Air Pockets When Flying: Air Turbulence FAQs

In my more than three decades as an airline pilot, there is one topic of questions my passengers ask me more about than anything else: The commonly misunderstood subject of air pockets or turbulence when flying.

Air pockets or turbulence when flying. Cumulonimbus clouds.
Cumulonimbus clouds (thunderstorm clouds) are associated with dangerous turbulence. Thus pilots stay well clear of these. Photo: CaptainJetson.com

What is an air pocket?

An “air pocket” is simply a mystified term for turbulence. An “air pocket” is turbulence.

There is no such thing as an “air pocket” or “air pockets”. You don’t find “pockets” void of air anywhere in our atmosphere.

Furthermore, you won’t find any mystical “pockets” in the atmosphere where the air is so thin that your airplane “falls” through airspace void of sufficient air.

You can learn a lot more about what turbulence is, and what you should know when you fly here.

What causes an air pocket (turbulence) when flying?

Air pockets, or turbulence when flying is caused by unstable air in the atmosphere. The strength of turbulence comes from many different factors. Differences in air pressure, temperature, and moisture include factors playing into this.

Just as there are water-waves in the ocean when you travel by boat, there are air-waves in the air when you travel by airplane.

Aerial photo, air pockets or turbulence when flying.
Contrails from a jet passing above on a clear day with occasional light turbulence. Photo: CaptainJetson.com

Why do planes suddenly “drop” in turbulence?

Airliners do not “drop” in turbulence, or when “hitting air pockets”. Sudden air disturbances sometimes feel like they are causing the airplane to “drop”. But this is strictly a passenger-impression of what is going on, and totally untrue.

How many feet are we “falling”, or how far does an airplane “drop” during turbulence?

You are not falling or dropping at all. There is only a very minor, slight deviation in the altitude when that happens.

If you could sit in the cockpit and watch the altimeter for yourself how much of an altitude (height) difference the airplane encounters (even in the worst of turbulence), you would see that the airplane only deviates an insignificant 10 to 40 feet maximum(!) in altitude. And this would be the downs or ups in the roughest of bumps, wind downdrafts or wind updrafts.

Where is the best airplane seat for turbulence?

Smooth flight over the State of New Mexico, U.S.A. on board a Boeing 757. CaptainJetson.com.

The best seat to minimize the effects of turbulence is over the wings. An airplane’s center of gravity (CG) is located in this area. The airplane body’s movement is more noticeable the further away you are from the airplane’s center of gravity.

Is a front seat better than a back seat in turbulence?

To dispell the myth:

Sitting in front of the airplane does not decrease the effect of the turbulence any more than sitting in the back of the airplane. It’s a misnomer that the tail-area of the airplane causes more up and down movement in turbulence than the front does.

The center of gravity acts as a pendulum. Everything forward and aft of that pendulum has an equal and opposite reaction of movement at either side.

For those of you into physics, the mechanics of this action is based on Newton’s third law of motion, describing the force pair between two objects. For every action force, there is an equal but opposite reaction force, equal in strength but opposite in direction.

air pockets or turbulence when flying
You can compare the effects of how turbulence acts on an airplane with the sample see-saw picture here. For every movement-action on one side of the center of gravity, there is an equal and opposite reaction on the other side. See-saw picture Credit: Wayfare.

The BEST seat to offset the effects of turbulence when flying are the seat locations around the center of gravity area (over the wings), period.

At what exact seat position is the center of gravity located?

That differs with the weight distribution and loading of the airplane on every flight. The CG also moves slightly during the flight, as fuel is being burned off. However, the point remains over the wing area regardless.

Can an airplane drop out of the sky?

No airline pilot would ever be as incompetent and inattentive as to allow that to happen.

Airplanes simply don’t’ just “drop out of the sky” (enter a stall or a spin). The only way to make an airplane “drop out of the sky” would be to purposely slow down the airplane to where the wings stopped producing lift.

Before the airplane could even get to such extreme behavior the pilots would experience some loud warnings and warning lights alerting them of impending danger.

Can air pockets or turbulence bring down an airplane?

No, airplane design, strength, and aerodynamics prevent that from happening. Your airplane is perfectly built to withstand the disturbances and forces that turbulence puts your airplane under.

Are pilots afraid of turbulence, or do pilots worry about turbulence?

Before flight.
While the airplane is being readied for flight by the airline ground crews the pilots are inside putting the final touch on safe flight preparations ahead, which always include turbulence planning. Photo: CaptainJetson.com.

No, pilots are not afraid of turbulence. Airline pilots, professional pilots in general and military pilots, in particular, have a complete understanding and training background from fully comprehending the mechanism of turbulence and how it affects flying.

Furthermore, pilots have operational procedures drilled into them through training and experience. Pilots are excellent at avoiding turbulence, minimizing the effect of turbulence and excellent at knowing how to handle the occasional unavoidable turbulent flight.

Yet, pilots have great respect for turbulence, always thinking ahead through turbulence avoidance pre-flight planning, inflight turbulence solutions, handling, and never underestimating the importance of keeping their seatbelts fastened at all times.

Can the wings fall off in air turbulence?

No, the airplane wings will not fall off from turbulence. Airliner wings are built, tested, and certified to stay attached to your airplane at stress levels way beyond any stress they will ever be subject to during any flight.

Be aware that every airliner wing is designed to flex normally. This normal flexing of the wing serves several benefits. One such benefit includes decreasing the effect of turbulence.

Here is a video from the Airbus airplane manufacturer, illustrating how their jets get certified for wing-strength by bending and flexing the wings to most extremes.

Airbus wing stress test. Credit Airbus.

Fear of the unknown is the biggest enemy of passengers afraid of turbulence

Fear of the unknown is the main reason why people are afraid of something. Not understanding how things work, not being able to explain something, and not being in control of our own situation often scares people. Educating yourself about a subject you don’t have a full understanding of is always a powerful weapon against insecurities and doubts. Knowledge breeds confidence.

Turbulence anxiety causes me to be afraid of flying. How do I overcome the fear of flying?

I’d recommend you overcome your anxiety by investing in a cure. You can find the fear of flying clinics available ready to help you at any time. These clinics are run by mental health professionals, specializing in anxious flyers.

Featured Image: CaptainJetson.com

Updated July 12, 2020.

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