The Science Behind Turbulence and Why You Shouldn’t Be (Too) Worried About It


Flying can be a nerve-wracking experience for many people – I mean, you’re putting a lot of trust in a lot of total strangers when you climb on board an aluminum tube and sit quietly while it soars at over 30,000 feet.

And no matter how seasoned the flyer, there is one thing that can turn the most calm passenger into a white-knuckled bundle of nerves: turbulence.


Turbulence is, of course, totally normal – the flight equivalent of a pothole, really – and most anyone who flies will experience it to some degree. But even if you know that it’s nothing to worry about, extreme turbulence is still quite unnerving. The one time I experienced worse-than-normal bouncing and shaking, several people used their barf bag, and the flight attendant remarked once we were on the ground that it “was about as bad as it gets.”

Yeah. No bueno.

Turbulence happens when the airplane comes into contact with swirling patterns of disrupted airflow that can come about any number of ways: cold and warm air streams meeting, passing through jet streams, storms disrupting airflow, or flying over a mountain range to name a few.


When a plane hits the choppy air, it can cause changes to its altitude or tilt, resulting in the rocking and shaking you feel onboard. But if you could see your plane from the outside, says commercial pilot Patrick Smith, you probably couldn’t even tell it was moving.

“In the minds of passengers, the plane is plummeting hundreds or thousands of feet, but we might only see a twitch of 10 or 20 feet on the altimeter. Looking at it from a more scientific perspective, turbulence is, for lack of a better way to put it, just wind. Often we pilot don’t even think about it.”

Though it is sometimes unavoidable, pilots do take care to check weather forecasts and wind variability data in order to go around it if they can. Most modern aircraft use algorithms to keep tabs on high turbulence zones, and pilots avoid the more troublesome vertical thunderstorm currents at all costs.


So…should you forget being worried over turbulence at all?

Probably. There are certainly isolated incidences when turbulence has injured passengers and even played a major role in a crash, but air travel remains one of the safest means of transportation available. We travel billions of miles, with only 0.07 fatal accidents occurring.

The same comparison in cars is 7.28 and over 212 for motorcycles.

And if you’ve ever looked out the window during a bumpy ride and seen the wings jostling around, you don’t need to worry about that either:

Turbulence basically never crashes planes (at least, not on its own).

Plus, the FAA reports that fewer than 100 people are injured in turbulence incidents every year, most years it’s closer to  30 people. Not bad, considering more than 4 billon people will board a flight in any given calendar year.

You might want to check back in the future, though – this 2017 study out of the University of Reading says that, due to climate change, we can expect turbulence issues to rise after 2050. Higher global temperatures will result in strengthening wind instabilities at high altitudes and make those pockets of rough air stronger and harder to see coming.

Just one more thing to look forward to in the apocalyptic future!

But until then, have a drink, take a deep breath, and pray the person next to you isn’t a talker.

Fly on!