When you’re flying thousands of feet above the ground in a pressurized metallic tube, even the tiniest aberrations in the flight pattern and stability can cause an uproar. Of all the things that give people chills during a flight, I wager that trembling drinks, the momentary shaking of the fuselage, the noise of luggage dislodging from its place and abrupt changes in the plane’s course and altitude… in a word, turbulence, is the scariest of all.
However, is the widespread fear of turbulence justified? Can it really be bad enough to cause a plane to plummet thousands of feet through the sky and actually crash?
What is turbulence?
When talking about fluids like air and water, turbulence refers to rapid changes in the speed and pressure of the fluid. In more technical terms, inertial forces dominate the viscous forces when turbulence is experienced.
Although turbulence frequently occurs in various media, and therefore has implications on things we observe in daily life (like the swing of a cricket bat, smoke rising from a cigarette, and most terrestrial atmospheric circulation), the term ‘turbulence’ strikes particular fear in the minds of air travelers, especially non-frequent ones.
What causes turbulence?
Turbulence in an airplane is mainly caused by the interaction of jet streams, with slower-moving winds creating regions of uneven winds. This kind of turbulence is aptly called Clear Air Turbulence (CAT), because pilots cannot see it. On other occasions, a plane can hit turbulence during stormy weather or a thunderstorm. A smaller plane running into the wake of a larger plane can also experience turbulence. Basically, whenever a plane enters a region where winds are not behaving normally, it’s bound to sustain a little battering.
Can turbulence crash an airplane?
Although in its worst form, turbulence may scare passengers to the point where they start praying to the Almighty, asking for mercy for their sins, it’s very, very rare for turbulence to be powerful enough to actually bring a plane down.
Airplane turbulence is often classified into three categories: mild, moderate and severe, although they aren’t very clearly defined, due to a lack of objectivity of their respective effects.
In mild turbulence, an airplane might sustain a few feet of altitude loss. While a bit scary for kids and people who don’t fly that often, mild turbulence is routine and considered nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Moderate turbulence may entail a deviation of 10-20 feet in altitude and last for 10-15 minutes. This can potentially unnerve even frequent fliers and cause drinks to spill. For safety, passengers will likely be advised to put on their seat belts.
Severe turbulence, as the name implies, is the nastiest form of turbulence that a plane might run into. It may cause the plane to drop by 80-100 feet, and a significant rattling noise will be heard in the fuselage. Severe turbulence also requires immediate corrective actions by the pilots (like changing the pitch, bank and altitude) to steer out of it. Severe turbulence may break bones, cause injuries, and in the rarest of rare cases, inflict fatal wounds, all of which could be avoided by following a simple safety guideline…
Before you start worrying about hitting severe turbulence the next time you fly, you should know that the chances of running into severe turbulence are slim to none; in fact, most fliers, even pilots, don’t encounter severe turbulence over their entire flying lives!
According to Patrick Smith, the pilot of a commercial plane and the author of Cockpit Confidential, “the level of turbulence required to dislodge an engine or bend a wing spar is something even the most frequent flyer—or pilot for that matter—won’t experience in a lifetime of traveling.”
Furthermore, modern commercial airplanes are built to withstand harsh weather conditions; there have been instances where the external surface of planes have sustained serious damage, but the internal fuselage remained completely untouched. The fact that each plane is put through a series of rigorous tests before being allowed to carry passengers should be evidence of the safety of flying in these planes.
To conclude, it can be said that a plane flying into turbulence is like driving a car on a bumpy road (although the former is far less jerky); it’s usually nothing more than a nuisance. Turbulence is certainly something that pilots must be aware of, but it is primarily an issue that concerns passengers’ convenience, not their safety.