What causes turbulence on airplanes and why it is normal

How to explain airplane turbulence to people who have never flown? In fact, it's a simpler (and less dangerous) phenomenon than it seems.

Nov 10, 2023 - 10:40
What causes turbulence on airplanes and why it is normal
Image by Pilot Institute

Imagine you're on a road trip in a car, cruising along smoothly. Suddenly, you hit a patch of bumpy road, and the ride gets a bit shaky for a while. Well, turbulence is like that bumpy road for airplanes.

In the sky, there are invisible pockets of air with different temperatures and speeds. When an airplane passes through these pockets, it can feel a bit like driving on a rough road. Pilots are trained to handle it, and airplanes are designed to handle way more turbulence than you might experience.

So, when you're on a plane and it starts shaking a bit, it's usually just the aircraft adjusting to those invisible air bumps. It's totally normal and not something to worry about.

Pilots know how to navigate through it, and it's just a part of the flying experience. Just like a bumpy road during a car ride, it might be a bit jarring, but it's nothing to be afraid of.

When does turbulence turns into a problem?

Turbulence typically becomes a problem when it's severe or unexpected. Here are a few situations where turbulence can be more challenging:

  • Intensity: If turbulence becomes really intense, it can be uncomfortable for passengers, and it may cause unsecured items to shift. Severe turbulence is rare, and modern airplanes are built to withstand even strong turbulence.
  • Clear Air Turbulence (CAT): This type of turbulence occurs at high altitudes in clear air, and it can be challenging to predict or detect. CAT can be more unsettling because it often comes without warning.
  • Microbursts and Wind Shear: These are rapid changes in wind speed and direction near the ground, often associated with thunderstorms. Pilots pay close attention to weather reports to avoid areas where these phenomena are likely to occur.
  • Mountainous Regions: Turbulence can be more prevalent around mountains due to the airflow patterns. Pilots are trained to navigate these areas safely.
  • Wake Turbulence: Large aircraft create wake turbulence, which can affect smaller planes flying behind them. Air traffic control manages separation to avoid any issues, but it's a consideration during takeoff and landing.

But remember: pilots are well-trained to handle turbulence, and aircraft are designed to withstand a considerable amount of it. Most turbulence encounters are brief and not a cause for concern. If there's a possibility of turbulence, pilots will often turn on the seatbelt sign, so it's a good idea to stay buckled up when seated, even if it seems calm.