What Causes Turbulence on an Airplane when Flying? – Everything You Need to Know

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For many first time flyers, simply the thought of being thousands of feet from the ground will make them nervous. On top of that, throw a little turbulence into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for an anxiety attack. Knowing what causes turbulence on an airplane will help alleviate some concerns for anyone.

Additionally, according to pilots, cabin crew, and frequent flyers, turbulence is a normal occurrence that you shouldn’t stress much about. In fact, the fear of airplane turbulence should never prevent you from flying. This article will talk about everything you need to know about turbulence and help you realize it is not something to worry about and is a fear you can overcome.

 

What is Turbulence?

Turbulence refers to the disturbances or instability in airflow caused by wind, jet streams, storms, differentials in weather, atmospheric conditions, temperature and air pressure. From an airplane, turbulence can be seen as air vortices or rising/shifting of clouds. In some cases, it cannot be detected by sight. With airplane turbulence, the plane usually rocks or shakes at an intensity relative to the level of the turbulence.

What Does Turbulence Feel Like?

Every passenger’s experience of turbulence on an airplane varies depending on different factors. The most common factor is the intensity or scale of the turbulence. Airplane turbulence is graded as light, moderate, severe or extreme. 

Light turbulence

For light turbulence, you will experience slight rocking of the plane from subtle changes in its altitude, pitch, yaw and/or roll. You may also see liquids shaking a bit, but not splashing out of glasses and cups. Walking in the plane will not be difficult. The cabin crew will be able to keep maneuvering their carts around and serve you. If you are buckled up in your seat, you might feel a slight strain against the seat belt. All in all very minor sensations. 

Moderate turbulence

For moderate turbulence, the rocking of the plane is a little more pronounced as compared to that of light turbulence. During moderate turbulence, you will find it more difficult to walk inside the plane. Liquids may splash out of cups and glasses without them tipping. You will feel definite strain against your seat belt. Cabin crew may also find it difficult to maneuver beverage carts. In most cases, the fasten seatbelt sign will go on in cases of moderate turbulence. Even though it may not seem like it, the plane is usually under complete control at all times during moderate turbulence. Think about driving over a bumpy road. You are in control of the car, there is nothing to worry about, you are just feeling the force of the uneven surface. Similarly, in the plane you are just feeling pockets of unstable air . 

Severe turbulence

Even the most experienced pilots rarely experience severe turbulence, because they know how to avoid it. They can adjust their routes to make small detours around storms or areas of rough air. It is characterized by large, abrupt changes in the plane’s altitude and/or attitude and it may cause large variations in speed. If you ever experience severe turbulence, then you will definitely see unsecured items falling or being tossed about. In severe turbulence, it is impossible to walk inside the plane. If you are buckled up, your seat belt will force you onto your seat to keep you safe. There will be a directive for passengers and cabin crew to take their seats and fasten their seat belts. In cases of severe turbulence, the pilot will still have control of the airplane. However, it may be harder to keep it on course as compared to when experiencing moderate turbulence.

Extreme turbulence

Extreme turbulence is the most intense of all, and most pilots have never experienced it throughout their decades of flying. It’s that uncommon. These are quite dangerous and may cause damage to parts of the plane and even cause accidents. There have been a few cases of extreme turbulence over the past decades, but all pilots are trained and equipped to handle them. Extreme turbulence makes it impossible to do anything on the plane, and all unsecured items and passengers will be tossed up and down, which is very dangerous and causes injury. The plane may actually swerve and be pushed severely, and it will take a longer time for the pilot to regain control of the airplane. 

What Causes Turbulence on an Airplane?

A number of different factors can cause turbulence on an airplane. Most of these factors are environmental, geographical or even structural. The most common causes of turbulence include wind, rising air, jet streams, mountains and other aircrafts. Turbulence caused by each of these factors has different properties and can affect aircrafts in different ways.

Heavy Wind

Most air disturbance caused by wind is experienced closer to the ground due to differences in pressure and geographical bodies. This explains why this kind of turbulence is problematic during take off and landing of airplanes. However, heavy winds may also be encountered at higher altitudes. When an airplane is moving through a stream of heavy winds, the experience can be compared to sailing a boat through stormy waters.

If the wind is flowing steadily in the same direction the airplane is moving, then there will be no turbulence. Once its speed or direction changes however, this is when turbulence is experienced. With the help of weather reports and charts, the pilots are able to schedule their flights away from very strong winds to avoid turbulence.

Rising Air

At higher altitudes, turbulence is mostly caused by air rising from the earth’s surface. When the sun heats the ground, hot air will rise together with moisture. As it rises, it expands and once it hits dew point, the moisture will start condensing and forming clouds. Due to the differences in pressure at higher altitudes, the rise of air and the spread of clouds is more intense as altitude increases. This causes turbulence within the clouds and the air surrounding it. If a pilot decides to go through the cloud, then the airplane may experience turbulence. Therefore, depending on the size of the cloud, the pilot may decide to go around it or find an alternative route.

While it may be possible to fly smoothly above the obstructive clouds, in some instances, it is impossible. Such is the case when vertical air keeps rising way above the cloud formation. This is common in cumulonimbus clouds that keep spreading to greater heights, forming mushroom-like domes that are difficult to go through or over. Since their base is usually smaller that their tip, it is easier to go under and around them. In severe cases, pilots may divert the airplane to travel around these formations.

There are also cases whereby the rising air is dry. Since it has no moisture, there will be no condensation or formation of clouds, thus it is hard to detect turbulence formed in such a case. This is what is referred to as clear air turbulence (CAT). Since it is not detectable by sight or via weather radars, going through it is an unpredictable case. Most pilots usually get into this turbulence unaware. In lucky scenarios, it may be detected as very light cirrus clouds with fading borders. However pilots are trained to handle this type of situation and are able to keep the plane under control in almost all cases of encountering CAT. 

Jet Streams

A jet stream consists of extremely strong winds that travel at high altitudes. They can actually reach speeds of up to 250 mph. In the northern hemisphere, they often blow from west to east due to differences in high and low pressure zones. It is actually smoother, safer and takes shorter to travel along the jet stream as compared to traveling against it. This is why you will experience milder turbulence, and have a shorter flight from North America to Amsterdam across the Atlantic, as compared to traveling from Amsterdam to North America. You are traveling with the jet stream from east to west. 

Before flying out of an airport, pilots go through weather charts and identify any jet streams and their corresponding directions. This way they are able to plan around them. It is important that they avoid flying into an approaching jet stream. It’s even more efficient to fly along the direction of jet stream in terms of comfort, duration, and fuel consumption. However, even when flying along the jet streams, you could experience turbulence. Especially when the wind changes direction or when you encounter areas of high or low pressure.

Mountains and High Buildings

Mountains and high buildings usually act as obstacles to the flow of wind. Whenever a strong wind encounters a mountain, there will be an upward displacement of the wind. Then a sudden downward flow after it has blown over the obstacle. This phenomenon will cause oscillations of airflow, typically seen around mountain range or clusters of tall buildings in large cities.

Due to the irregular upward-downward flow of wind, there will likely be turbulence in areas with high mountain ranges and tall buildings. This makes a flight over such areas potentially a bit rocky, and is usually avoided when there are strong winds blowing. This also explains why planes taking off or landing at airports that are close to cities or mountainous terrain often experience some turbulence when taking off or landing respectively.

Wake Vortex

Wake vortex is also known as wake turbulence, and it is caused by the wing tips of the airplane as it flies. This can be compared to the whirlpool left behind by large ships moving through water bodies. Since the top of the airplane’s wing has air flowing at lower pressure while the bottom has air flowing at higher pressure, the air from the bottom moves to the top of the wing at the wing tips. Due to the rapid changes in air pressure, there will be powerful whirlpools of air generated at the tips of the airplane’s wings.

Generally, bigger airplanes produce stronger wave vortices, and if there is a smaller airplane following a bigger airplane, the wake vortex will definitely cause turbulence to the smaller plane. If the vortex produced is strong enough, it could even tip the smaller airplane over or cause a crash. As a rule, there is a minimum distance, also referred to as time of separation that should be maintained between planes taking off, flying and landing in the same path. The distance is increased in cases where a smaller airplane follows a bigger airplane. This type of turbulence is very uncommon as flight paths and timing of take offs and landings are very tightly controlled and planned out.

Is Turbulence Normal When Flying?

Airplane turbulence is a normal experience when flying. Since your airplane is moving through a mass of air with varying temperature, pressure and moisture conditions, it is obvious that you will experience disturbances in airflow. While most severe and extreme turbulence cases can be forecasted from weather charts, pilot reports (PIREPS), and general climatic conditions and geographical terrain, this may not apply to most light and moderate turbulence.

This is why you are more likely to experience light and moderate turbulence, which shouldn’t worry you as the pilot has perfect control of the plane. It may seem frightening, but it ends quickly and is perfectly normal.

Is Turbulence Really Dangerous?

As I have mentioned above, it is very rare to experience severe or extreme turbulence. In fact, most of the time when the passenger feels like it was severe; it is usually just moderate turbulence. Generally, turbulence is not dangerous to your safety or that of the plane as every modern aircraft is designed to withstand this kind of impact.

When it comes to the passengers, light turbulence is not harmful at all. In moderate turbulence you may get a hot drink spilled on you or you may get hurt from losing your balance. For the most part, severe and extreme turbulence is where there is a higher likelihood of injuries from passengers being tossed up and down, or being hit by unsecured objects.

Whenever the pilot suspects that the plane is approaching turbulence, they will put up the fasten seatbelt sign. They can then instruct every passenger to take their seats. They may even advise the cabin crew to secure loose items. Following the pilots instructions and staying in your seat with your seatbelt fastened will prevent the majority of turbulence related injuries. 

Every year, well under 100 injuries are reportedly caused by airplane turbulence, according to the FAA. A good portion are flight attendants, who are known to walk around the plane frequently when serving you. The others are mostly passengers that were not wearing their seat belts when entering turbulence. This shows the true risks of injury from turbulence are very low, and if you follow simple instructions like fastening your seat belt when needed, can mostly be avoided. 

Recorded injuries due to turbulence 2002-2017

The highest number on this chart was 71 injuries reported in 2009 due to turbulence. The FAA monitors approximately 15.8 MILLION flights a year. You can see that 71 injuries out of 15.8 million flights is an incredibly small number, far far below 1% of flights. Your chances of experiencing a car accident are much higher. 

Can Turbulence Cause a Plane Crash?

In the history of airplane travel, there have been very few crashes that have been caused by turbulence. Very severe or extreme turbulence might be able to cause a plane crash. However, with the modern technology that includes onboard weather radars, pressure sensors and other weather forecasting technologies, it is close to impossible for a pilot to fly into a severe or extreme turbulence. The design and engineering of airplanes has also improved over time and all of todays modern planes have been built to withstand a lot of turbulence. 

How to Overcome Fear of Flying Due to Airplane Turbulence

The thought of being rocked about when you are thousands of feet above the ground scares so many people, but by understanding the causes of turbulence, you should be able to overcome this fear. If it still bothers you, then you should try booking seats located closest to the wings of the airplane. This area experiences less shake from turbulence as it is closer to the plane’s center of gravity.

Even with the right seat, if you are still anxious about flying, then you need to teach yourself to trust the pilot and everyone involved in the planning and execution of the flight. You will then need to learn to control your feelings and reactions during turbulence.

For instance, you can do something to distract yourself, be it watching a movie or listening to music. This has been known to help a lot. One pilot even advices that you try writing with your non-dominant hand to distract yourself from the fear of turbulence.

Distracting yourself during the moment of turbulence may work for that instant only, but to overcome the anxiety permanently, you might consider trying out a self-help course. Courses such as The Takeoff Today Course or the SOAR fear of flying course can really help you to overcome your anxiety once and for all. Imagine how great it would be to look forward to a vacation or visiting family and friends without the nagging anxiety about the flight! If any travel is in your future it’s worth it to invest in yourself and gaining peace of mind that you have the tools necessary to relax on your flight.