Turbulent Times


February 21, 2014

TURBULENCE WAS BIG NEWS this week after a pair of aircraft — one belonging to United Airlines, the other to Cathay Pacific — had run-ins with unusually rough conditions, resulting in several injuries and lots of hysterical news coverage.

Turbulence is far and away the number one concern of nervous flyers, and incidents like these do nothing to make them more comfortable. If you’re among those seeking reassurance, please refer to my earlier essay on the topic, a version of which also appears in chapter two of the new book. Many anxious passengers have found this discussion helpful…


In the meantime I’ll go ahead and reiterate some bullet points:

>> First and foremost, turbulence is, for lack of a better term, normal. Every flight, every day, will encounter some degree of rough air, be it a few light burbles or a more pronounced and consistent chop that sometimes gets your coffee spilling and the plates rattling in the galley. From a pilot’s perspective, garden-variety turbulence is seen as a comfort and convenience issue, not a safety issue per se. It’s annoying, but it’s not dangerous.

>> In rare circumstances, however, it’s worse, to the point where a plane’s occupants can be injured or, even more uncommonly, aircraft components can be damaged. How rare? Put it this way, the type of encounter that United and Cathay ran into is the sort of thing even the most frequent flyer will not experience in a lifetime. And of the small number of passengers injured each year, the majority of them are people who did not have their seat belts on when they should have.

>> Can turbulence occur unexpectedly — or, as the news people have been embellishing it, “out of nowhere?” Yes. Pilots receive weather and turbulence forecasts prior to flight; once aloft we get periodic updates from our dispatchers and meteorologists on the ground. We have radar in the cockpit, as well as our eyes to see and avoid the worst weather. And perhaps most helpful of all are the real-time reports from nearby aircraft. With all of these tools at our disposal, we have a pretty good idea of the where, when, and how bad of the bumps. But not always. Every so often it gets rough without warning — another good reason to keep your seat belt fastened even when conditions are smooth.

>> Do pilots keep their belts fastened in the cockpit? Yes, always. Is this one of those things that, well, hey, we sometimes ignore and get lackadaisical about? No, and neither should you.

>> For what it’s worth, thinking back over the whole history of modern commercial aviation, the number of jetliner crashes caused by turbulence, strictly speaking, can be counted on one hand. Airplanes are engineered to withstand an extreme amount of stress, and the amount of turbulence required to, for instance, tear off a wing, is far beyond anything you’ll ever experience.

>> During turbulence, the pilots are not fighting the controls. Planes are designed with what we call positive stability, meaning that when nudged from their original point in space, by their nature they wish to return there. The best way of handling rough air is to effectively ride it out, hands-off. (Some autopilots have a turbulence mode that de-sensitizes the system, to avoid over-controlling.) It can be uncomfortable, but the jet is not going to flip upside down.

>> Be wary of analogies. You might hear somebody compare turbulence to “driving over a rough road,” or to “a ship in rough seas.” I don’t like these comparisons because potholes routinely pop tires, break axles and ruin suspensions, while ships can be capsized or swamped. There are no accurate equivalents in the air.

>> Be wary of passenger accounts in news stories. Not to insult anyone’s powers of observation, but people have a terrible habit of misinterpreting and exaggerating the sensations of flight, particularly if they’re scared. Even in considerably bumpy air — what a pilot might call “moderate turbulence,” a plane is seldom displaced in altitude by more than 20 feet, and usually less. Passengers might feel the plane “plummeting” or “diving” — words the media can’t get enough of — when in fact it’s hardly moving.

>> Will climate change increase the number of severe turbulence encounters? Possibly. I’m not aware of any formal studies yet. What evidence exists is for now anecdotal: pilots noticing odd weather patterns, or seeing thunderstorms in areas, and at times of the year, when they used to be very rare — over the North Atlantic in winter, for example. It stands to reason that as global warming destabilizes weather systems and intensifies storms, the number of violent encounters will rise. But be wary of statistics. Remember too there are also more airplanes flying than ever before. The worldwide jetliner fleet has more than doubled in the past twenty years, and continues to grow. As the number of flights goes up, the number of incidents will also go up, regardless of changes in the weather.

Hopefully that helps. Once again, CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL DISCUSSION.




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7 Responses to “Turbulent Times”
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  1. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    I think more people wear their seatbelt automatically now than in the past. When I was a young child — I think the Wright Brothers were still flying then — what kept me in my seat in the care was my mother’s right arm. If we were coming to a swift stop, her arm would fling out, hit me in the chest, and hold me in place. Even after seat belts became common, she continued this. However, in 1984, only some 14% of the driving public wore seat belts. Today, the numbers are almost reversed, with some 87% wear them. Thus, I think seat belts were new and different for most of the flying public way back when and wearing them was not a habit. Now, almost everyone automatically buckles up the moment they get int he car. I think that must carry over into the percentage of airline passengers wearing their seat belts. I can’t imagine sitting on a plane not buckled up. Are there any number to back up my supposition?

  2. Sam Needleman says:

    I never really worried about turbulence thinking it was a natural phenomena and was not going to affect me too badly.

    Until one transcon IAD-LAS trip. About midway through the flight, the chop got pretty heavy. On that flight I had chosen not to watch the chick-flick on the overhead communal CRTs, opting instead for a book and listening to ATC. As soon as the chop got bad, I looked up at the movie and one character was handing a cup of coffee to another and I thought to myself, “Gee they should be careful in this chop.”

    As soon as the thought went through my head, I closed my eyes and called myself the dumbest person alive giving myself a mental dope-slap to the back of the head.

    As I said, turbulence doesn’t bother me. But movie characters handling hot beverages does.

  3. Jim Nager says:

    What can you tell us that gives confidence in the carbon fiber construction of some new wings? CF bicycles, given a sharp rap, can delaminate. The resin develops a tiny crack in between the fibers, which propagates unpredictably until there is sudden failure. Visual inspection and x-rays will not detect this.
    I know a bicycle is not an airplane wing, but airplane wings are under huge stresses for many years.

  4. Olga says:

    I found your site through Cliff Mass’ weather blog. My oldest and dearest friend (and guardian angel to my kids), was a flight attendant for many years in Europe, and now runs a safety training company. She told me in no uncertain terms that babies/toddlers ALWAYS need to have their own seat and be buckled in as much as possible. It is interesting to me that the FAA suggests this, but doesn’t mandate it (I assume it’s a calculation based on how many fewer people would fly if they had to buy an extra seat, versus how many children will be hurt by unexpected and significant (rare?) turbulence).
    Thanks for this blog — I’m not a huge fan of flying, although I try to remember a pilot friend’s handy phrase “planes LIKE to fly.” Will take a read as time allows!

  5. Gene says:

    My two worst turbulence trips, landing in Baltimore (divert from National) in the tail end of Hurricane Agnes (72?), half the plane was throwing up; sustained for probably 15 minutes. That plane almost certainly had to be taken OOS for cleaning. The other was leaving Denver, late 60s/early 70s on an Electra; hit either a rotor or a mountain wave. I know we dropped at least 6 feet, all stewardesses and a babe in arms plastered to overhead, good percentage of stuff in overhead shelves distributed about cabin, meal service cancelled.

  6. JuliaZ says:


    My other favorite blogger, Cliff Mass, blogged about the weather aspect of the turbulence that the United flight experienced in Montana. Did he get it right? His headline is a little sensational (but he has a good sense of humor).


    I “enjoy” turbulence now that I am not scared of it, and often take notes about how far I think we’ve dropped (if we seem to at all) to compare to FlightAware. This can be done in near-real-time on the flight if you have WiFi (I always do) and it’s amazing how much of a good conversation you can start amongst fellow passengers with that data.

    I’d like to think I’m advancing the “wear your seatbelt and keep calm in turbulence” cause…

  7. bode says:

    I completely agree with Patrick: the key is wearing your seatbelt. If I have learned nothing from my hobby of reading NTSB accident reports it is this: every year more than one flight attendant breaks a bone during turbulence. It is most often unexpected (clear air) turbulence. It’s usually an ankle. o wear your seatbelt and you will be fine.

    Also, the plane is always fine. If it diverts, it’s because of injured passengers, not an injured aircraft.