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The latest headlines to scream “Terror in the Skies” flooded our social media feeds in December, after a passenger aboard American Airlines flight 280 had the curious presence of mind to videotape the panicked scene inside the cabin as the plane pitched violently. The flight, bound from Seoul to Dallas, was diverted to Japan, but not before 10 passengers and four flight crew had been injured by the severe turbulence.
And if video like that isn’t enough to set your nerves on edge, a 2013 report from a couple of British scientists suggests that global warming may increase jet-stream turbulence in the coming decades.
But let’s loosen our white knuckles and step back for a moment.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration’s latest numbers for commercial domestic carriers, there were 430 injuries—and no deaths—due to turbulence between 2002-2013. Half of those injuries were sustained by the flight attendants. Put another way, in 2013 there were 657 million passengers flying on U.S. carriers. Of those, 11 passengers were injured by turbulence—and it’s a good bet most, if not all of them, weren’t wearing seat belts.
Now that both black boxes have been recovered from AirAsia flight 8501 that crashed on December 28, investigators are trying to piece together what brought the plane down. But the last crash generally believed to have been caused by turbulence was in 1966—almost 50 years ago—when BOAC flight 911 crashed (killing all 124 aboard) after experiencing severe turbulence near Mount Fuji.
“I’ve always been startled by how many people are put off and made very anxious by rough air,” says Patrick Smith, a Boston-based commercial pilot of more than 20 years, and author of the book Cockpit Confidential. “It’s more of a comfort issue than safety. It’s to be expected, but it’s important for people to know how rare it is to cause serious harm.”
Cruising-altitude turbulence is lumped into two categories. The first type is caused by thunderstorms, severe weather, or air moving up and down mountainsides (which is why flying over the Rockies is typically bumpy, says Smith). These are easy to spot or anticipate.
The second type, however, is hard to detect and often seems to come out of nowhere. Clear-air turbulence is caused by things like wind shear or jet streams—factors that won’t show up on weather radar: The only way a pilot will know he’s approaching it is if a plane that has already flown through it communicates the information.
It’s the unexpectedness of clear-air turbulence that makes it dangerous—not to the plane, but to passengers who don’t have their seat belts on. That’s why most airlines will recommend you keep your seat belt fastened, even if the ride seems smooth. Flight attendants are hurt disproportionally more, because they’re working in the cabin and not buckled in when clear-air turbulence strikes unexpectedly.
If a plane does encounter significant turbulence, aircraft are so over-engineered, says Smith, that “the amount of turbulence it would take to cause a structural failure to, say, a wing is so beyond what a typical passenger will ever experience.”
On the other hand, smaller craft—like floatplanes and the planes flown by bush pilots—fly at much lower altitudes (3,000-5,000 feet) than commercial carriers do. They, too, can encounter turbulence, called low-level turbulence, caused by factors such as strong winds, convection currents caused by land as it warms up, and air moving over mountains.
“A good, experienced, wary bush pilot is aware and doesn’t get himself into a situation where it’s uncomfortable or dangerous,” says John King, whose King Schools have taught tens of thousands of pilots over the past 40 years. “Pilots know to use the updrafts on the windward side (of mountains) and avoid the downdrafts on the downward side. A good bush pilot is aware of the where the wind is coming in relation to the terrain.”
King also points out that injuries caused by turbulence on small planes are very rare, simply because passengers have no choice but to be seated and buckled in.
So yes, turbulence can definitely be scary. But your plane isn’t going to drop out of the sky because of it, and you won’t get hurt if you use common sense: Keep your seatbelt buckled, even if the sign is off—just in case of unexpected roughness.
If you’re particularly squeamish about bumpy rides, says Smith, “The bumpiest place tends to be the in back of the plane. The smoothest place is over the wings or forward. So if you choose a seat there, it can make a noticeable difference.”
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