“The flight attendant sure rushed through the safety briefing. I think I got most of it. Oh well, everything seems fine now. The flight has been peaceful so far except for an occasional rattling noise. What is that?! Oh that’s just my tray table. I think I’m going to try to get some shut eye.”
BOOM! BANG! My eyes suddenly snap open.
“WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT?! The plane is dropping…the wings are going to break off…everyone is holding on for dear life…WE ARE GOING TO DIE!!! AHHHHHH!!!”
I clench my eyes shut and tense my body, ready for the inevitable impact.
“Oh…it’s stopping…the seats are no longer shuddering. Whew, we are still flying. What?! The pilot said we encountered a few ‘slight bumps’. It felt like the airplane was falling apart. What do they know?”
You have probably experienced a similar story. Will your airplane fall apart and plummet to the ground ? Let’s see…
First, to understand turbulence and “the drop”, let’s briefly discuss how an airplane flies. As an aircraft is thrust through the air by its engines, air is accelerated on top and below the aircraft wings. When this “cushion” of air is accelerated fast enough, there is enough lift for the airplane to fly. In smooth air, the airflow on top and below the wings is at a mostly constant speed and closely hugs the wing.
However, in turbulent air, the air around the wing is less consistent. There may be small to large changes in the air’s speed, direction, and lift in a short amount of time. The airflow on top and below the wing is not perfectly consistent causing a few “bumps.”
There are many causes for bumpy air. Some of them are avoidable by the pilots and easily predicted, while others are not (air is invisible of course!). Due to our atmosphere, buildings, mountains, winds, and several other factors, it is almost impossible to fly without encountering a few “bumps.” It’s similar to driving a car; there are bound to be a few buckles, bumps, or potholes in the road.
Just like every pothole is not created equal, turbulence widely varies in intensity. If you notice your snack is sliding on your tray table and a slight pull on your seatbelt, you are in light turbulence. During moderate turbulence, people start to lose their balance in the aisles, food on your tray table will fall to the ground, and you will feel the pull of your seat belt on your lap. Feeling like the airplane is dropping is common. During the highest level of turbulence, severe, walking down the aisle is impossible. People, food, and drinks are violently shaken throughout the cabin.
However, even in severe turbulence, your aircraft will not break apart. All aircraft are built to withstand forces well beyond severe turbulence. Sometimes, you will notice in turbulence the aircraft’s wings seem to bend. This flex is good; it allows the plane to absorb the shock of the turbulence without damage.
Even during the worst bumps, your airplane is still being accelerated hundreds of miles per hour through the air. It will not fall out of the sky. No matter what, there is always a cushion of air above and below the wings. The air may have a few bumps in it, however, it is still there.
During the most severe bumps, the worst that will happen is inside the cabin. People not wearing seatbelts, and un-secure drinks and snacks could be thrown. However, the aircraft will still fly and remain intact. To keep you safe, follow those often bland crewmember instructions to, “fasten your seatbelt when in your seat” even when the fasten seatbelt sign is off.
That is good advice, and make sure the seatbelt is pretty tight. That will anchor you to your seat and you will feel the bumps less. Then try lifting your feet off the floor. You will notice that the bumps will feel much milder. This may seem odd but it works!