You’re 37,000ft up in the air, and the plane starts violently shaking – how do you react?
Even the most frequent of fliers may start to worry when on-board experiences of turbulence vary from minor to severe – but is it really something we should be concerned about?
MailOnline Travel spoke with author of Cockpit Confidential, Pilot Patrick Smith, British Airways Pilot Steve Allright and Steve Landells, flight safety specialist from the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) on whether turbulence is something to fear (or forget) while flying.
What is turbulence?
There are different kinds of turbulence ranging from ‘clear-air’ – which is the kind most people experience on a flight, to ‘wake turbulence’- which is slightly rarer.
Turbulence is caused when a mass of air moving at a particular speed meets another mass of air that’s moving at a different speed, like an aeroplane.
The majority of the time, it is caused by weather conditions such as thunderstorms or jet streams caused by larger aircraft – it is particularly obvious when flying over mountains.
British Airways pilot and Flying with Confidence course instructor, Captain Steve Allright, said: ‘Turbulence is uncomfortable but not dangerous.
‘Different aspects of the weather cause different types of turbulence. CAT is an abbreviation for Clear Air Turbulence – the most common form of turbulence you are likely to experience, and is totally normal.
‘A jetstream can sometimes be thousands of miles long but is usually only a few miles wide and deep.
‘Depending on the direction of travel, our flight planners either avoid [into a headwind] or use [into a tailwind] these jetstreams to reduce fuel burn as they can flow up to 250 mph (400 kmph).
‘The problem is, just like a fast-flowing river swirling against the riverbank, where the edge of the jetstream interacts with slower moving air, there can be some mixing of the air causing turbulence.’
Steve Landells added: ‘Turbulence is often associated with weather systems and thunderstorms.
‘Fortunately these storms are visible both to the naked eye and show up very well on weather radars.
‘When these storm cells join together then significant deviations may be required; I once flew 150 miles off course to avoid a line of thunderstorms.’
Can turbulence bring a plane down?
Whether it is a fear of flying or confined space, the majority of passengers boarding a plane feel uneasy on some level.
During turbulence, it is easy to picture the aeroplane as a helpless dinghy in a stormy sea, however, except in the rarest cases, the plane really is in no danger, said Pilot Patrick Smith.
‘For all intents and purposes, a plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket.
‘Conditions might be annoying and uncomfortable, but the plane is not going to crash.’
Captain Allright agreed: ‘Without doubt, the single most shared common factor among fearful flyers is turbulence.
‘Turbulence is part of flying, and it is not to be feared. Babies especially, who know no irrational fear, are routinely comforted by what is, at the end of the day, part of nature.’