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What Causes Turbulence and How Dangerous It Really Is?

Flying is considered to be the safest mode of transportation, but many seasoned fliers would tell you that when they experience turbulence, flying doesn’t seem so safe anymore. But, what is exactly turbulence and is it really dangerous or is that just the perception of the passengers? 

Believe it or not, turbulence is a quite common occurrence. The simplest definition would be that it represents an irregular motion of air. Meaning, an irregular motion of air in regard to the aeroplane. Once the aeroplane faces different air temperature, different airflow or finds itself in the near proximity of another aeroplane, it can cause slight jolts and shakes of the aircraft.

However, chances of any serious accidents are of an incredibly small-scale. 


Types of Turbulences

Depending on their strength, turbulences can be light, moderate, severe or, very rarely, extreme. They cause changes in the aeroplane’s altitude and passengers can feel the “bumps”. Unsecured objects can fall, so do obey the pilots’ instructions about packing your laptop and other equipment since it can unintentionally harm you or somebody else on the plane.

There are several causes of turbulences according to which we differentiate between four types:

  1. Mechanical turbulence: Mountain ranges and buildings are the main causes of this type of turbulence when a plane gets close to them.
  2. Thermal turbulence: Temperature changes in the air can cause slight shakes and tumbles of the aircraft. This especially happens during summer when the aeroplane flies over desserts.
  3. Wind shear: These are changes in wind direction and speed and they are caused by atmospheric conditions.
  4. Thunderstorms: In some cases, thunderstorms can cause turbulences, so that is why pilots fly around them if it is possible.


How Dangerous Are Turbulences?

Nervous fliers may think of the worst, but turbulences are not posing a threat when it comes to the safety of the aeroplanes. Even though these phenomenons are known to cause injuries to passengers, and mostly to flight attendants due to the nature of their jobs. The injuries happen mostly when passengers do not oblige to fasten their seatbelts. In most cases, you only just need to tie your seatbelt and wait until the turbulence passes. 

All pilots know how to navigate the aircraft when turbulence occurs and they often steer a bit of the course to avoid them when possible in hopes of not disturbing the passengers. Aeroplanes are built to withstand much stronger disrupts than typical light turbulence. Though they can be unpleasant, turbulences are just a minor hitch on the “road”.

Before each flight, weather reports are checked and the weather conditions are taken into consideration. Pilots are informed before the takeoff, and they are also maintaining constant communication with other pilots and air traffic controls. 


A Few Turbulence Statistics

According to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), from 2010 until today a very small percentage of people got injured during a flight due to turbulence. For example, in 2013 only 6 persons in total sustained injuries, while only two of them were passengers. Usually, the flight crew is the one who is often injured since they are mostly on their feet during the journey.

Additional relief is that these numbers are minor when looking at the bigger picture. Since the number of fliers is now yearly surpassing a billion passengers, the number of injuries is negligible. 


Follow the Instructions and Fasten Your Seatbelt

What to do went you encounter the dreaded tumbles? Most important thing is to buckle your seatbelt once the message to do so lightens up. The best advice is to actually keep your seatbelt on during the whole flight. That way you will be absolutely secure.

Listen to the flight attendants and oblige their instructions. They want to make sure you are safe, so pack your phone, laptop and secure your things when they tell you to do so.

Additional precautions that you can take if you wish to avoid turbulences is to try to catch a morning flight and to reserve a seat near the aeroplane’s wings.

If you wish to find out more about this phenomenon, read what Avlaw Aviation Consulting founder Ron Bartsch had to say on this topic in this article.

So you might as well relax and enjoy your flight!