In this part of the country, the early months of the year usually bring some unsettled weather. Cold temperatures with lots of high winds can make a dent in our flying plans and this year has been no different. January is usually still pretty good and even early February can be decent flying, but eventually Mother Nature catches up, and we have seen some especially blustery weather this year. And we’re not out of the woods yet, as April can still blow up, especially in the early part of the month.
Still, even at its worse, our fellow aviators in the more northern climes can only wish they had our problems, as they have all our winds plus snow and ice. Where we might be grounded for a few days, they are looking at weeks and even months of sitting around and only dreaming of flying.
And that leads us to turbulence. Sure, turbulence can happen at any time and at any altitude, but this is when we really start complaining about bumps in the sky. There’s plenty of literature, both print and electronic, on what causes turbulence, but when our passengers go pale and tighten their grip on the seat armrest, they are less concerned with why and more concerned with their immediate safety. Or, to be succinct, is the airplane crashing? Am I going to die?
This is not an unreasonable reaction. On a recent commercial flight, I sat next to a woman who, upon pushback from the gate, made the sign of the cross, pulled out a small statue of Mother Mary wrapped in a rosary, kissed the top of the statue, then closed her eyes and prayed for three solid hours. That, gentle reader, is genuine fear of flying.
But turbulence discomfort is entirely different, in my book and I get it. You’re several thousand feet in the air and when you’re that high, you have enough to think about without your transport making unexpected and uncommanded deviations in any direction. Let’s be honest- even if you hit a bump in the road while in your car, you know you’re only going to go down so far. In an airplane, that distance seems almost limitless, until, of course, it isn’t. The planet may look beautiful from where you are so loftily sitting now, but you know that smiting it would hurt a lot, even if just for a nanosecond. That’s what many people are thinking when the plane starts lurching, whether it’s a 737 or a 172.
I try to comfort my passengers by telling them that the plane rides the sky like a boat rides the waves, and that turbulence bothers the occupants a lot more than the airplane. But my passengers are generally aware of the difference between getting tossed out of a boat into the water and out of an airplane into the empty sky.
So really, how dangerous is turbulence to an airplane? Well, let’s stipulate an airplane loaded within its weight and balance limitations because that’s an important condition. Once we start with that scenario, the answer is, practically nil. Airplanes, even small ones like ours, are built to withstand a lot of g-forces, well over what you will encounter in day-to-day flying. In fact, in nearly every case I could find of an airplane breaking up due to ambient conditions, the pilot had actually penetrated or flown way too close to a thunderstorm.
Thunderstorms release a honking amount of energy, and over its average life of sixty minutes, more energy than the Hiroshima atomic blast. No airplane, regardless of size, is designed to fly safely through a nuclear explosion, which is exactly what you are doing when you start messing with thunderstorms.
Captain Patrick Smith, who writes a great blog called “Ask The Pilot”, wrote:
“I remember one night, headed to Europe, hitting some unusually rough air about halfway across the Atlantic. It was the kind of turbulence people tell their friends about. It came out of nowhere and lasted several minutes, and was bad enough to knock over carts in the galleys. During the worst of it, to the sound of crashing plates, I recalled an email. A reader had asked me about the displacement of altitude during times like this. How many feet is the plane actually moving up or down, and side to side? I kept a close watch on the altimeter. Fewer than forty feet, either way, is what I saw. Ten or twenty feet, if that, most of the time. Any change in heading—that is, the direction our nose was pointed—was all but undetectable. I imagine some passengers saw it differently, overestimating the roughness by orders of magnitude. ‘We dropped like 3,000 feet in two seconds!’ ”
So really, not that big of a deal, at least to the airplane, but how about the passengers? We occasionally hear about injuries, sometimes serious, due to turbulence. Again, from Captain Smith:
“So that I’m not accused of sugar-coating, I concede that powerful turbulence has, on occasion, resulted in damage to aircraft and injury to their occupants. With respect to the latter, these are typically people who fell or were thrown about because they weren’t belted in. About sixty people, two-thirds of them flight attendants, are injured by turbulence annually in the United States. That works out to about twenty passengers. Twenty out of the 800 million or so who fly each year in this country.”
The takeaway is obvious- wear your seatbelt and you’ll be fine. In fact, everything I have read indicates that injuries are almost entirely a result of lack of seatbelt usage, even in the cases where somebody wearing a seatbelt is injured by someone else who, not wearing any restraints, flies around the cabin indiscriminately, bumping and banging away.
So there it is- if you stay away from thunderstorms and wear your seatbelt, the airplane and you will both be fine. Everything else is just an adventure, and really, isn’t that why we fly?