I'll admit it: Even though I love to travel, and even though I've been flying since I was a baby, every time I get on a plane, I'm a little nervous (I use natural remedies to deal with that feeling before and during flights). Turbulence doesn't help. Bad bouts of bumps make me grip my armrests, grit my teeth, and do deep breathing exercises — all at once. I have actually counted the minutes until landing on numerous occasions. And recent stories about people getting hurt due to extreme turbulence aren't reassuring.
But once you know what turbulence is all about — and how pilots manage it — the whole thing is a lot less scary. Here are five bits of info that will help you (and me!) breathe easier when you hit a rough patch on your next flight:
Turbulence is normal: Bumps affecting a flight can be caused by many things, all of them regular parts of weather, including plain old high-altitude wind, the jet stream, flying over mountains, which can cause natural updrafts, and thunderstorms.
Pilots expect turbulence: And they know how to deal with it. Flights that previously traveled the route you are flying on report conditions back, pilots and air traffic controllers look at radar, and regular weather reports all mean that for the most part, the scary-seeming turbulence is just part of the expected ride. Pilots avoid bumpy air whenever they can, but when it's unavoidable, it's also likely expected by the pilot, which is why they turn on the Fasten Seatbelts sign in advance.
Planes are designed to handle turbulence: Commercial air travel has a 50-year-plus history; and planes are built to deal with all kinds of weather issues, including something as normal as turbulence — even the severe stuff. “Planes are engineered to take a remarkable amount of punishment,” Patrick Smith, the writer behind Ask the Pilot and author of the recent book "Cockpit Confidential," told Conde Nast Traveler.
Stay seated with your belt on and you're unlikely to get hurt: Recent reports of clear-air turbulence (which can happen without typical accompanying weather and warnings) have resulted in injuries, but mostly for flight attendants — because they are up and about the cabin often. If you stay seated with your seatbelt on, you'll be safest.
Severe turbulence feels worse than it is — and it is very rare: "In a flying career of over 10,000 hours, I have experienced severe turbulence for about five minutes in total. It is extremely uncomfortable but not dangerous. The aircraft may be deviating in altitude by up to 100 feet (30 metres) or so, up as well as down, but nothing like the thousands of feet you hear some people talking about when it comes to turbulence," British Airways pilot Steve Allbright told the Telegraph. He went on to say that most leisure and business travelers are unlikely to ever experience anything beyond mild or moderate turbulence.
Still nervous? Then maybe these words from Sully Sullenberger, everyone's favorite pilot, will help. "I believe that what makes turbulence so frightening for many people is that it is an unfamiliar situation. Most people don’t understand what causes turbulence, and you are not aware how the pilots are trained to manage it, and how the airplanes are designed and built to handle it. One of the best ways I have found to help people put turbulence into perspective is to have them do a mental exercise. The next time you are a passenger in a car (something that is familiar, that you drive in everyday) close your eyes and concentrate on every bump, vibration, jerk, jolt, sway, and sudden stop. They add up to a lot more 'turbulence' than an airplane, yet you are more confident because you are used to them, and you know what causes it."
And if you still can't wrap your mind around being comfortable with turbulence on flights, it may be a moot point in the future, when new technology will enable pilots to avoid it altogether.
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