Fear of Flying – All About Turbulence?

Everyone on a plane with the exception of the pilots has probably had a white-knuckle moment due to fear of flying. I remember distinctly one time on a flight to Las Vegas the pilot telling us before takeoff to “tug our seat belts just a little bit tighter” as we were going to have a bumpy ride. Oh great I thought! Not my favorite! One of my best friends has a real fear of flying. She’d drive across the country to avoid flying. Planes just don’t fall out of the sky due to turbulence! They are built very substantially to withstand much greater forces. From a pilot’s perspective it is typically seen as a convenience issue, not a safety issue.  All that said, for passengers one of the biggest factors driving fear of flying is fear of turbulence.

This fear is very real for many people despite what we have all heard: “Flying is safer than driving.” Be reassured. That is definitely true. You can have confidence that flying is *much* safer than driving.  Every year about 33,000 people in the US die in a car crash. There are about 2.3 million people injured in cars annually. A large percentage of these numbers is comprised of people not wearing seat belts. And these numbers have declined substantially in the last ten years! It used to be much worse! Contrast that with the last recorded plane crash due to turbulence. It occurred in Japan in 1966!!   Now let’s review current flight data. Every year, the FAA keeps a record of injuries due to turbulence and the numbers are incredibly low. In 2013, 24 people were injured, 13 of them crew. In 2012, 32 people, 21 of them crew. In fact, in the past 10 years, an average of 34 people a year have been injured in incidents of turbulence, on average 20 of them crew members. That’s out of approximately 800 million plus passengers in the air each year! But fears are not resolved by knowing glowing statistics ….

So why are we all so nervous when we fly and especially when we hit turbulence? Experts think it’s because of two things: first , because we don’t understand the science of what’s happening and second, because we as passengers are experiencing a loss of control over what’s happening to us. We’ve handed over our lives to someone else. Let’s take a look at these two factors and see if we can calm everyone’s nerves.

  • Demystifying Turbulence

    Simply speaking, turbulence is a disturbance of the regular flow of air. Many people can more visualize turbulence in water as an eddy in a river or waves in the ocean. “It helps to visualize flight as a river flowing rapidly over rocks, where water is forced upward and then down, with swirls and eddies,” says Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, retired US Airways pilot, speaker, author and CBS news safety & aviation expert. In short, turbulence is a normal part of flying and every pilot knows that they might encounter it in the course of a given flight. Air in the atmosphere can move up and down or sideways. The wings of the aircraft are engineered to resist and adjust to these movements. Turbulence is everywhere in the atmosphere just like movements are in bodies of water. It’s normal and how the sky behaves naturally. In fact, the twinkling we see in stars of the night sky is really evidence of moving air in our atmosphere not pulses of energy from distant suns.

    There are different types of turbulence each with their own characteristics. Clear air turbulence is cause by variations in the Jet Stream. There’s more in the winter and when the jet stream brings cool air south, it crosses common flight paths across the Pacific. We’ve all seen the jet stream dip on the Weather Channel.   Convective turbulence ramps up more in the summer when thunderstorms occur commonly in air traffic areas. Low level turbulence can result from ground topography, daily weather and even tall buildings. A more distinct type has its own name: mountain wave turbulence which if you are from Denver you are very familiar with. And, finally there’s wake vortex turbulence which comes from lift even a strong as a tornado. Turbulence can be light or stronger just like water in a stream. If you think you have experienced major turbulence it’s likely the pilot would call it moderate.

    Pilots generally have a good idea where the flight will encounter turbulence but not always.   They can reference different systems that track turbulence, observe weather reports and even get reports relayed by other pilots that are flying in the same area. Pilots want you to have a smooth and enjoyable flight so they make great effort to dodge areas of turbulence by changing altitude or circumventing a disturbance. But, sometimes there’s simply nothing they can do. They will have to ride it like a surfer and hopefully navigate out as soon as possible.

  • What Airlines and Aircraft Manufacturers Are Doing

    Everyone wants you to have a smooth safe flight and safety is paramount in this business. They know that turbulence is the passengers’ number one concern but in the big picture, they over engineer the plane to deal with it. It would take a mega event for turbulence to damage a plane. Passengers get nervous with a couple of bumps, some dips of a few feet and the drink cart getting put away. If you see the wings bending, that’s intentionally engineered flexing. If you have ever experienced one of those “sudden drops” where it feels like you lost about 1000 feet, studies have shown the most most planes drop in serious turbulence is about 40 feet.

    Modern planes have Gust Suppression systems that soften the disruption the plane will experience. There’s new GPS that can detect turbulence as far away as 200 miles and make adjustments to mitigate any encounter. There’s new systems that facilitate pilot communication and systems that can detect the movement of “dust” in the atmosphere pinpointing areas of likely turbulence. Despite all these advancements in detection technology, pilots today can still receive little or no warning of choppy air. It is still not a perfect science and passengers will have to endure. You can even go to The Turbulence Forecast website (http://www.turbulenceforecast.com/) and see current conditions.

    Clear air turbulence is the most difficult to detect and can occur unexpectedly. The pilot may not have a chance to warn passengers and crew and is why you should always have your seat belt on at all times when you are not moving about the cabin.

  • Taking Back Some Control

    There are actually several things you can do to minimize personal disruption and fear caused by turbulence. You don’t want to be paralyzed or dread wonderful travel experiences with your kids and family. You want to enjoy them to the fullest extent possible. You need to acknowledge that your discomfort is being triggered by an underlying fear that can be acknowledged and managed.

    Here are some ideas how:
    — If your fear is acute you might consider taking one of the courses in the market to identify triggers and eventually at least “manage” your fear.
    — Learn simple relaxation techniques.
    — Breathing and visualizing can help relax you.
    — Remember how safe flying is.
    — Distract yourself with music or a movie and noise cancelling headphones.
    — Get seat assignments over the wings where you are at the center of mass of the aircraft.
    — If you travel in the summer, fly early in the morning before the land heats up and turbulence become more likely.
    — Always put small children strapped into their car seat during turbulence. They can be injured if you can’t hold onto them.

  • The Big Message

    Turbulence won’t make your plane crash. Pilots know how to manage it. Keep your seat belt on at all times. During times of turbulence, a small child is safer strapped in a child seat than in your lap.