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What is Airplane Turbulence?

Flying is one of the safest forms of transportation, but it may not feel like it when turbulence strikes. What exactly is that “rough air” pilots always talk about? How much disturbance is considered normal?


Remember: Turbulence is Normal
Airplanes travel on wind flow. Most of the time it’s smooth, making for an easy flight. However sometimes the smooth air turns choppy—think waves on an ocean—causing the plane to rise, fall, and sway as it makes its way across the sky.

These so-called eddies of rough air are caused by three main categories of interference: thermal, where warm air rises through cooler air; mechanical, where a mountain or manmade structure alters air flow; and shear, which occurs along the border between two pockets of conversely moving air—like if a pilot crosses into the jet stream to take advantage of a tailwind.

The Federal Aviation Administration says approximately 58 fliers are injured by turbulence each year, but considering around eight million people fly every day, injury is actually pretty rare.

You Shouldn’t Be Worried
While turbulence can feel scary, airplanes are designed to withstand massive amounts of it. “A plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket,” wrote pilot Patrick Smith on his site, “Conditions might be annoying and uncomfortable, but the plane is not going to crash.”

Modern airplanes are built to withstand everything from so-called bird strikes to lightning strikes, extreme heat and cold, to a gust of wind so strong it could bend a jet wing up to 90 degrees. There’s little doubt that a well-maintained commercial airliner can handle some turbulence.

The Pilots Are Ready For It
Airplane pilots usually know when turbulence is coming thanks to weather reports and a game of telephone played at 30,000 feet. When pilots hit choppy air, they alert air traffic control, as well as the pilots guiding other planes along the same flight path. Pilots or ground support can often spot turbulent air on the radar or note some telltale weather patterns, and brace themselves—and their passengers—or the oncoming bumps and slowing the plane down to “turbulence penetration speed.”

There is one type of turbulence that no one can see coming, though—so called clear-air turbulence, which seemingly comes out of nowhere in clear skies. This kind of turbulence can be the most dangerous as its sudden onset gives no time for the flight crew to warn passengers to return to their seats and buckle up.

Wear Your Seatbelt
Each year, approximately 58 people in the United States are injured by turbulence while not wearing their seat belts, according to the FAA. Many of those injured are the flight crew, who were probably walking around the plane telling passengers to put on their safety belts. When the pilot or flight crew suggests that you wear your seatbelt whenever you are in your seat, they are trying to keep you safe in case of clear-air turbulence, which causes most turbulence-related injuries. And just so you know, pilots always wear their seat belts.

Turbulence Might Be Getting Worse
As the planet heats up due to global warming, some scientists believe that turbulence will become more common and stronger. A 2013 report published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that in the coming years, climate change could increase turbulence strength by 10 percent to 40 percent, and turbulence frequency could jump by 40 percent to 170 percent, which will make it very hard to sleep on trans-Atlantic flights.

Luckily researchers are developing new software and laser-based technology that could help airplanes avoid turbulence altogether. Some American Airlines planes and United’s 787 Dreamliner come outfitted with sensors that better predict invisible rough air, theoretically letting pilots avoid it all together.

Remember, if you’re a really nervous flier you can always check out Turbulence Forecast before you go.

“Do not go where the path leads, travel instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”  @wbbrjp

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