Is Turbulence Ever Dangerous?

Whenever you have been on a plane you are likely to have experienced turbulence.

Mountains and other geographical structures will cause turbulence as the air moves up and down and the aftereffect ripple effect can last a long time. 

Airplanes do disturb the air, and they can therefore cause turbulence for a flight behind them.

The most important thing anyone who is flying needs to know is that turbulence is not dangerous.

Although it may be a bit of an uncomfortable experience, there is no danger, the plane is built to be able to tolerate the worse. So even in the most unpleasant turbulence the plane is not actually moving around as much as it may feel like it is.

Experiencing turbulence is actually subjective, a few small bumps to you, may feel horrific to another person. The only real danger that is present from turbulence is bumps and falling, which is why the cabin crew and your flight attendants are telling you to stay in your seat with your seatbelts fastened.

How do pilots deal with turbulence?

Turbulence is categorized into three levels, there is light turbulence which may be uncomfortable for some, moderate turbulence where writing and walking is a chore, and severe turbulence where everyone needs to be seated.

A pilot will deal with turbulence depending on the cause of the turbulence. If the cause is cumulonimbus clouds then a weather radar will indicate that there are areas of these clouds. When the plane reaches this cloud, then they will fly a different heading in order to fly well around the cloud. It is preferable to be on the upwind side as the air on the downside side will likely be turbulent too. ‘

Clear air turbulence is hard to predict through. In the event that clear air turbulence is encountered a pilot will make a ‘PIREP’, which is a pilot report and inform the Air Traffic Control, informing them of the flight level and severity of the turbulence. The pilot will ask air traffic control if they can ascend or descend to another flight level which has no reported turbulence.

There is also ‘windshear’ which can happen during the landing process on a runway, the best way to tackle this is to immediately discontinue the landing and make another go around.

Can turbulence flip a plane?

Turbulence can make the most experienced fliers anxious, and for fliers who are already anxious about being so high up in the air, it can be one of the most terrifying experiences.

Many may worry when turbulence hits, worried what will happen, and how many gusts of air or how powerful those gusts have to be to do any actual damage. Some may see it as being similar to a boat and how there can be many issues with those at sea.

But a plane is different, and in a very vast majority of cases, turbulence is harmless so long as you stay seated and do as instructed by the crew. A plane cannot be flipped upside down, nor can it be flung from the sky, even by a mighty strong air pocket. Turbulence is actually rather normal, it is just an inconvenience.

If a pilot changes altitude in order to avoid air pockets that may cause turbulence, then this is in the interest of comfort and peace of mind for the customers, rather than safety, as turbulence won’t actually do any damage to their aircraft itself.

Do bigger planes feel less turbulence?

There is no rule that states any specific plane as being the best for dealing with turbulence. However, it is safe to say that bigger planes tend to absorb turbulence better than smaller planes do. Aircraft such as the Boeing 747 are massive and due to their sheer size are the best at coping with turbulence.

This does not mean that if you want less turbulence you should choose a big plane, often turbulence is unavoidable, as it is due to air pockets and the conditions of the surrounding atmosphere. A plane that better handles turbulence may feel the effects a little less.

Yet this is not always the case, while the Boeing 747 now is better at coping with turbulence, its earlier models struggled with it in comparison, being rather susceptible to meet turbulence.

As time goes on and aircraft technology is improved on, planes will feel less and less turbulence. Generally we can say that a bigger plane won’t feel as much turbulence, especially if it is a common commercial airliner, such as the Boeing. Smaller planes for smaller airlines will be the most susceptible, as well as small private planes.

If you are a person who has concerns around turbulence, airlines will often tell you what aircraft you will be flying on when you book your flight.

Has anyone ever died from turbulence?

People can die from anything, while this may seem harsh, there are many deaths worldwide with some unusual causes, and often the things that make us worry are the least dangerous. Things like air turbulence is something everyone worries about when they are sitting on their plane and the plane starts to jerk about.

However, in the last 40 years, only 3 people in the USA have died as a direct result of turbulence. You are more likely to be killed by a cow than turbulence.

That being said, during the last 40 years, the FAA have recorded over 300 serious injuries from air turbulence. And over 66% of the victims of these injuries were flight attendants. And a majority of the time, trips, bumps, and falling luggage are the cause of injuries from turbulence. This is why it is best to stay seated.

Extreme turbulence is the one you’re worried about which is if a pilot loses control of the plane, or there is damage to the plane's structure. It is extremely rare, and is very unlikely to happen. So if you feel anxious about the turbulence just remember it isn’t extreme, it is common and as long as you stay seated you will be fine.

Why do planes shake when going through clouds?

Planes shake when they travel through a cloud due to simple science. Air rises from the earth as it is armed, and as it rises it will cool.

Inside a cloud this happens much lower than in clear air, as clouds are more dense than dry air. Water vapor is not spread out evenly and so combined with thermal turbulence and the cooling rate of the air, air will draft through the cloud.

So, for you sitting on the plane, it means that there are unpredictably patterned air pockets on the wings. This causes the feeling of rising and falling, this can be rather pronounced and so this is when it is considered turbulence, and you will be asked to remain seated with your seatbelt fastened.

Pilots can expect turbulence in clouds as they know the science behind why it happens. Turbulence can also happen outside of clouds too, this is when it is a bit more unpredictable, coming as a surprise. This is what will often cause injuries from falling people or falling luggage.