Scared of Flying? Here's Why Turbulence Is Not Always a Big Deal

Plus, how to avoid turbluence-or can you?

turbulence
ILLUSTRATION War Espejo

(SPOT.ph) As much as travelers love flying to their dream destinations, the most hated aspect of being airborne is turbulence. 

In science-speak, turbulence (a.k.a. turbulent flow in fluid dynamics) is characterized by chaotic changes in air pressure and flow. When a plane hits an air pocket (a region of low pressure) or enters a thick cloud, it suddenly loses altitude—giving you the same jolting sensation felt when riding a roller coaster.

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Why are we experiencing turbulence during a flight?

Contrary to what many believe that turbulence is caused by wind hitting the nose of an airplane, there are actually many reasons why flights experience it. When an aircraft is flying over areas with mountains, high jet streams, and storms, expect a bumpier ride.

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In aviation, there are four common types of turbulence: clear-air, thermal, mountain wave, and wake turbulence. 

When flying, it may look clear outside the window then all of a sudden, the aircraft starts shaking. Clear-air turbulence is normally caused by jet streams—the fast-flowing, narrow, meandering air currents in the atmosphere. This type of turbulence does not last a couple of thousands of feet. The pilot can simply descend or climb a few hundred or thousand feet to get out of clear-air turbulence. 

Thermal turbulence is caused by rising warm air and is something that pilots can see in the form of towering cumulonimbus clouds that may sometimes carry thunderstorms. In Latin, cumulus means "heaped" and nimbus is "rainstorm"—not a good combo to encounter when you’re flying an aircraft. Pilots usually fly over or go around these types of clouds, but there are times that they tower high above the aircraft’s cruising altitude or too late to make a go-around maneuver leaving aero navigators with no choice but to go inside them causing violent turbulence. 

When a plane is flying over rocky mountains, there is a high chance for it to encounter what we call “mountain wave turbulence.” When air blows over a mountainous area and falls on the other side, it causes a mountain wave that is carried up to the jet stream. Mountain waves can cause an aircraft to pitch up or down when encountered head-on, and are normally not as violent as thermal turbulence. But when mountain waves hit planes from the sides, it can cause a violent jolt and make the aircraft fly in a rocky motion. As a precaution, pilots normally communicate with air traffic control before entering mountainous airspace to check on previous reports of mountain wave turbulence. 

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Wake turbulence is something that is commonly encountered during the landing phase of an aircraft and especially when it is trailing behind a bigger one. When in flight, the wingtips of a plane generate two counter-rotating vortices behind it. Since they decay slowly, the aircraft behind may encounter the effects of these vortices, which is the wake turbulence. Typically, larger planes produce more wake—something that pilots take note of when approaching an airport for landing following bigger equipment that just vacated the runway for takeoff. 

Can turbulence be avoided?

Unfortunately, weather forecasts can’t predict turbulence. The weather radar display inside the flight deck (or cockpit) can only provide the latest information on conditions ahead, like the amount of precipitation: green means light to moderate turbulence may persist; yellow means certain areas where rougher turbulence may likely occur; and red means areas that pilots need to avoid. 

Commercial airline pilots underwent more than enough classroom and simulator training to handle different types of turbulence and give the smoothest plane ride possible to passengers.

What can you do during turbulence?

  • Be calm. If you are standing far from your designated seat (to/from the lavatory), locate the nearest empty one and buckle up at the first sign of turbulence (pilots will immediately turn the fasten seatbelts sign to on).
  • When seated, always keep your seatbelts fastened even if the sign is turned off. We never know when the plane will hit turbulence. Staying buckled up (even loosely fastened) will prevent you from hitting the overhead bins in case of severe turbulence.
  • Try to finish any beverage (especially the hot ones) given to you as soon as you can. You never know when the plane will hit turbulence, and having soaked up in an inflight drink is the last thing that you will want to experience onboard.
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Pro-tip: Morning flights usually encounter less turbulence. Since the wind and the ground environment are still cold during the early hours of the day, the chance of encountering thermal turbulence is relatively small. On your next travel, try booking morning flights.

Robert "Bob" Reyes is an AvGeek (aviation enthusiast), planespotter (an AvGeek who loves taking photos of planes), and technologist (who represents the global non-profit Mozilla in the Philippines). He spent more than two decades of his life as an aviation support professional for a conglomerate and CTO of an aviation college.

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