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I like traveling, and some of the things other people complain about concerning flying just don't really bother me. In fact, I'm hesitant to say that I don't like to fly, because being in the air doesn't really bother me either. What does make me very nervous though is turbulence.

In my experience, at least since I started keeping track of this, turbulence has been a very noticeable issue on every single flight. It scares me, because even though I know it's normal, the plane itself starts shaking around uncontrollably and even drops, and there's hardly a guarantee that this time won't be the 1 in 10,000,000. Even though it's almost definitely safe 99.99% of the time, you can tell that the plane is not completely under the perfect control of the cockpit.

I would be thinking about simply not flying when staying on the same landmass inside the same country, just specifically because of the turbulence, but I've somewhat recently heard someone say basically that they've never really had a problem with it before. This same individual has probably flown at least two or three times as much as I have, and it was very surprising to hear.

At the same time, you almost never see turbulence in movies or television...ever...unless it is somehow tied to the actual storyline. Turbulence is almost never taken as a simple, everyday "given" in TV and movies, which caused me to be surprised by its frequency when I started flying a few years ago.

So what's the deal? Is it just Hollywood and differing perceptions, or have I really had a string of bad luck? What's the typical average situation with turbulence? What range does it usually fall within?

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    Perhaps you and your friend's definitions of what counts as turbulence differs? Or the situation is different, with different climatic conditions -- different part of the world or different season of the year? (e.g. see aviation.stackexchange.com/q/23271). In most flights I have taken, at least some slight shaking just after takeoff or before landing is common, when passing through clouds. – GoodDeeds Apr 27 at 19:15
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    What do you think the "the 1 in 10,000,000" will be? The plane falls out of the sky? This is not a thing that happens. Turbulence is unpleasant to some people, but not a symptom of a problem that might escalate. (It helps me fall asleep, and in fact I sometimes fall asleep in broad daylight in a car on a very bumpy road, because I associate the bumpiness with my habit of sleeping on planes.) – Kate Gregory Apr 27 at 20:46
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    @Panzercrisis In normal times, there are over 35 million commercial flights a year, and that's not counting private and military aviation. One out of 10,000,000 would mean multiple "falls out of the sky" disasters a year caused by turbulence, which clearly is not the case. – Zach Lipton Apr 27 at 21:08
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    Have you ever seen someone hit the ceiling during turbulence? If you didn't, you haven't seen anything remotely like life-endangering turbulence. Note that your perception of the movements of the aircraft are likely quite exaggerated compared to reality, it's just your brain trying to make sense of the sensory information it receives, and most probably failing miserably. – jcaron Apr 27 at 22:56
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    light or even medium turbulence to a plane is no different than waves are to a boat. in fact the physics involved are very similar. airplane crashes are not only extremely rare but almost always on takeoff or landing. modern passanger jets falling out of the sky pretty much never happens, certainly much much rarer than 1/10mil. – eps Apr 28 at 3:17
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This study (S.-H. Kim and H.-Y. Chun, “Aviation turbulence encounters detected from aircraft observations: spatiotemporal characteristics and application to Korean Aviation Turbulence Guidance,” Meteorological Applications, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 594–604, Oct. 2016, doi: 10.1002/met.1581.) assessed the number of turbulence encounters for various aircraft in the Korean Air Lines fleet.

figure 3 from the linked PDF showing frequency of turbulence encounters per flight

Turbulence varies by factors including season and geography, and these figures are influenced by the choice and length of routes flown by KAL (one would expect more turbulence encounters on long-haul flights simply because they're longer—the study also has time-based analysis), so don't try to read too much into the differences between regions here. The overall point is that light turbulence is pretty common and can easily occur a number of times during a long flight, while moderate and severe turbulence are comparatively uncommon to the extent that the authors have multiplied their occurrence to make the graph readable (this is not Data Science Stack Exchange, so we'll set aside discussing the merits of that graphing choice).

But what is light turbulence? The FAA describes it as: "Occupants may feel a slight strain against seat belts or shoulder straps. Unsecured objects may be displaced slightly. Food service may be conducted and little or no difficulty is encountered in walking." For many travelers, light turbulence is commonplace and not worthy of much note. The individual you spoke to likely has never had a problem with it because during light turbulence, the usual reaction is to, at most, keep a hold on a drink and perhaps be asked to stay seated for a bit. Something that routine is similarly not included in TV and movies, just as other mundane parts of the travel experience are usually omitted from entertainment unless significant to the plot.

But if you're sensitive to it, and you are if it frightens you and you're keeping constant track of it, it seems quite noticeable. You'd likely describe a typical car journey as smooth, but if you (as a passenger, please!) closed your eyes and counted every little bump or vibration or unusual sensation, you'd likely find many such events. Turbulence feels significant to you because you're feeling and reacting to every bump, while other passengers may take little notice of it unless it is particularly strong.

Fear of turbulence is not uncommon, and there are a number of resources online and offline (if we ever start doing things offline again in the future) that can help.

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    Nice find on the data (+1), but is "LGT" just an abbreviation for "light" to match "MODerate" and "SEVere", or is it an initialism for something more interesting? – Chris H Apr 28 at 8:03
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    @ChrisH Yes, that stands for "light" (light/moderate/severe is the standard classification of turbulence). – TooTea Apr 28 at 9:53
  • Zach, do we have a question about dealing with fear of turbulence on the site? And if not, would such a question be appropriate? – Nzall Apr 28 at 13:45
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    fantastic data, but it is somewhat odd and extremely visually misleading that they chose to multiply the amount of moderate to severe events to amplify the height of the bar visually – crasic Apr 28 at 15:11
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    So, how often? Two out of the three flights I've ever taken had zero turbulence. Where would such flights be in graph A? How OFTEN do typical passenger flights have problems with turbulence? not, how many incidences, when one DOES. – Mazura Apr 29 at 1:05
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At the same time, you almost never see turbulence in movies or television..

Of course not. Aircraft scenes are filmed in studios, not in an actual aircraft. Studios sit firmly on the ground, so it takes a lot of extra effort, time and money to shoot a credible turbulence scene, so they will only do this if the story really requires it.

Are all typical passenger flights going to have problems with turbulence?

Yes. I fly a lot, and in my experience some turbulence is quite normal. I'm often aware of it since I tend to work and if it's getting hard to operate the mouse or if I start missing keys a lot, that's an indicator that it's unusually bumpy. Even that is not unusually and happens on every second or third flight.

Your best scale is the state of the crew.

  1. Mild turbulence: seat belt sign on, crew out and about
  2. Moderate turbulence: crew suspends meal or beverage service but is still active
  3. Turbulence: crew is confined to their seats.
  4. Stronger turbulence: pilot is on the air making it clear that EVERYONE needs to be buckled down with their posterior firmly planted in the seat and the crew will aggressively yell at anyone trying to get up.

Unless you got up to #4, you haven't seen anything yet. Even that is perfectly safe, I have encountered this frequently with no ill effect to crew, plane or passengers.

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  • The crew state can easily be a better match to a more severe level, e.g. plane encounters moderate turbulence but crew have reasons to suspect it may get worse - cabin crew sit down and strap in, maybe an announcement. – Chris H Apr 28 at 8:06
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    I heard from a pilot, (on radio, a long time ago,) that he does not worry about turbulence unless he has bruises on his body from the belt. – Willeke Apr 28 at 14:36
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    @Panzercrisis I'm 72, and have been flying as a passenger since I was 10, both domestically in the US and internationally. I like to travel, and fly perhaps 10x/year. Referring to Hilmar's answer above, Situation #1 occurs infrequently, perhaps once in 10 flights. Situation #2 occurs even less frequently, perhaps once in 20 flights. Situation #3 even less frequently, perhaps once in 40 flights. I have been in the situation described as #4 exactly twice in my whole life. – DavidSupportsMonica Apr 28 at 15:58
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    @DavidSupportsMonica really? I would say there's enough turbulence to turn on the seatbelt light almost as often as not on flights I've been on. Maybe it depends on the region you're flying through? – Kat Apr 29 at 1:08
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    "Are all typical passenger flights going to have problems with turbulence?" to which you answer ultimately "Even that is perfectly safe, I have encountered this frequently with no ill effect to crew, plane or passengers." So shouldn't you answer directly with "No." All flights will encounter turbulence but almost none will have problems with it. – Arsenal Apr 29 at 13:05
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you can tell that the plane is not completely under the perfect control of the cockpit

This is a mistaken belief that perfect control equals perfectly flat and level.

Driving down the road, you will frequently drive over a pothole and have the car judder briefly. Driving down a track, you will probably find more frequent shaking of the car. Driving offroad, shaking is virtually guaranteed. None of these situations means that the driver is not in control of the car.

A plane is exactly the same. Turbulence does certainly exist which will cause the pilot to not be in perfect control of the plane, just as road conditions exist which will cause a driver to not be in control of their car. Like a car sliding off the road, you will really know if that happens! Your statement that the plane is "shaking uncontrollably" is simply not correct, any more than the normal road vibrations you get at 70mph indicate your car is "shaking uncontrollably". And if you're honest with yourself, you should recognise that the shaking you're experiencing is not anything different to what you feel on a daily basis in a car.

It's very simple, really. You are not frightened of turbulence. You are simply frightened of being in a situation where you are not in control of the vehicle you're in, and it really is as basic as that. In that situation, you have a natural nervousness about anything like the plane shaking - it isn't something you understand because you're not a pilot, and it isn't something you have any control over. You naturally feel uncomfortable owning a fear of not being in control, so you rationalise this to a fear of turbulence. But in reality the turbulence is just a hook to hang a more basic fear on. I've seen adults have near-tantrums over having to queue for the toilets on a plane, and that equally clearly came down to them being uncomfortable in an unfamiliar environment which they can't control.

My top suggestion is perhaps paradoxical. Get a ride in a small plane or a microlight; maybe get a taster flight in a glider; or get a ride in a slightly larger plane like a Dakota or something at an airshow. In any of those you'll certainly feel a load of lumps and bumps from the air, because they're so much slower - but you'll be in direct sight of the pilot, perhaps within touching distance. You'll appreciate what kind of bumps can happen without the pilot being in the slightest bit out of control. Essentially inoculate yourself against your natural reaction with knowledge and experience. And then when you're in an airliner and there's a bit of a bump, you can think "ah, that's nothing, I know what's going on there".

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  • or imagine you are at Universal Studios and paid 100 bucks to get onto this ride. – Aganju Apr 28 at 20:57
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Turbulence is not a problem. Fear of turbulence is the problem. Turbulence is a normal occurrence. And, the airplane stays under the control of the pilots during turbulence. They are probably more concerned with losing control of their coffee than they are of losing control of the airplane.

Turbulence is a very subjective subject. Some people are more sensitive to it than others. Your perception of it can differ over time and situation. The purely objective rating of turbulence and its effect on the plane and pilot are quite different than the subjective view from most passengers.

The same analogy can be made of boats. You feel the motion of the water more the smaller the boat and less the larger the boat. Yet, someone accustomed to the water (maybe due to occupation) can handle the motion more easily than someone who only occasionally goes out on the water (maybe due to travel). The same is true for cars. Some people are more predisposed to carsickness than others. Even some beginning pilots are subject to airsickness on the smoothest flights until they get their sealegs.

Coming from a background of a frequent flier, current pilot, and former skydiver, turbulence does not bother me. Since decades before becoming a pilot, I would fall asleep on airplanes as soon as the engine came on. The rocking of light to moderate turbulence would lull me into a deeper sleep. The same minor bumps and jolts would give my wife anxiety. Yet, she takes more flights and spends more time in airplanes than I do. Different experiences and predispositions lead to different perceptions.

Two things that I find helpful to those who find it difficult to acclimate to the motion is to have visual reference and control. Whether it is on land, sea, or air, having the abilities to look outside the vehicle, especially at the horizon, allows the body to anchor its perceptions on something other than the physical or vestibular perception of motion. Relying on either the tactile or the vestibular perception of motion alone can result in “illusions” or spatial disorientation. Having that visual anchor can overcome that. Having control of the vehicle yourself as the pilot/driver tends to anchor the feelings of anxiety as well as the feeling of motion.

If you want a better understanding of what I mean by this, take a ride in a small General Aviation aircraft like a Piper Archer. Where I live, summer time is turbulence time even during times of clear and cloudless skies. The only time the air is smooth is at night. Actually, night-time is inherently less safe for reasons other than turbulence, even though it is the smoothest part of the day. During the day, the turbulence increases as the sun bakes the earth. The smoothest part of the day is the mornings. Because of this, I fly with non-pilot passengers only in the mornings and sometimes at night. I fly with other pilots or solo the rest of the day. That does not mean it is any more or less safe at any point during the day. Nor, does it mean I have any more or less control of the plane. I usually fly with a bottle of water or a thermos of coffee. Sometimes, it is just in a cup with a lid. I have only spilled once during even the heaviest of turbulence.

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  • For sure a fixed visual reference point is super valuable during turbulence or any time motion sickness is oncoming; on a boat the best thing is to watch the horizon. Being strapped into your seat and bumped unpredictably is not a lot of fun but I do love to look out the window and watch the wings wiggle. – CCTO Apr 28 at 18:15
  • @CCTO - You are absolutely spot on. I was thinking more from the cockpit, though. There, you would have an unobstructed view, almost shoulder to shoulder, of your outside surroundings. Like you would from the railing of a boat. Since I don’t have the same issues as the OP, I can not say if it will work for them. But, I have pilot friends who used to be afraid to fly, got air sick, or have a fear of heights, who now find it tolerable to fly as passengers. – Dean F. Apr 28 at 18:21
  • "They are probably more concerned with losing control of their coffee than they are of losing control of the airplane." - This is one of the best description of turbulence I've ever seen – Gimelist Apr 30 at 0:40
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The question strikes me as a bit odd insofar as it's unclear how one should answer it. How often do typical passenger flights have problems. Well, what is a problem?

The next question would be what are turbulences? You feel a bit uneasy? The aircraft shakes a bit? You spill your drink? That's not turbulences (well... it is, just...). Turbulences, that is when the stewardess who is sensible enough to have her hands on the luggage deposit thingie (a puny defense against turbulences, but better than nothing, at least you don't fall on the slightest occasion) tells that jerk who just got up to please sit down, and he answers: "Yeah, I just wanted... PHWATTTT", and they both cling to the ceiling for half a second, then fall down. That is, well, turbulences. It's something I've actually seen once, exactly like this.

Is this "having problems"? Well, for the forementioned two people having undergone the sudden reverse gravity experience, it sure is. That's a seriously bad, hurtful, thing. You wouldn't want to be in their place. For those seated and belted down, or the airplane as such... couldn't care less. Unless this kind of thing happens at take-off when there's only like 30-40 meters to the ground, nobody cares, really.

Airplane under perfect control of the cockpit? Well, what's there to say about that. In fact, this is actually never the case, but it doesn't matter. The forces of nature (wind, among others) are such that a puny little airplane doesn't matter much to them. But in compliance with mass inertia, an airplane generally keeps moving mostly forward most of the time, and it manages to mostly keep its flight level, too. Mostly, that means it can unexpectedly drop a few dozen meters, sure. But as long as there's nothing below (and most of the time there isn't!), that doesn't matter.
Certainly, a sudden gust of wind from behind 10-20 seconds after take-off -- well that means everybody aboard dies. But luckily, this happens very, very, very rarely. So... what to say. You can lock yourself up in your cellar and you'll still find that life is lethal.

I would be worried a lot more about the fact that in modern airplanes, computers have more control over the plane than the actual human sitting in the chair and that both what a pilot must know and be able to do and what he actually can do is being more and more limited.
Sure, it's great when you need less qualification because it means that you can hire cheaper people. But it also means that if you have an incident like e.g. infamous AF447, which was a situation that 10-15 years earlier every pilot would have handled blindfolded and without sweat, it's "trouble". Everyone in the cockpit panicking and shouting, and pulling random levers wasn't precisely helpful for getting out of stall, or for general survival.

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