What to know about turbulence – and how nervous flyers can avoid it

Brooke Rolfe
News Reporter

If you’ve ever considered the possibility of dropping from the sky in a mid-flight catastrophic disaster - it’s likely you’re not alone.

Jetting off on an overseas trip can be a daunting experience for some, especially for those terrified of the cabin inevitably bumping around during volatile conditions.

Those particularly petrified to board a flight however, have probably spent their lives stressing over nothing, according to aviation expert Keith Tonkin.

“Aircrafts are designed to be able to withstand the effects of turbulence, it’s part of their certification,” the managing director at Aviation Projects told Yahoo News Australia.

Nervous flyers have been urged not to worry about turbulence. Source: File/Getty Images

“Turbulence is not going to cause the aircraft to crash, it might cause a bit of disruption, otherwise it’s almost certainly not going to be a fatal situation.”

“The aircraft’s not going to fall out of the sky as a result of turbulence.”

What causes turbulence?

In its most simple definition, turbulence is just changes in the air. It can be caused by wind, movement of the air currents through the sky, and wind gusts.

Aircrafts can also create wake turbulence, a disturbance in the atmosphere as it passes through the air, which can make it dangerous for planes travelling behind.

Even things like factories or power plants that project air vertically into the atmosphere can create turbulence for planes flying above.

“Its just a disturbance of the air as an aircraft moves through the sky,” Mr Tonkin said.

Severe turbulence caused chaos on Emirates flight EK449 from Auckland to Dubai. Source: Twitter/Seref Sezgin

How can you avoid the worst of turbulence?

Those petrified of experiencing severe turbulence on an upcoming flight are in luck, because there’s actually a nifty way you can go about avoiding the worst of it.

Mr Tonkin said by sitting around the middle of the plane, or as close to the wings as you can get, you are likely to feel a less effect compared to those sitting at either end.

“Because the aircraft pitches around its wings, you’ll experience greater variation in height at the ends of the aeroplane if it pitches.

“So if you’re down at the tail and you experience turbulence, it will be a more significant effect than if you’re sitting in the middle.”

“On and around the wings would be a better place to be than if you were up the front or up the back.”

Air projected from power plants can cause disturbances for planes flying above. Source: File/Getty Images

Can turbulence take down a plane?

Rules and regulations are in place for pilots that dictate how close aircrafts can fly together. If these are not adhered to, Mr Tonkin said the result could be disastrous.

Such was the case for Qantas flight QF94 commuting from Los Angeles to Melbourne in June last year, where extreme turbulence caused a “nosedive”.

The plane was sent surging towards the ground for 10 seconds according to a passenger on board, in an event caused by a plane that had left two minutes prior.

Flight QF12 had taken off at 11.27pm and QF94 followed closely behind at 11.29pm, soon becoming the victim to the earlier aircraft’s wake turbulence.

Strict regulations dictate how close planes can fly together to avoid catastrophe. Source: File/Getty Images

“If there’s a big aircraft taking off and another takes off just behind it, then there’s potential for a serious accident,” Mr Tonkin said.

“That’s why we have rules and standards that say how far behind an aircraft you have to fly, or how high above it,” he said.

“Normally you’ll make sure that you’re separated in height or laterally to make sure you don’t have those instances.”

He explained the higher the altitude of an aircraft, the more tolerant it was to turbulence, while the lower it was to the ground, the higher the risk it would be difficult to control.

Is turbulence dangerous?

Normally if a pilot is aware of a potential turbulence hazard, they will ensure crew and passengers strap on their seatbelts.

Mr Tonkin said this was the best way to ensure turbulence-related injuries were avoided, and urged those travelling overseas to always stay belted.

“The airlines will always say ‘when you’re seated, make sure you do have them on’,” he said.

“Usually the hazard is if you’re not strapped in and the aircraft has a bump, and you move about the cabin or you can hit your head.”

Changes in air movements can cause turbulence on a flight. Source: File/Getty Images

He said this was when people reported sustaining injuries - either from their body being flung about, or by things “flying around” the cabin space.

“Aircraft are safe they’re designed to withstand turbulence and the main thing to remember is to keep your seatbelt on.

“If you (a pilot) know you’re about to enter it, usually you’ll have the opportunity in making sure everyone’s got their seatbelts on.”

Turbulence is a common occurrence on most flights however can sometimes leave a nasty trail of destruction on board.

About three hours prior to Emirates flight EK449 arriving in Dubai from Auckland on July 10, severe turbulence rocked the cabin and caused several injuries.

An Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Sydney was diverted to Honolulu on July 11 after encountering “un-forecasted and sudden turbulence”.

More than two dozen people were taken to hospital in Hawaii with cuts, bumps, bruises, neck pain and back pain sustained during the turbulence.

In June, an air hostess slammed into the ceiling during heavy turbulence on a ALK Airline flight from Pristina in Kosovo to Basel in France.

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