Flight turbulence is a common experience for many air travelers, often leading to discomfort and anxiety. However, understanding what turbulence is, what causes it, and how to stay safe during turbulent flights can help mitigate these fears.

This article explores the various aspects of turbulence, including its causes, types, and safety measures, along with notable incidents in aviation history.

What is Turbulence?

flight turbulence

Turbulence Definition

Turbulence refers to irregular or chaotic air movements that cause an aircraft to experience sudden and unpredictable changes in altitude and attitude. It can range from mild to severe, with varying degrees of impact on the aircraft and passengers.

What Does Turbulence Mean?

Turbulence essentially means the presence of unstable air currents in the atmosphere.

These air currents can cause the plane to experience sudden jolts, shakes, or drops, which can be unsettling but are generally manageable for modern aircraft.

Causes of Turbulence

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What Causes Turbulence?

Turbulence is caused by several factors, including

Thermal Turbulence

Caused by the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface, which creates vertical air currents. This type is common during daytime flights over land, especially during the summer.

Mechanical Turbulence

Occurs when airflow is disrupted by obstacles such as mountains, buildings, or other terrain features. The air flows over and around these obstacles, creating eddies and swirls.

Clear Air Turbulence (CAT)

Happens at high altitudes where there are no visible clouds. CAT is often associated with jet streams or the boundaries between air masses with different temperatures and speeds.

It is particularly hazardous because it is invisible and often unexpected.

Wake Turbulence

Caused by the passage of another aircraft, particularly larger ones. The wingtips of the aircraft create vortices that can affect smaller planes following closely behind.

Frontal Turbulence

Occurs near weather fronts where two air masses of different temperatures and densities meet. This can create significant turbulence, especially around cold fronts.

Types of Turbulence

Light Turbulence

Causes slight, erratic changes in altitude and attitude. It may feel like light, momentary bumps or jolts.

Moderate Turbulence

Stronger than light turbulence, causing noticeable changes in altitude and attitude. Passengers may feel a bit of strain against seat belts.

Severe Turbulence

Causes large and abrupt changes in altitude and attitude. Unsecured objects can be tossed around, and passengers may experience strong forces against their seat belts. Severe turbulence can be dangerous if not properly managed.

Turbulence Forecast and Maps

Turbulence Forecast

Meteorological services provide turbulence forecasts that predict areas of likely turbulence based on weather patterns, jet streams, and other factors. Pilots and flight planners use these forecasts to anticipate and avoid turbulent areas whenever possible.

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Turbulence Map

Turbulence maps are graphical representations of turbulence forecasts, showing areas of predicted turbulence along flight routes. These maps help pilots navigate around turbulent zones, enhancing passenger comfort and safety.

Is Turbulence Dangerous?

While turbulence can be uncomfortable and frightening, it is rarely dangerous. Modern aircraft are designed to withstand significant stress, far beyond what they encounter during turbulence.

However, severe turbulence can pose risks, especially if passengers are not wearing seat belts or if the turbulence is unexpected.

Famous Flight Turbulence Accidents

1. United Airlines Flight 826 (1997)

En route from Tokyo to Honolulu, the Boeing 747 encountered severe turbulence over the Pacific Ocean. One passenger was killed, and several others were injured.

This incident highlighted the importance of keeping seat belts fastened even when the seat belt sign is off.

2. American Airlines Flight 587 (2001)

Shortly after takeoff from JFK Airport in New York, the Airbus A300 encountered wake turbulence from a preceding aircraft. The vertical stabilizer detached from the plane, leading to a crash that killed all on board and five people on the ground.

This tragedy emphasized the dangers of wake turbulence and the need for adequate separation between aircraft.

3. Singapore Airlines Flight 321 (2024)

Singapore Airlines flight #SQ321, operating from London (Heathrow) to Singapore on 20 May 2024, encountered severe turbulence en-route. The aircraft descended from 37,000 to 31,000 at 806 was commanded via autopilot—not turbulence.

The aircraft diverted to Bangkok and landed at 1545hrs local time on 21 May 2024. It was confirmed that there were injuries and one fatality on board the Boeing 777-300ER.

What to Do During Flight Turbulence

1. Keep Seat Belt Fastened

Always keep your seat belt fastened when seated, even if the seat belt sign is off. Turbulence can occur unexpectedly, and a fastened seat belt can prevent injuries.

We cannot over emphasize on the importance of seat belts in flights.

So always, listen to the flight attendants, they always want your safety!

2. Follow Crew Instructions

Pay attention to and follow the flight crew’s instructions. They are trained to handle turbulence and will provide guidance on what to do.

3. Secure Loose Items

Ensure that all loose items are stowed securely. Turbulence can cause objects to become airborne, posing a risk to passengers.

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4. Stay Seated

Remain seated during turbulence. If you must move, hold onto seat backs or overhead bins for stability.

5. Brace Position

In severe turbulence, adopt the brace position as instructed by the flight crew. This position can help protect you from injury.

6. Manage Anxiety

Turbulence can be unsettling, but try to stay calm. Breathing exercises, distractions like reading or listening to music, and staying informed about what turbulence is can help manage anxiety.

Conclusion

Flight turbulence, while often a source of anxiety for passengers, is a normal part of air travel that pilots and aircraft are well-equipped to handle.

Understanding the causes and types of turbulence, as well as knowing what to do during turbulent flights, can help alleviate fears and ensure a safer, more comfortable travel experience.

By keeping seat belts fastened, following crew instructions, and staying calm, passengers can minimize the risks associated with turbulence.

Additionally, advancements in turbulence forecasting and technology continue to enhance the safety and predictability of air travel.

Remember, while turbulence can be unpleasant, it is rarely dangerous, and modern aviation is designed to keep passengers safe through even the roughest skies.