No matter how many times mustachioed demi-god pilots such as “Sully” Sullenberger go on CNN and tell us it’s normal, there’s something unsettling about the experience of airplane turbulence. Why do planes experience turbulence? Why do passengers freak out about it? Unlike the totally normal sensation of, say, being behind the wheel of a two-ton hunk of steel going down the highway at 80 miles per hour, being jostled at 37,000 feet, even just a little bit, feels like a death sentence. But why? Is it really that scary? What causes airplane turbulence, anyway?
The science of airplane turbulence is pretty basic physics, but there are plenty of nasty variables (climate change, pilot error, unbuckled passengers, etc.) that make avoiding it a huge concern for the airline industry. The Guardian says “the damage, delays and disruption from turbulence already cost more than $500M a year” in the US alone. Read on for more airplane turbulence facts that might make you feel better about your next flight.
Don’t freak out. The wings are supposed to bend during turbulence. During stress tests, plane wings are bent as much as 90-degrees (!) out of shape and are fine afterward. That's how tough modern planes are. Quick physics lesson: wings act like springs, and everyone knows springs bend if you push on them, right? Add some mass to the top or bottom of the wings and they’ll bend. Simple.
But if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s not just the bending of the wings that’s upsetting: it’s the oscillating. There’s something unnerving about wings bobbing up and down like a recently vacated diving board. What’s going on?
As Rhett Allain of Wired explains, during turbulence, pockets of air cause increased lift under wings, meaning they bend more. More lift also means more upward acceleration (hence the rattle you feel), which ceases once the plane leaves the pocket of turbulence. The oscillation happens when the wings bend up during turbulence and down when exiting turbulence. It’s totally normal.
Everything is going to be okay.
Sure, there are super-rare cases of extreme turbulence that freak pilots out, but routine light-to-moderate turbulence is nothing more than a mild inconvenience for them. It’s like turning down a gravel road or hitting a small pothole. It’s not comfy, but it’s not a big deal. You might spill some orange juice, but that's about it.
What do pilots do during turbulence? In some cases, they slow down. The speed they slow to is so close to cruising speed you probably won’t even notice. It's called "turbulence penetration speed" (maybe your pilot will crack a“That’s what she said”). The slow down happens because turbulence causes a sudden acceleration; pilots are taught to correct via a slight deceleration. Easy peasy.
If you’re worried about turbulence, here’s a tip: the effects are felt least in seats nearest the wings. Pilot Patrick Smith, author of Cockpit Confidential: Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel, admits “it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference,” but says sitting over the wings puts you “nearest to the plane’s centers of lift and gravity,” leading to a somewhat smoother ride. If you’re a bit freaky and prefer a rough ride, Smith advises you sit in the “far aft”—i.e., the very back, closest to the tail.
Except for a few rare cases, passengers and flight crew members are not seriously injured by turbulence as long as they’re wearing seat belts. The industry is not kidding about this point: pretty much every pilot, flight attendant, and scientist interviewed about turbulence says it’s the best thing you can do to stay safe.
Even moderate turbulence feels akin to riding a mild rollercoaster if your peanut-stuffed guts are belted in. Without the belt? The FAA says 58 people every year are needlessly injured by turbulence because they thought they were too cool for seat belts. It's no laughing matter: you (and your cocktail) could literally end up hitting the ceiling.