Turbulence is probably the main cause of fear many people have when traveling by plane. For you channel techs who are part of this huge group, we’ve prepared special content to try to put an end to your fear and clarify, once and for all, whether this phenomenon is capable of bringing down a plane.
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Before answering, however, it is worth explaining, after all, what turbulence is. Abear (Associação Brasileira das Empresas Aéreas) defines the phenomenon as “irregular trajectories of the air flow with instantaneous speeds and random fluctuations”. This causes eddies in the air that, consequently, make the plane rock.
The IATA (International Air Transport Association) is another body that has a section on its website especially dedicated to talking about turbulence, such is the concern that the subject generates among travelers. And, according to the association, there are three types of turbulence that a plane can face.
Mild: small tremors, sometimes imperceptible, and which usually pass quickly;
Moderate: liquids even fall out of glasses and passengers feel trapped because of the seat belt. They can take up to 11 minutes;
Severe: objects fall from the luggage compartments and passengers feel enormous pressure from the belt when they are “pulled up” (hence the importance of always keeping them correctly buckled and, therefore, not being thrown against the ceiling). The average running time is 7 minutes.
Causes of turbulence in the plane
The turbulence can be compared to the waves faced by those who travel by boat and that end up causing discomfort and nausea in the passengers. The wave is nothing more than the ripples and eddies caused by the boat when passing through the sea, and turbulence is not far from this scenario.
The difference is that the plane, as it is not at sea, tends to face turbulence zones when facing adverse weather conditions on the flight, especially when passing through heavy rain clouds. But bad weather is not the only cause of turbulence, and they can also happen even with clear skies.
Changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature, variations in wind speed and other factors can also cause turbulence, regardless of weather conditions and flight time (yes, it’s a myth that they are more common on night flights).
The main causes of turbulence, in addition to bad weather and the others already mentioned, are the following:
Wind shears – It can be associated with small cold or warm fronts, sea breeze or thermal inversion, and happens when there is a sudden change in wind. Furthermore, if the plane is about to land, that is, at a lower speed, the effects are greater;
Jet streams – These are the popular clear sky turbulences, also called Jet Stream, and cannot be captured even by radars. They usually occur at higher altitudes, in winter and with winds above 100 km/h;
Thermal turbulence – As the name implies, it is associated with the difference in temperature according to altitude. Occurs mainly on hot days, due to the formation of storm clouds;
Mechanical turbulence – Occurs when a flow of air is directed across landforms. More common in mountainous areas, low altitudes and also urban centers. Hangars can cause the same effect, even with the plane stopped;
Turbulence wake – Similar to what we mentioned that occurs in boats, the turbulence wake is the effect caused by the change in winds that the plane causes when passing through a region. The difference is that the wake can affect the plane that passes by the same place in the sequence, and that is why it is recommended to have distance between the aircraft.
After all, can turbulence bring down a plane?
The moment of truth has arrived, canaltechers. The moment to answer whether a turbulence, after all, can bring down a plane. And for everything you’ve learned about the subject if you’ve read this far, you already know that you can rest assured, because the answer is a resounding “NO”.
As the airline pilot Patrick Smith, founder of the askthepilot.com website (ask the pilot, in the translation), “turbulence is more inconvenient than dangerous”. According to the expert, there is no risk of turbulence bringing down a plane, however severe it may be.
“The plane is made to withstand a high load of force and stress, and turbulence strong enough to actually cause some damage to the aircraft is something that even the most experienced pilot will not experience in his lifetime.”
Abear also assured that shaking, despite causing discomfort and fear, is not enough to bring down an aircraft. According to the agency, “they are designed to withstand this and other types of meteorological phenomena, such as rain and lightning.”
Turbulences that went down in history
Despite not being able to bring down a plane, turbulence has already made many people feel sick, and has already caused scares that went down in history, occupying prominent spaces in press vehicles inside and outside Brazil.
In October 2021, a flight that was supposed to take 1h30 between Campinas and Presidente Prudente, cities in the interior of São Paulo, ended up taking twice as long, precisely because of the turbulence. And it did not reach the original destination.
Passengers on Azul flight AD5069 reported experiencing “moments of terror” on a trip that went through storm, hail and gusts of wind. The solution found by flight control was to divert the route and make the plane land in São José do Rio Preto, far from the original destination.
Anitta: eternal fright
In 2022, there were several cases in which turbulence made headlines, more because of the famous people who were on the planes than because of the danger of the plane being shot down. International pop star Miley Cyrus was scared when traveling to Asunción, Paraguay, in March, and the plane was struck by lightning, but no major complications occurred.
In December, it was singer Anitta’s turn to have her moment of fear and resort to prayers to calm down during a flight that faced strong turbulence. The moment was recorded in a post on Instagram, but nothing bad happened to the artist.
Turbulence already “caused” death in flight
There are, however, cases in which turbulence does not bring down the plane, but contributes to fatalities. That’s what happened in December 1997. According to the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, a United Airlines Boeing 747 that had left Narita, Japan, bound for Honolulu, Hawaii, did not have a happy ending.
Two hours after takeoff, when it was at an altitude of 10,000 meters, the plane faced severe turbulence and had a sudden drop of about 300 meters. Passengers and crew who did not have their seat belts fastened were thrown against the luggage compartment and the roof of the aircraft. Dozens were injured and 32-year-old Konomi Kataura was killed.
Tips for mitigating turbulence
If even after reading all the content explaining that turbulence is not capable of bringing down a plane you are still afraid of flying, that’s okay. We will list below some tips that can avoid the unpleasant effects of this phenomenon to, who knows, make your next trip a little more peaceful.
Sit close to the wings: this is where the plane’s center of gravity is located and, therefore, the tendency is for the effects of turbulence to be smaller in seats in these areas;
Avoid sitting at the rear: contrary to what happens in seats close to the wings, those who are at the rear of the plane tend to feel more the sway of the aircraft in case of turbulence;
Remember to breathe: The basic exercise of taking a deep breath and then exhaling is scientifically proven to be a natural stress reliever in panic situations. Practice this;
Distract your mind: reading a book, listening to music or simply talking to another passenger can take your focus off the turbulence and make it pass faster.