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Turbulence – Air Pockets: What to know when you fly

Updated with VIDEOS & added tips for you!

One of the biggest misunderstood subjects about flying is how airline passengers perceive turbulence.

Also, one of the most used, yet misunderstood term among air travelers is the word “air pockets”, when describing turbulence.

Let’s clarify the myths:

Air Pockets

To start, let’s dispel the myth of “air pockets”. There is no such thing as airspace void of air where airplanes fly. No “vacuum-pockets” are grabbing your airplane, causing you to fall out of the sky.

The common fear of turbulence stems from lack of knowledge about the subject. That caused people to escalate the fear further, and the term “air pockets” was born.  

What is Turbulence?

jet passing
© Captain Les

Like there is no ocean that is completely free of waves there is no air completely free of turbulence. The water and the air are both in constant motion around the earth. Unstable air, as well as unstable waters, is a natural mechanism of nature.

Picture yourself on a boat. There are waves moving in the water. Because of the waves, the boat tends to rock back and forth.

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Now picture yourself on an airplane. Because of change in wind directions, the airplane tends to rock back and forth too.

Different wind velocities, temperatures, and densities in the air surround an airplane, just like the water creating waves when you are on a boat.

The different wind velocities and directions sometimes create bumpy air.

Types of Turbulence

Many different types of atmospheric conditions can cause turbulence, which in turn is rated from light to extreme intensity.

The categories, useful for pilots when navigating, are:

  1. Light turbulence
  2. Moderate turbulence.
  3. Severe turbulence.
  4. Extreme turbulence.

The most likely “surprise”‘type of turbulence that can hurt you badly, but not hurt the airplane (structurally)

Among the different types of turbulence, you may encounter there is one type that your pilots can do little or nothing to avoid.

This is the one type of turbulence-type usually causing it to end up in the news media (watch the video):

Credit: ABC News

I am talking about the type of turbulence that suddenly strikes everybody on board like a lightning bolt out of the blue:

CAT!

CAT, or Clear Air Turbulence is that one type of turbulence that occurs, yes, as the name implies, in clear air.

Turbulence can normally be predicted and avoided through a great system of utilizing weather observations, forecasts, and reports. Even the locations of Clear Air Turbulence are often known so that we can avoid those areas.

The type of Clear Air Turbulence, however, that hits you out of nowhere is what can hurt you!

My own worst Clear Air Turbulence experience (extreme turbulence)

My own worst incident of extreme turbulence did not happen seated in the cockpit as the pilot. Rather, I was a passenger.

The flight was midways on a flight from Guam to Honolulu, over the Pacific Ocean, in 1988. I was in a Boeing 747. It was a beautiful, clear day, and a very smooth flight.

Dinner had just been served, and the seat belt sign was off.

Then, out of nowhere… One “explosive” jolt in the airplane, then a three-second pause. Then, all hell broke loose!

Food trays, galley carts, flight attendants, passengers who did not have their seat belts fastened were literally tossed around the cabin like popping popcorn!

Two minutes later the turbulence disappeared as fast as it started. We had smooth air again for the remainder of the flight.

Oh, after landing in Honolulu:

24 passengers and flight attendants were brought to the hospital with moderate to severe injuries!

Was I hurt? No, not at all.

Why not? I keep my seat belt fastened at all times whether I fly the airplane as the pilot or if I sit in the back as a regular passenger!

How do you protect yourself against CAT?

Although there is nothing you can do to eliminate the possibility of CAT, I have only one piece of advice to give you. And you hear this from your flight attendant every time you travel by air:

Keep your seat belt fastened at all times when you fly!

Hint: perhaps it’s time to start paying attention to your flight attendant pre-departure briefing and instructions?

How much altitude change do you experience in the worst of turbulence?

altitude change
© Captain Les

I am sure you’ve heard stories where passengers claim they encountered “air pockets:” where the airplane lost “hundreds, even thousands” of feet of altitude because of the bumpy ride they experienced?

Imagine you get into a rough air, heavy turbulence situation, the type where your food tray is knocked off your table. Let’s say it lasts for several minutes, and you swear your airplane just “fell” 2,000 feet in three seconds!

How many feet of altitude did the airplane really lose?

Well, first, an airplane does not “fall”. Rather, it’s simply “riding the wave” of the turbulence, like it’s designed to do.

If you were in the cockpit looking at the instruments you would see that the airplane deviated from its altitude by just a few feet, 10-40 feet max. 

For the folks in the back, it may have felt as if the direction (heading) of the airplane was also all over the sky. But even the heading is staying very steady during the turbulence, to the point where it’s almost not noticeable on the instruments.

Is turbulence dangerous?

Turbulence is NOT dangerous to the airplane. Commercial jets are perfectly designed to keep you safe during any rough ride.

What IS dangerous, however, is the possibility of you getting hurt from being tossed around the cabin or getting hit by something like a galley cart in extreme cases.

I cannot say this often enough:

Your best safety measure against getting hurt is by keeping your seatbelt fastened, even if the seatbelt sign has been turned off.

How do pilots handle turbulence?

Pilots will slow the aircraft down to something called turbulence penetration speed. That is a speed determined by the airplane manufacturer to provide the least amount of stress on the airplane when bad turbulence is encountered.

It also helps dampen the “feel” of the rough ride for those on board, by flying at a lower speed to lessen the sharper jolts resulting from higher speeds.

contrails over airport
© Captain Les

The pilots will also try to find smoother airspace to get you out of the bumpiness.

Many options are available for attempting to find smoother air. Options include an altitude change, a reroute, a heading change, communications, and coordination with dispatch and other aircraft in your airspace, among other things.  

Where to sit to minimize the feel of the bumpy ride

The center of gravity of an airplane is located in the area of the cabin which is over the wing.

Thus you will feel the least bumpiness effect if you sit in that location, as the movement of your airplane pivots around the center of gravity.

Did you know that turbulence avoidance planning starts long before you board your airplane?

flight planning for smooth ride
© Captain Les

Any airline pilot will constantly seek a comfortable ride for you.

The planning for a smooth flight starts with the pilot’s pre-flight work.

Your cruising altitude is a part of the pre-determined route of flight information presented to the pilots.

The flight dispatcher presents the best altitudes to fly to avoid any turbulence present or forecast.

Then that information is analyzed and verified by the pilots themselves and signed off as approved by your captain.

In the air, a bumpy ride can still occur, however, as turbulence avoidance planning is not foolproof.

Why turbulence is not dangerous to the airplane

Airplane wings and the construction of the airplane, in general, is designed to safely handle heavy loads.

The wings are made to flex naturally.

For instance, the wings of a Boeing 787 usually flex as much as 10 feet during normal flight operations.

This built-in flex capability contributes not only to a smoother flight during all flight conditions. It also minimizes the bumpiness during turbulence. A stiff, non-flexible wing would cause even the slightest bump to feel much worse than it is.

As a matter of fact, all commercial jets undergo a wing-test before they can be certified. The wing must be able to handle 150% of the maximum aerodynamic forces it would ever encounter in flight. 

During these tests, the wings of the airplane are literally bent to the point where they look U-shaped, to prove its strength!

Wing test video

In this video, you can see how solid your airplane is built, and why turbulence will not put your airplane in danger as a result of turbulence.

The Airbus airplane manufacturer’s wing test of an airplane. Credit: Airbus Corporation

Do you have a turbulence question?

Send me a message and I’ll be happy to answer your inquiry.

Article Featured Image: © Captain Les

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