Can the airplane wings break off in strong turbulence?

Watch the wing-test video!

Do you ever wonder how strong airplane wings are built, and can the airplane wings break off in certain turbulence situations?

Here are your answers:

Airplane wings

Those “plates” sticking out of the body of the airplane that we call wings are designed to do a lot of good things for us in the air.

Dangling out from the body while taxiing the wingtips may slightly flop up and down. Wings are pretty much worthless to us on the ground. On the ground, they are a constant source of careful vigilance to avoid having the wings hit surrounding objects. The bigger the airplane the longer (wider) the wings are.

But in the air, they become our best buddy. They produce lift for us so that we can fly this humongous piece of metal in the air.

turbulence airplane wings break off
Contrails at 35,000 feet. Photo:

What is wing flex?

Airplane wings are made to flop up and down. This is called wing flexing. As a matter of fact, they are made to flex up and down naturally. For instance, during normal flight, your wing would typically flex 0-7 degrees up and down.

What benefits do wing flexing provide for passengers and crews?

During flight wing flexing will give you a much smoother ride, since the wing will dampen load changes in a very effective way. The effects of turbulence and wind gusts are always greatly reduced, thanks to the brilliant engineering design of wing flex.

Not sitting in an airplane with a wing flex design would be like driving a car with no shock absorbers. Think of the turbulence as being a rough road full of potholes, while you drive at fast speed over those potholes with no shock absorbers.

Pretty bumpy, huh?

Wing flex during strong turbulence

The heavier the turbulence, the more wing flex you will have. But how much more wing flex?

Recall that during normal flight your wing would typically flex 0-7 degrees up and down?

How about the type of wing flex we experience during the strongest of turbulence or gusts?

The strongest of turbulence or gusts typically results in a wing flex of 10 degrees maximum, which is well within complete safety limits.

airplane wings and bad turbulence
USAir passing above. USAir merged with American Airlines in 2013. Photo:

So no, the airplane wings will not break during strong turbulence!

How much wing flex can an airplane take before the wings fall off?

In order to be certified as airworthy with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the wings must be tested.

For instance, a Boeing 787 must be able to flex as much as 26 feet without breaking, at 150% of its maximum certified load (stress) capacity. Yes, one hundred and fifty percent, not one hundred percent of the max weight you can put on an airplane.

That weight is the total weight of the airplane with everything on board, including fuel, cargo, crew, and passengers.

This tough safety requirement ensures that you’ll never have to worry that the wings will fall off your airplane inflight.

Prove it, please!

Here’s a 42-second long video showing you how an airplane wing test is performed at the Airbus airplane factory in France.

You’ll probably be impressed (or shocked) when you see the huge stress they put on this airplane wing without breaking. See for yourself!

Airbus wing test. Credit: Airbus Corporation

Turbulence or “Air Pockets” FAQ’s

You can learn a lot more about turbulence by reading Air Pockets When Flying: Air Turbulence FAQs. Or, if you want to learn more about thunderstorms and how they produce turbulence, then make sure you read Why are Thunderstorms Potentially Dangerous to Flying?

Updated September 7, 2020.

Featured Image: Boeing.

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