Recently I have had several friends and acquaintances share with me that they have a fear of turbulence. In fact, one of my flight students told me he’s afraid of turbulence while flying. If you are one of those people or just want to learn more about it, then keep reading. Be warned, I am about to aviation geek-out on you.
Fear can be a culmination of many factors. Some of them being lack of knowledge about a topic, lack of control and sometimes it can’t be rationalized, you just have it. The list goes on. Today I’m going to give you the basics behind the causes of turbulence when you are in the sky and a technique to get you through your fear.
What causes turbulence exactly? To answer that, let’s look at the simplified, broader picture of what causes weather on Earth. All weather is created by uneven heating of the Earth’s surface by the Sun. Water absorbs and radiates the Sun’s energy differently than desert. Dry desert absorbs the Sun’s energy differently than the tropical rain forest and farmland and mountainous areas, you get the point. Heat thermals from the Earth, rise. In the huge broad spectrum of Earth’s weather, we can see the effect of the Earth’s uneven heating on prognostic charts where we can see the isobars that show separation of barometric pressure in the atmosphere, wind, high- and low-pressure centers, warm, cold, and occluded fronts and so much more!
These are ever changing which is why meteorology and predicting future weather is such a science and an art form. What does all this have to do with turbulence? Well, the uneven heating of the Earth’s surface that cause all weather good and bad, is also what causes wind and turbulence. Pilots have no control over these things. I guarantee you this, though; Every airline you fly, wants you to have the smoothest ride possible. It is common for air traffic control (the people who keep separation between all air traffic in the highways in the sky, as well as the sky-trailblazers, who aren’t on one of the highways) to change the altitude of an airliner to another altitude that has been reported by other pilots, to be smooth. They will also avoid assigning an altitude on a route that pilots have reported to be turbulent.
Is turbulence dangerous? Nope. Now do I recommend that you go fly through a thunderstorm? Absolutely not. In fact, the FAA has regulated the distance all aircraft must remain away from a thunderstorm for all our safety. Since you know pilots will abide by those rules, you can rest assured you will never be flying through a thunderstorm. So, let’s talk about the rest of the time. Those white puffy clouds you see a lot, those are bumpy. The next time you take off and see a deck of white puffy cumulus clouds above you, I want you to be excited that you know what’s going to happen. Once you start getting close to them, you’re going to experience turbulence.
When you enter them and you’re flying through them to get on top, you’re going to experience turbulence. Isn’t it fun knowing what is going to happen?!? Then the magic happens, you see the blue sky above and…. wait for it…. the turbulence disappears and you have smooth flying ahead!!! On top of those puffy clouds, it’s smooth.
Is it the same when there are more clouds above you and you’re in between a layer of those same type of clouds? It will likely still be bumpy until you get above those.
Darkness, rain and turbulence, have no fear, they won’t hurt you. The pilots would not fly through them if they would! Remember, no one is going to fly you through a thunderstorm.
If you are flying above mountains, you may have turbulence because of the way the weather and wind is moving through and over them. You may experience turbulence when you are at high altitudes and there isn’t a cloud in sight. This is called Clear Air Turbulence (CAT). You may have noticed that flying at night (when not in those puffy clouds) is generally smoother. It’s because the Earth is cooling after the sun sets and the surface isn’t unevenly radiating the heat absorbed by the sun. Winds then calm down. Some of my favorite, smooth, beautiful flying is at night.
Now that you have an idea what causes the weather and turbulence, let’s address what you really fear when you feel turbulence while flying; that you are stuck in a metal tube with wings that you are scared to death are going to fall off as you look out the window and see them flexing and that you will fall to your death. That, or some version of it, is really what the fear is about isn’t it? Bear with me for a minute while we talk about boats. Yes, boats. Have you ever been on a boat? Have you ever been on a boat when it was windy? (Ha! Now, you smart human, know that uneven heating of the Earth causes the wind! So fun!)
The wind moving over the water’s surface has friction and causes swells and whitecaps. Essentially it makes for a bumpy boating ride. While you’re chillaxing on the boat as it’s going through the turbulent water, you’re not afraid, are you? No. You understand that boats float and that they are designed to move through and on top of the surface of the water, turbulent waters or not. Do you understand the science behind boat design and that boats float because they displace more weight of water than the weight of the boat and passengers? I bet not. Because you don’t care. Boat’s float. Aside from making sure that there is a life preserver onboard for each passenger, you’re good to go because you know boats float.
Let’s head back to the airplane. Airplanes fly. I can get into the science behind laws of lift and airplane and wing design that make an airplane fly, but that’s not really important to you. (If it is, let me know, I’ll geek out on you for that topic too.) What’s important is that airplanes fly. Everything about the design of an airplane is for it to get you from point A to point B, safely. The boat floats on the fluid of water. An airplane flies through the fluid of air. You got it! There are particles in air that make up our atmosphere and essentially, it’s another fluid. When the swells of water are slamming against the hull of your boat, you’re not afraid because it is designed for it. The same reason airplanes don’t fly through thunderstorms is the same reason a boat doesn’t navigate through a hurricane, because the weather can destroy the boat. I know it can be scary to look out that huge airliner’s window and see the wings flexing in turbulence but I’ll tell you another secret (No, it’s not really a secret), they are supposed to do that. Everything about that airplane is designed to move through the ever-changing fluid of air. It is designed to withstand turbulence as much as it is designed for smooth air. It’s an airplane.
The next time you are flying and it’s turbulent, I want you to think about that boat, the rough water and know that your airplane has as much right to fly through turbulent air as the boat through rough water. Instead of experiencing fear, I implore you to think of it as an opportunity to get rocked to sleep. I bet it’s been a long time since someone did that for you! Awe, what a nice airplane! Trust the pilots and the rules they follow. Safety ALWAYS comes first. There is NO exception to this. They fly only where it is safe to do so. Period.
If our oversimplified science lesson doesn’t help you think your way out of fear the next time you’re flying through turbulence, try the tapping techniques of thought field therapy by Dr. Roger Callahan. Tapping works for fears, phobias, PTSD, trauma, ADHD etc. No joke. Its science based and tried-and-true by me and many others.