run away with you. Refer back to our previous article where we discussed three different mindfulness exercises you can do on the plane to help fight anxiety. Another very simple breathing technique you can use to help calm and center yourself is to close your eyes and breathe in for four counts, then breathe out for eight counts.

As much as possible in the space allowed on today’s commercials flights, make yourself comfortable. This can be as simple as remembering to bring a neck pillow, wearing a cozy sweatshirt or flying in your favorite slippers. And don’t forget your earbuds and playlist so you can escape into your own little world if necessary.

We can all agree that turbulence is no fun. And it’s especially nothing to look forward to when you don’t like to fly in the first place. But, now you know that despite feeling like a wonky washing machine, nothing bad is going to happen. The wings will stay on, the plane will stay in the air, and you will reach your destination safely.

At AVO we’ve made it our mission to solve the fear of flying. Sign up today, and we’ll do it together.