Turbulence – the stomach-churning, panic-sparking, coffee-spiller of the skies – what exactly are you? And how scared of you should I be?
Even for seasoned jet-setters who are comfortable sitting in a cramped aluminum tube flying through the sky at 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) next to a screaming child, turbulence can be an unnerving experience. As you might have seen in the news this week, there was an especially terrifying story of around 37 people being injured due to extreme turbulence on an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Sydney. However, these occurrences are rare and nothing to lose sleep over.
In simplest terms, turbulence in an aircraft is like hitting a pothole in your car. Instead of a crumbling tarmac, the plane is coming into contact with chaotic eddies of air. These are swirling patterns of disrupted airflow that can be produced in a number of ways, such as cold and warm air meeting, jet streams, storms, or simply flying over mountains. Hitting these “waves” of airflow causes sudden changes to the plane's altitude or tilt, which results in the plane rocking around. In most instances, the plane likely isn’t actually dipping and dodging as much as your gut might tell you.
“In the minds of the passengers, the plane is plummeting hundreds or thousands of feet, but we might only see a twitch of 10 or 20 feet on the altimeter,” said Patrick Smith, commercial pilot and host of AskThePilot.com, in an interview with The Points Guy.
“Looking at it from a more scientific perspective, turbulence is, for lack of a better way to put it, just wind. Often we pilots don’t even think about it,” Smith added.
Certain conditions can make planes more likely to experience a bad bout of turbulence, such as the presence of mountain ranges and stormy cumulonimbus clouds. A 2017 study led by the University of Reading calculated that the amount of severe turbulence will dramatically increase sometime after 2050 due to climate change. This is because higher global temperatures will result in strengthening wind instabilities at high altitudes and make pockets of rough air stronger and more frequent.
Although turbulence is often unavoidable, pilots can usually work out where the rough areas will be located by looking at weather forecasts and wind variability data. In fact, most modern aircraft use algorithms to keep tabs on high turbulence zones. Vertical currents caused by thunderstorms are arguably the most worrisome of the bunch, although they are relatively easy for pilots to spot and avoid.
So, have you been stressing out over nothing?
We won't lie to you – there are isolated instances where turbulence has played a major role in the crashing of a plane. One of the most tragic examples came in 1966 when a plane crashed into Mount Fuji, killing all 124 people on board. However, these instances remain rare and there are usually other factors at play, such as design flaws and human error. As you can imagine, a lot has changed in terms of safety regulations and aviation technology since the 1960s.
That said, air travel remains one of the safest means of transportation. For every billion miles of travel, there are just 0.07 fatal accidents by commercial air travel. For cars that figure is 7.28 and over 212 for motorcycles. According to statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration, fewer than 100 people are injured by turbulence annually, with most years picking up no more than 30 injuries via turbulence. Considering there are over 4 billion passengers for scheduled airline flights each year, that’s pretty good going.
Nevertheless, a bad bout of turbulence can be enough to stress out even the most steel-nerved of jet-setters. The simplest things you can do to avoid injury is to make sure all luggage is safely stowed away and your seatbelt is buckled up. It’s also worth noting that turbulence is often more noticeable towards the back of the plane.
Failing that, you can always order yourself a stiff drink and dig your fingernails into the arm of your neighboring passenger.