Turbulence is a source of anxiety and fear for many fliers. This article will cover causes, intensities, safety concerns, and ways to alleviate anxiety. Turbulence isn’t anything to fear and is a normal facet of flight operations. Modern aircraft are designed to tolerate enormous amounts of structural stress and the likelihood of turbulence causing an accident, or even damage for that matter, to an aircraft is infinitely small. What’s more likely is you will simply bounce around and that will be the end of the experience. The scale of turbulence intensity begins with light, moves through moderate and severe, and ends with extreme. I’ll begin with causes.
Turbulence is the result of shearing forces between air currents with varying directions of movement. Examples include warm air rising from the Earth’s surface and interacting with colder air aloft, frontal activity and associated storm systems, jet stream activity, and the boundaries between the jet stream and surrounding air. The latter two are associated with the roughest air.
Safety concerns with turbulence include being tossed around the cabin and being hit with objects tossed around the cabin. Turbulence can come without warning (I myself have had my hands thrown violently against the overhead instrument panel and seen every reference book and checklist tossed around like a three-year-old was playing in a library). This came out of nowhere as we were in smooth air seconds before. For protection keep your seatbelt fastened while seated. I can’t stress that one enough. Second, when moving about the cabin, hold on to seatbacks as you move or overhead bins or both. In the lavatory, wedge your feet or hands against the walls for stability. I do this in smooth air because, as I said, rough air can come out of nowhere. Finally, keep heavy objects stowed underneath the seat in front of you or in an overhead bin when not in use.
To ease the anxiety associated with turbulence remember it isn’t much different than a boat on rough water. The boat won’t sink, but you will bounce around a bit. Also, remember that airplanes are designed to withstand monumental amounts of stress. Take the Boeing 747’s wing, for instance. It is able to flex ten feet down and more than twenty-one feet upward before sustaining damage. That’s a lot of movement! So, remember that in strong turbulence, you are far more likely to break than the airplane and it will likely be over in a very short time. Just enjoy the flight!