Thursday, January 26, 2012


(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.


  1. Nice Jeff...although, I knew most of this already and I still get scared! Maybe you could explain to me why I get so nervous with turbulance on a big Jet, but it barely bothers me when I'm in a little Cessna or even littler Piper Cub? I guess maybe because I know and trust the pilot?

    1. Hi Meldog, I think the reason you get more nervous in the big plane than the little, is that you feel more in control in the small plane. You're right... you know and trust your pilot. In the big plane, you can't see what we're looking at. You don't know us. Your life is in our hands. Usually only pilots have these control issues... maybe you should become a pilot. :)

  2. Meldog - to answer your question, I can give you a few reasons: 1 - just basic lack of control and when you're sitting in back, you have no control. 2 - when you hit rough air at 500+mph, it can be more jarring and feel more powerful than hitting it at the 100mph you're doing in a 152 or a J-3 Cub. Same as hitting a speed bump at 5mph vs 60mph. 3 - nobody is sitting there giving you the play by play. When I'm flying the plane, I can often times see the cloud coming up and I know to expect a bump when I go into it or skim the bases or tops of them. When I'm sitting in back, you don't know it's coming until it happens. 4 - this one is a little technical (but go here if you want more info: How turbulence is "handled" by the plane depends on something called the "wing loading" of the plane. Basically the weight divided by the wing area. The higher the wing loading, generally the better it "handles" turbulence. Now, by that explanation you should feel better in a 747 with a wing loading of about 14.5x higher than that of a Cessna 172 but don't forget the gusts at 35,000 feet can be much faster than those where the Cessna lives at 5,000 feet thus sometimes canceling out the benefit of the higher wing loading. And, the wing loading of airlines varies a lot so while you might like a 747, you might hate an Airbus A380 with it's lower wing loading. Hope that helps.

    1. Jeff, I responded to Meldog before I read your comment. Yep... all about control.

  3. Jeff - I'd be curious to hear about what kind of training and what's involved with getting a pilot's license.

    1. Jamie, see my post "Get out and fly". I go into it a little there. Send me an email if you want me to guide you more closely thru the process. -Jeff

  4. Jeff, this is a great post on bumps. You've demystified the fear of turbulence. Excellent post.