How Does Turbulence Impact Airplanes?

August 23, 2019

airplane turbulence

The “fasten seatbelts” light comes on. The plane rocks side to side precipitously. You haven’t prayed in years, but you suddenly rediscover your religion, certain you’re about to meet your maker.

What is airplane turbulence, and what causes airplane turbulence when you fly? Is it really as dangerous as it feels when you’re 10,000 feet in the air or more? And how can you manage episodes of turbulence without panic?

What Is Turbulence?

Turbulence refers to instability in the air surrounding a plane. When you fly, four factors keep the plane in the air: lift, weight, thrust and drag. While you don’t need to understand the precise physics, the lift is the factor keeping planes off the ground. The wings help in this endeavor, but when the air shifts outside the plane, it creates a bumpier ride.

What Causes Turbulence?

Like the factors that keep a plane in the air, four factors contribute to turbulence.

  • Mechanical turbulence. Mechanical turbulence occurs due to friction between the air and the ground. This often occurs in areas where tall buildings or mountains exist. These formations can create eddies, areas in which the wind moves contrary to the prevailing direction.
  • Thermal (convective) turbulence. This occurs when the sun hits the ground unevenly. This creates the bumpy ride of airplane turbulence in clouds. When pilots fly above clouds, you enjoy a smoother ride, but when they must fly through, things grow rocky quickly.
  • Frontal turbulence. Frontal turbulence occurs when a cold air mass hits a warm air mass. This most often occurs when the air is moist and unstable. Thunderstorms can develop in such conditions.
  • Wind sheer. This type of airplane turbulence occurs when there’s a change in wind speed or direction over a specific horizontal or vertical distance. Clear air turbulence refers to high altitude turbulence associated with the jet stream, the prevailing wind that makes it faster to fly west-to-east versus east-to-west.

How Can Pilots Spot Turbulence?

Pilots use several methods to predict airplane turbulence in clouds or otherwise both before takeoff and while in flight. Before takeoff, pilots carefully monitor weather conditions. They work carefully with meteorologists to chart the best course to avoid the worst of the bumps.

While in the air, pilots rely upon a weather radar display to indicate upcoming turbulence and alert passengers to return to their seats for safety reasons. These use a color-coded system. Green indicates light rain and mild turbulence; yellow equates to moderate levels of precipitation. The color red indicates the most severe weather and what causes turbulence of greatest severity.

Pilots also keep their eyes peeled for different cloud formations. Lenticular clouds at the same altitude as the plane signify coming turbulence. Two types of this cloud exist: cirrocumulus standing lenticular clouds (CSLC) and altocumulus standing lenticular clouds.

Rotor clouds (think about a tornado) present the most severe turbulence chances. Either type of cumulus cloud, or cotton-ball cloud, likewise, give pilots pause. They’ll opt to avoid these if possible, especially if a vertical structure like a mountain or skyscraper lies below. Vertical buildings can spur thunderstorms, resulting in greater turbulence. Thunderstorm clouds can extend as high as 60,000 feet. Compare this with the typical cruising altitude of aircraft at 33,000-42,000 feet, and you can see why pilots take measures to avoid such clouds.

Turbulence Isn’t as Scary as It Seems

While experiencing airplane turbulence in clouds may give you flashbacks of watching “Final Destination,” you need not panic. Fully 80 percent of commercial aircraft experience turbulence, but they also undergo rigorous safety testing between flights.

In actuality, turbulence is normal, and nothing to fear. It’s more of a convenience and safety issue than a crash threat. The reason pilots tell passengers to return to their seats and fasten their belts is to avoid bumps and bruises, not because the plane risks going down. While this may annoy you (especially if you need to use the restroom), buckling up and following instructions will reduce your chances of injury from falling objects or lost footing.

Tips for Handling Turbulence on Your Flight

To calm yourself during periods of turbulence, try writing your name with your non-dominant hand. If your tray table must remain upright, do so in the air. The act of doing this focuses your attention and calms your mind.

Lose yourself in the novel you brought with you. Or tune into in-flight entertainment to distract yourself. If you must close your eyes due to feeling nauseous, visualize a positive flight and a safe landing.

Massage your pressure points to relieve stress. You can rub the area between your neck and shoulder blades, which tends to carry tension. You can also massage the palm of your hand in a circular motion. Finally, rub the area between your forefinger and thumb — this acupressure point can help relieve tension headaches.

Yes, You Can Survive Turbulence

Turbulence seems scary but is a normal part of flying. By learning how and why airplane turbulence in clouds occurs, you can assuage your fears and enjoy a more relaxing flight.

Aircraft Testing Services at NTS

National Technical Systems offers extensive aircraft testing such as:

NTS engineers are experts in aircraft testing. If you have any questions about any of our aircraft testing services, contact our team today. 


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