What’s Really Happening When Your Flight Experiences Turbulence (And How to Deal With It)

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First, your coffee spills. Then, the plane skips like a stone across water. The pilot’s voice drifts through the overhead speaker like a quiet storm radio announcer. "Looks like we have a little bumpiness ahead. Please return to your seat and buckle up," he or she will say. Suddenly, the plane feels like it’s at the top of the highest hill on a roller coaster and everyone inhales as it begins to rapidly drop.

While few things unsettle new and even frequent fliers like turbulence, pilots rarely fret over the supersonic tumbles. In fact, once you understand what turbulence really is, there are many logical reasons to not be concerned. Careful planners might even be able to lower their risk of encountering turbulence. (And no, none of it includes emptying large quantities of mini whiskey bottles.) Here, we break it all down.

The Different Types of Turbulence

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Kat

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Kat

Atmospheric Turbulence

Atmospheric and wake turbulence are often lumped together, but one is caused by nature and other is driven by mechanics. To explain atmospheric turbulence, many pilots liken the experience to traveling through a river in which air is the water. Like water in a river, air is constantly moving and can be influenced by several things, including obstacles (think mountains), moisture, uneven heating of the earth’s surface, weather, and temperature changes. Flights over mountain ranges, for example, often fall prey to mountain wave turbulence, which feels like a roller coaster speeding down its first big hill. “If you’re in a small boat and the water isn’t smooth, the faster you go, the rougher the ride will be,” says Mike Arman, a flight school instructor and author of books about piloting Cessnas and operating cockpit computers. “Airplanes are exactly the same — the faster you go, the rougher the ride can get.” Commercial jets can go as fast as 600 mph, which can impact the plane’s reaction to the air current changes.

Wake Turbulence

There are also mechanical factors that cause turbulence during takeoff and landing, including the wind streams that are created from a combination of the plane’s propulsion and wings. In fact, wake turbulence is one big reason why takeoffs are timed several minutes apart. 

On November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 took off from JFK Airport and crashed moments later into Belle Harbor, Queens. Investigators theorized that the pilot may have taken off 15 seconds too fast and run into wake turbulence from the Japanese Airlines jumbo jet that had left before it. The incident killed 260 people on board and five people on the ground. That being said, such reactions to wake turbulence are rare, particularly because the beginning of flights are so closely monitored by air traffic controllers.

Clear Air Turbulence

While passengers may expect the plane to thump and wriggle while taking off or steadying for a landing, clear air turbulence can be even more disconcerting. Here’s how it happens: You’re watching the latest James Bond flick, sipping on a martini, and suddenly it feels like someone hit the ejector seat button, hurtling your stomach into space. Pilots discover clear air turbulence when everyone else does — about the time the peanuts leap off the tray table. Clear air turbulence (CAT) doesn’t show up on a radar — a ground technology system that’s currently being tested is able to listen to the infrasonic sound it emits. “In the next few years, I’d expect this technology to be in use to detect CAT for airline traffic,” says Arman.

What Pilots Know

Photo courtesy of Flickr/liz west

Photo courtesy of Flickr/liz west

Many anxious fliers are convinced the reason pilots are so nonchalant about turbulence is because they know when it’s coming and don’t tell passengers out of fear of alarming them. Pilots on different flights share weather reports and turbulence updates along specific routes. Total Turbulence, a new software being tested by four major airlines, automates turbulence data reporting by using a plane’s G-force sensors. Still, it’s unclear how much this information can help the situation. “Predicting turbulence is more of an art than a science,” says Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot and author of “Cockpit Confidential.” The flight team takes cues from weather, radars, and real-time reports from other aircrafts, but some meteorological indicators are more reliable than others. 

Some armchair detectives try to decode how nervous the pilot is by gauging the fear in his or her voice or dissecting phrases for keywords. “Don’t do that,” says Smith. Nervous fliers can read too much into what the crew or captain says with little connection to the truth.

The Reality

Passengers can have “wildly inaccurate” ideas about what’s happening, says Smith. There are times when the plane might seem like it’s veering off course, but the altimeter barely registers a change. When a plane deviates from its original location, he adds, it’s designed to return to that location, due to something called “positive stability.” “The airplane is not going to come apart in the air because of turbulence,” says Arman. “Even though it feels like our teeth are being shaken out, the airplane’s structure is designed to have ample strength to not only shrug it off, but also laugh it off. We might be unhappy and uncomfortable, but the airplane can most definitely handle it.”

That being said, the anxiety that comes along with feeling like you’re in bounce house moving at 600 mph is natural. Captain Tom Bunn, a former Air Force and commercial pilot as well as a licensed therapist, says the brain automatically releases stress hormones each time the plane drops. While some airplanes compensate for upward motion, less is built into the design for downward jolts. As a result, the body naturally reacts with panic.

Facing Phobias

While turbulence often intensifies fears about flying, plenty of passengers still need to confront those concerns and board an aircraft. By combining cognitive behavioral therapy with lessons about the science of flying, Bunn developed the SOAR program. “Every time the plane drops in turbulence, a shot of stress hormones is released,” says Bunn. “When they build up, they cause the physical feelings we experience when we’re in genuine danger. And when these feelings are powerful — as they can be during turbulence — it becomes impossible for the person to keep his or her thinking balanced enough to know that the plane is safe.”

Bunn’s classes use conditioning to link the feeling of a plane dropping with a positive memory. His lessons range from $20 for a video on the app to $595 for a program that guarantees the patient will be able to fly. A free video called The Jell-O Exercise is also available for those who want to get acquainted with Bunn’s methods.

Turbulence-Related Injuries

Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Martin/St. Maarten/Oyster

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were no more than 76 people injured by turbulence between 2002 and 2013. Very often those who are hurt are passengers who don’t buckle their seatbelts when told and flight crew members who are either helping fliers or scrambling back to their seats. During these instances, heads get bumped and there are occasionally broken bones. But given that 1.75 million people fly in the United States each day (and 8 million around the world), turbulence-related injuries in the double digits is an extremely low percentage.

What You Can Do

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Dawid Cedler

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Dawid Cedler

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the amount of turbulence is on the rise as a result of the weather pattern shifts caused by climate change. Smith says he isn’t sure whether the reports of increased turbulence are a result of global warming or because more planes are in the air and naturally confronting turbulence. Either way, here are a few simple things you can do to avoid and alleviate the effects of turbulence. 

1. Pick a seat over the wings or near the front of the plane. Although the entire plane shakes during turbulence, the back of the aircraft tends to rattle more.

2. Close your eyes while riding in a car to condition yourself when in the air. If you consider how many bumps and swerves happen while driving on the ground, the ones that happen in the air may seem less startling. Of course, don’t test this out if you’re the one driving the car.

3. Choose a flight earlier in the day. There’s debate about whether more turbulence occurs on hot summer days when the air is unevenly heated and the air currents are unpredictable. For nervous fliers traveling during the summer, buying a seat on an early flight probably won’t hurt.

4. Associate drops with good thoughts. If you’re up for a little self therapy, you can try Captain Bunn’s approach and attempt to train your mind to stay calm.

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