The truth about turbulence

Chief Pilot Richard Tobiano: 

Turbulence is probably one of the most misunderstood elements of flying. For pilots, it’s an everyday part of our job and nothing to fear. Aircraft are engineered to deal with levels of turbulence well beyond anything you’d realistically encounter.

But we’re conscious that turbulence can put passengers on edge – especially if it’s a sudden jolt. And because it is misunderstood, those jolts can be wrongly perceived as a “plunge” or “massive drop”.

It helps to understand why turbulence happens. Some causes are:

  • Sudden changes in wind direction and speed, particularly as aircraft climb to their cruising altitude where the air is usually smoother.
  • Turbulence associated with large, dense clouds.
  • Wake turbulence –  Large jet aircraft disturb the air behind them, similar to the wash from a boat. I t’s uncommon but that disturbed air can cause bumps for nearby aircraft, even if they are a significant distance away.

Aircraft are designed to fly level and if turbulence disturbs that, the aircraft will adjust – including going back to the right altitude.

A lot of effort goes into avoiding turbulence.  Detailed weather reports, state-of the art weather radars, talking to other pilots flying along the same corridor and spacing between aircraft all help to smooth things out.  Turbulence can be unexpected and uncomfortable, but provided you have your seatbelt on whenever you’re seated, it’s not something to fear.

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