Is Turbulence Dangerous?

Aircraft · 5 min read · Feb 18, 2022
is turbulence dangerous

Have you ever felt that dreaded shake-up when sitting on an airplane, usually followed by the captain saying “please fasten your seat belts as we will experience turbulence”?

If you have flown more than once, then you probably have noticed that turbulence is more common than many people can imagine.

Of course, the big question would be is turbulence dangerous? Well, we invite you to keep reading this guide as we disclose all the details regarding turbulence and its effects on flying aircraft.

What is turbulence?

To understand what turbulence is, you need to keep in mind that air is a fluid just like the water that runs along a river course or inside the pipes of your house. At a certain speed, the flow of these fluids is stable and the direction they take can be predicted with a very high level of accuracy.

However, when the pressure and speed are increased, the flow becomes chaotic and difficult to predict, just like we see in river rapids, or when we leave a hose in the garden on maximum water pressure and it starts moving without control as if it was alive. This type of flow is known as turbulent flow.

So, when aircraft experience turbulence, what happens is that something causes the air around them to become a turbulent flow, thus making a flight bumpy. Due to the chaotic nature of the flow, many like to describe turbulence as rough air. This “rough air” has been categorized into four levels of severity. According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the four levels of turbulence are light turbulence, moderate turbulence, severe turbulence, and extreme turbulence.

Let’s take a look at each of them separately.

A KLM aircraft flying through a cloudy sky with a possibility of light turbulence.

Light turbulence

Sometimes called a light chop, this level of turbulence is characterized by little bumpiness which is consistent and repeats as if it was following a rhythm. While this is generally uncomfortable, it is not really dangerous, the flight can continue its course, flight attendants can keep up with their duties and passengers can walk around without a problem.

Moderate turbulence

The next level of turbulence, also known as a moderate chop, implies a more erratic and higher level of bumpiness. This time the movement of the airplane can cause people to lose balance and get injured, so pilots will turn on the seat belt signal and advise passengers to stay in their seats. However, there’s nothing to worry about in terms of flying control.

Severe turbulence

Getting to the uncommon territory we have the severe level. While very rare, pilots may lose control momentarily, causing the airplane to move more abruptly and making you feel “bursts of weightlessness and more strain on your seatbelt” as described by an aviation consultant with Briscoe Group, Pilot Richard Gonzales. When this level of turbulence is encountered it is very important to remain seated with the seat belt fasten to avoid injuries.

Extreme turbulence

The rarest of them all, extreme turbulence is usually associated with thunderstorms and other extreme weather occurrences. Violent jolts and objects tossed around the aircraft cabin may be characteristic of this level of turbulence. However, due to its association with extreme weather conditions, pilots will usually avoid flying through these areas, so it is very unlikely to experience this level of turbulence.

Types of turbulence based on the causes

Apart from the levels of severity, we can also classify turbulence depending on what causes it. There are different reasons why turbulence can be found why flying, so it is also important to know about them to understand why there are moments when pilots just cannot avoid this uncomfortable situation.

Here are the most common types of turbulence based on what causes them.

Clear air turbulence

Scientifically called thermal turbulence, clear air turbulence refers to the type of turbulence that is caused when the hot air moves upwards through cooler air, thus forming some kind of air pillars. However, some other causes may be associated with this sudden change in the airflow. It is considered a dangerous type as it cannot be predicted.

Mechanical turbulence

This type is caused by air moving in different directions due to changes in elevations and other ground surface formations like big mountains. This is because air moves horizontally, and such changes in elevation disrupt the natural direction of the flow.

Shear turbulence

Windshear results when two masses of air move in different directions, thus causing turbulence when the flight gets caught right between them. It is common to experience this type of turbulence flying through the jet stream of other aircraft or jet streams leaving hot air residue in what is also called wake turbulence.

Frontal turbulence

This type of turbulence is attributed to the warm air that lifts from the earth’s surface, thus hitting a mass of cold air and causing a chaotic flow. This type is more common under winter weather conditions.

Turbulence can also be found in different stages of the flight. For example, landing is a stage of the flight where turbulence is common because pilots can encounter strong headwinds and what is worse side winds. Fortunately for commercial aviation, the larger the airplane the weaker the turbulence feels. And it also feels weaker at higher altitudes. So, long-haul flights that usually carry many passengers at very high altitudes do not usually experience the strongest levels or types, and the aircraft remains within the normal course without trouble.

Now that we have gotten to this point, it is a good time to answer some of the most common questions people ask about turbulence.

An Emirates aircraft flying through a clear sky with a trail behind, without the possibility of turbulence.

Final thoughts about turbulence

We are glad you have read to this point and hope this information helps you understand better why you are experiencing a bumpy flight and know that you should not worry too much about it.

If you want to learn more about the fascinating world of aviation, you can read more of our blog or take the next step and enroll in a course. Here at Aeroclass, we pride ourselves on offering fascinating aviation courses to either launch your career or evolve it to the next level.

And if you have any doubt, contact us and let us help you.

Turbulence FAQs

How dangerous is turbulence?

As it was described before, turbulence tends to be more dangerous to flight attendants and the cabin crew in general since they are the ones that usually need to move around even when things become very bumpy. In these situations, injuries from falling or getting hit are the most common. Now, as for the passenger, turbulence should not be dangerous if they remain seated with the seatbelt fastened.

Can turbulence bring a plane down?

This question can be answered with a yes, but only because the pilot or air traffic control decides to bring it down in a safe landing. Current weather reports are very accurate and can help pilots and air traffic controllers predict the most severe turbulence. If they see that such turbulence cannot be avoided, they will decide to take a different route to land safely in the closest airfield available.

What is considered bad turbulence?

As it was described above, bad turbulence can be considered in the last two of the four levels presented by the FAA, the severe and extreme turbulence levels. Fortunately, these two are the rarest of them all.

How do I get over my fear of turbulence?

We are all different and handle these situations in different ways. For some, it may be just another bumpy ride, while for others it may be the worst nightmare. If you are in the second group, the best you can do if you feel fear in the middle of a flight is to sit tight, fasten your seatbelt and pay attention to the flight attendants. More often than not, you will see them carrying out their duties normally, even moving the food carts around in an indication that things are in control. Then, you can take a deep breath and relax knowing that nothing wrong is happening. And remember that your pilot will always look for smooth air and make the right call in the most difficult of situations.

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Jet pilot @NASA

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