What Exactly Is 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? Read on for the low-down.

What Causes Turbulence?

Airplanes travel on wind flow. Most of the time it's smooth, making for an easy flight. But 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 the FAA handles 45,000 flights per day, injury is actually pretty rare.

Why 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, AskThePilot.com. "Conditions might be annoying and uncomfortable, but the plane is not going to crash."

Modern airplanes are built to withstand everything from 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.

Also, 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 with enough time to brace themselves and their passengers. This heads-up allows them to slow 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.

How to Stay Safe During Turbulence

The approximately 58 people who are injured by turbulence in the U.S. become so usually because they weren't wearing a seat belt, says the FAA. Many of those injured are the flight crew, who walk around the plane during turbulence to remind passengers of safety precautions. When that seatbelt light comes on, you're best to obey it. That's the pilot and flight crew trying to keep you safe in case of clear-air turbulence, which causes most turbulence-related injuries.

Just so you know, pilots always wear their seat belts.

Why Turbulence Could Be Getting Worse

As the planet heats up amid the climate crisis, some scientists believe that turbulence will become more common and stronger. A 2019 report published in the journal Nature found that climate change will make severe turbulence up to three times more common by 2050 to 2080. (Say goodbye to napping 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 allowing pilots to avoid it entirely.

If you're a nervous flier, you can always check out Turbulence Forecast before you go.

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