(Disclaimer: this information is not intended to be used for any flight planning or flight operations purposes. Use at your own risk.) Yes, I know too many lawyers. :)
On my flight today from Dulles (KIAD) to Hartford (KBDL), I sat next to a woman who was extremely scared to fly. I could feel the tension emanating from her and I felt really bad for her.
Even though I was just a passenger today, I had looked at the weather, knew to expect a few light bumps and that we'd mostly be in the clouds for the flight. I held off on telling her what to expect thinking I'd only make her more nervous. We departed from KIAD and were in the clouds in just a few seconds. As expected, the bumps started a couple minutes in. VERY light but immediately the woman next to me threw the relaxing music on her iPod, started her deep breathing exercises, death gripped the armrest and looked like she'd rather be anywhere on earth than there. I thought to myself, "if only she knew that, more than likely, it wasn't going to get any worse and knew what to expect". I held off on telling her however, I figured that some you nervous flyers would be interested. So, for everyone who hates turbulence or is just curious about it, here's a few interesting and hopefully helpful tidbits on turbulence.
1. Your pilot is really trying to avoid the bumps. They want you to not be scared so you'll fly again - their livelihoods depend on you flying again! They are constantly getting "ride reports" from air traffic control (ATC) which are reports from other planes in the area or on the same route. If a different altitude looks better, they will more than likely try it if ATC will clear them to do so and it doesn't adversely affect the flight in other ways. On a bumpy day, almost all you hear on the radio is pilots and ATC working out smoother altitudes.
2. There are four different classifications of turbulence with the laymen's definition below:
Light - my coffee shows a few ripples in it.
Moderate - my coffee may spill a little on the tray table (most people's "worst flight" story)
Severe - I'm wearing my coffee
Extreme - my coffee has become a deadly projectile and the flight attendant who served it to me is now embedded in the ceiling.
3. While turbulence related crashes have occurred, they are so rare and unlikely that you have a greater chance of dying because you got run over by a Coyote wearing Acme Rocket Shoes chasing a Road Runner than you do of dying because of turbulence. In other words, don't worry about it. Almost all of those accidents occurred because a chain of other events occurred in addition to the turbulence. In case you doubt me, this is a picture of the wing loading test of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
So, don't worry on your next flight when you see the wings bend. They're supposed to do that.
4. Clouds are a generally a good indicator of turbulence. Cumulous = bumpy until you get above them. Status/fog = smooth. Terrain is an indicator too - flying above mountains tends to be bumpier because of the air movements off of their surface. Yes, if it's really windy it'll probably be bumpy closer to the ground but it can easily smooth out as you climb up as the air sometimes tends to move more erratically closer to the ground. Thunderstorms do cause severe or worse turbulence but, trust me, your pilots and ATC work together using sophisticated weather radar to avoid them at all costs. Unexpected encounters with severe clear air turbulence (CAT) are very rare and, many planes have dealt with some pretty extreme encounters with CAT with nothing more than an unhappy ground cleaning crew.
5. It tends to be smoother in the morning so if you absolutely hate turbulence, you'll generally reduce your chances of encountering it if you fly earlier in the day (although nothing will eliminate your chances of encountering it). Throughout the day, the sun heats up the earth and causes air to rise which causes bumps. The next time you cross over asphalt parking lot on a hot day, see if you notice a couple bumps or a little bit of a "rise" as you pass over. You can see this point proven when you see those "waves" coming off a hot surface on a hot day.
6. Remember, the airplane you are flying on cost tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars and lawsuits are expensive. The airlines would like to see that expensive asset make it safely from A to B just as much as you do. If it's unsafe, they don't go or they divert. Period. So, don't get mad the next time your flight is delayed or cancelled because of "weather". Trust me, if your pilot doesn't want to fly, you don't want to fly either.
So, now that you're all turbulence experts, get out there and fly and relax!! And, if this doesn't help you calm down, a couple of your favorite cocktails probably will.