What is often referred to as 'air pockets' is in fact what we call
air turbulence. It is an irregular air motion that normally cannot be seen and
often occurs unexpectedly.
Flying through atmosphere with vigorous upward and downward moving air
currents will expose one to a series of severe jolts or bumps similar to those
felt in a fast speed boat over a choppy or rough sea.
Such bumps are determined by the stability of the atmosphere. Stable
air produce smooth flying condition. On the other hand, if air is
unstable, you are likely to experience some rough rides. Unstable air are often
caused by the heating effect of the earth surface or air flowing over
mountainous terrain. They are also found in micro bursts, thunderstorms, frontal systems
and jet streams. So if you are flying within the vicinity of these phenomenon,
you are very likely to encounter turbulence.
The effects of turbulence are akin to those of cobble-stones on a motor car
- the faster the speed, the greater the jolts. On a Boeing 777, the
pilot will reduce the speed to the optimum turbulent speed and he would switch
on the seat belt signs.
Bumpy flying conditions are also found at high altitude in clear air, hence
known as clear air turbulence or CAT. For reporting purposes by pilots
or during forecast, CAT are classified by number codes from 0 to 6. 0 =
no turbulence, 1 = light, 2 = light-to-moderate, 3 = moderate, 4 =
moderate-to-severe, 5 = severe and 6 = extreme. Please click
here for a link to view the forecast of Clear Air Turbulence in the USA.
The severity of CAT varies within a wide limit but in extreme turbulence,
airplane can suffer some minor damage. With severe turbulence there is a
tendency for those who are not strapped with their seat belts to be lifted
from their seats. Slight CAT can sometime occur up to 20% of occasions
during flights up to 4 hours.
In most cases of severe CAT, they are likely to occur near jet streams.
The causes of CAT cannot always be established but usually it occur where
there is considerable changes of winds in a short distance either horizontally
In June 1995, the FAA issued a public advisory to airlines urging the use
of seat belts at all times when passengers are seated as a precaution against
Among non-fatal accidents, in-flight turbulence is the leading cause of
injuries to airline passengers and flight attendants. Each year, according to
the FAA, about 58 air passengers in the United States are injured by
turbulence while not wearing their seat belts.
On December 5, 1996, 16 people suffered injuries, including a 7 month old
baby, when an American Airlines jetliner ran into clear air turbulence over
From 1981 to November 1996, there were 252 reports of turbulence affecting
major air carriers. Two passengers died, 63 suffered serious injuries and 863
received minor injuries. Both fatalities involved passengers who were not
wearing their seat belts. Two third of turbulence-related accidents occurs at
or above 30,000 feet.
Generally, flying through prolonged light-to-moderate turbulence, can be
fairly uncomfortable to the passengers and the crew. The pilots are very
conscious of this fact and will make all effort to lessen the discomfort by
requesting a change of flight levels or deviating off track.
Information of Interest
It is advisable to have your seat belt on at all times even though the
Captain has switched off the signs for the commencement of in-flight
services if you do not intend to leave your seat to go to the toilet.
When fasten seat belts announcement are made, ensure the seat belts are
Ensure the baggage doors located above your head are secured before the
aircraft takes off. Severe turbulence can dislodge an unsecured door and the
heavy baggage may drop down and injure yourself !
Question via email
First I would like to say thank for your website.
It is very informative. I am a frequent flyer as I am a business
traveler and am on a plane every week. I normally fly on the Boeing
737 Series jets up and down the West Coast of the US.
My question is more general concerning
turbulence, more specifically turbulence during initial decent and approach
to the runway. How do pilots deal with this? I normally am not
fearful however in these circumstances I feel my anxiety increasing.
Thank you for your interest on Air Turbulence. I know of many
air travelers who told me of their great anxieties about air
turbulence during flight, especially where they have no control over it.
Generally, pilots would inform passengers about the weather they would
encounter during the descent and approach to the Runway. This would
allow the passengers to anticipate the turbulence and calm any fears that
they may have. Normally the 'Seat Belt Sign' would be switched on.
During descent on a cloudy day, one would expect some turbulence.
Pilot makes use of the weather radar to avoid the most active
areas of turbulence unless it is unavoidable due to other traffic (then
you are in for a rough and uncomfortable ride !). As long as you are
securely fastened, turbulence is nothing to worry about except for some
discomfort (imagine yourself in a bus traveling on a road with lots of
Approach to the Runway - when landing on the Runway with strong crosswinds
over uneven terrain in the vicinity of the approach area or where wind
shear (see my FAQs on this
topic) is likely, turbulence also cause great anxiety to many
passengers. Again, this may be uncomfortable but there are limits
whereby the turbulence becomes a safety hazard. In this situation, pilots
have been trained to abort the landings, divert to another suitable
airport, or land on another Runway where there are no reported turbulence
by other pilots.
In more advanced aircraft, like the Boeing 777, there are aural
warnings emitted from the aircraft computers about any impending wind
shears, which are inevitably accompanied by severe
turbulence. Pilots would react to these warnings by aborting the
In certain advanced airports, there are also ground equipment to warn
pilots about low level wind shears (and turbulence) through the Air
Traffic information service. Again, pilots would be cautious
either to abort the landing or wait for the turbulence to subside before
attempting a safe landing.
I hope I have been able to adequately explain to you about turbulence
during initial descent and approach to land, and to defuse any fears or
anxiety that you may have on your next flight.
Always have your seat belts tightly fastened during descent and landing
and you would feel more secured any time.
Fly Safely !
Hi Capt Kay,
spending time answering my question. You do a great service to air
travelers who may not understand the "mechanics of flight."
I will be sure to check back to your site for information on flying the
from your experience, how often do severe air turbulence occur? And on an
average, how long will the turbulence last? Would you give me some more
Thanks for your queries. From my experience, I
do encounter air turbulences almost daily during the course of my normal
flying but they are classified as light to medium in nature and nothing to
worry about. Severe air turbulence can arise when one is trapped
inadvertently inside a severe thunderstorm. This may be because the pilot was
trying to navigate through some line squalls and the weather radar was not
very effective or the aircraft may be flying in the vicinity of micro-burst
activities. (See my article on Wind shear)
Severe air turbulence can also be quite prevalent in
Jet Streams found near the Frontal systems. In fact, they are more
likely to be associated with clear air turbulence, something you cannot see
but know that they are present because of their proximity to the Jet Streams.
Such severe air turbulences are predictable and are often shown in the pilot's
weather chart. To avoid severe air turbulence, pilots often request for a
higher or lower level or to a re-routing.
Sometimes such requests may not be possible due to
other air traffic and you have to bear with it for a while. Always
remember to have your seat belts securely fastened.
The pilots will take the necessary precautions like
reducing the airspeed to comply with the structural limitation and warning
everyone to be securely fastened onto their seats.
It is difficult to say how long an average severe
turbulence will last because it will depend on your journey. It can be as
short as 15 minutes to as long an hour or so. If the track to your
destination is smack inside the area of clear air turbulence, then you may be
in for a long and rough ride. Otherwise the pilots will endeavor to avoid it
because it can be quite uncomfortable to everyone inside the aircraft.