How Dangerous is Air Turbulence?

January 29, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Wingtip vortices qualitatively illustrate wake turbulence
Photo credit: NASA Langley Research Center (NASA-LaRC)

Flying is still considered one of the safest forms of travel.

Flying is considered one of the safest forms of travel, and although we don’t like it and sometimes it can be frightening, turbulence is a very common occurrence while in traveling in the sky.  But did you know there are degrees of turbulence ranging from light to extreme?  Before we get into that, it is important to understand what causes turbulence in the first place.

The most common type of turbulence is called clear-air turbulence.  It results from pockets of rising, falling and rolling air called eddies.  These pockets form when warm and cold air moving at different speeds meet.  It is most common at altitudes of 7,000 to 12,000 meters.  

However, turbulence can be caused by several different things, including heat, jet streams and topography — such as flying over mountain ranges.  It is not lightning in thunderstorms that worries pilots — it’s turbulence!  Severe thunderstorms can cause extremely violent turbulence, so pilots often avoid flying in them.

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The severity of turbulence depends on how big the eddies are, the strength of the wind shear (the differences in wind speed and/or direction between the eddy and the environment), and how quickly the plane flies through them.

Light Turbulence

This type of turbulence is the most common and it occurs on almost every flight.  It often leads to quick but slight changes in the plane’s altitude or tilt, which does not bother most passengers.

Moderate Turbulence

Moderate turbulence can result in the plane’s altitude changing by up to six meters — not a nice feeling.  In this situation, you would feel a slight strain against your seatbelt, and if you had one, your drink would probably spill.

Severe Turbulence

With severe turbulence the plane’s altitude could change by as much as 30 meters.  You could be tossed about in the plane, resulting in injuries.  The pilot could even briefly lose control of the plane, but he or she would regain it very quickly.

Extreme Turbulence

This type of turbulence is very rare.  The pilot would lose control of the plane, the plane’s altitude could change by hundreds of meters or more, and there is also a large risk of aircraft damage.  Very scary!

Luckily, there are ways to avoid the more dangerous forms of turbulence.  Pilots and air traffic controllers carefully study weather patterns before each flight.  Pilots take into account turbulence reports from other pilots, the presence of mountain ranges, and thunderstorms.  Air traffic controllers are also in constant contact with pilots to continuously relay information to the pilot to plan the best routes.

However, clear-air turbulence or these pockets of turbulent air are very difficult for forecasters to predict so pilots have to rely mainly on those turbulence reports from other pilots.

Generally, turbulence is not something to worry about.  Though it can make us uncomfortable, nervous and even nauseous, it is part of a normal flight.

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