• What is turbulence? Everything you need to know

    Start enjoying air travel without fear of turbulence

Despite being a common phenomenon in air travel, in-flight turbulence often causes anxiety and concern among passengers. So what is turbulence and why does it occur, where is it most felt on the plane, and can severe turbulence bring down an aircraft?

We invite you to follow us in this article and understand why turbulence is a completely natural and safe occurrence in aviation.

What is turbulence?

Turbulence is defined as alterations in the attitude and altitude of an aircraft due to changes in the direction and speed of the air in which it is moving.

It is important to note that, although they can be disconcerting, in-flight turbulence is a normal and predictable component of air travel. Just like bumps in the road, turbulence is a situation that pilots and airlines are trained to deal with.

What causes it?

Weather conditions are the main cause, the most prominent elements being clouds, mountain waves, storms or thunderstorms, regular air flows and high-speed air currents, also known as jet streams. Read more about the latter in our article on the Coriolis effect.

Structures and topography around airports can also be sources of turbulence. How does this happen? When wind, which normally travels in a straight line, collides with buildings, it alters their direction. Turbulence thus occurs when the aircraft passes through this area of “disturbed air”.

Have you ever wondered why it is necessary to maintain a minimum distance between aircraft in flight? The reason is to prevent this situation.

Encountering the wake of an aircraft ahead can cause turbulence, so it is crucial to maintain minimum distances between aircrafts.

If this topic appeals to you, we have a whole article dedicated to the turbulent wake of aircraft – we’re sure you’ll find it fascinating!

Where is turbulence most noticeable in an aircraft?

A common question that travellers often ask is: Is there a place on the plane where turbulence is less noticeable? Yes! And it is a matter that can be explained by physics.

Think of the aircraft as a huge balance that revolves around its centre of gravity. This point is usually located near the wings of the aircraft. Thus, during turbulence, the front and rear sections of the aircraft can swing up and down, like the ends of a swing. Therefore, as you move away from the wings (the centre of gravity), this movement becomes more noticeable.

Therefore, if you are aiming for a smooth flight, select seats near the wings and towards the front of the aircraft. This does not mean that you will be totally exempt from experience this shaking, but you are likely to experience it less than in other areas of the aircraft.

A buckled belt will help you

In most situations, pilots are aware of the areas of the flight where turbulence is expected, allowing them to activate the seatbelt signal well in advance. However, it is important to understand that this is not always possible.

It may happen that the aircraft enters a region of intense turbulence without foreseeing it, so that once the “churning” begins, passengers who are not buckled up may be impacted.

This is why it is insisted that, while seated, you must keep your seat belt fastened at all times.

Types of turbulence

You may not have known it, but depending on their intensity, there are several levels of turbulence:

Mild turbulence

This is the most frequent degree of aircraft shaking and is perceived as a slight vibration. Minimal changes in aircraft altitude are observed, fluctuating between 0.05 and 0.2g.

Medium turbulence

Causes moderate adjustments in aircraft attitude and/or altitude and may make walking difficult. In addition, the speed of the aircraft varies, from 0.2 to 0.5 g.

Severe turbulence

This type is less common. It generates abrupt changes in aircraft altitude and attitude, and large fluctuations in aircraft speed, from 0.5 to 1.5g.

Extreme Turbulence

Turbulence of this degree is extremely unusual. It involves drastic changes in aircraft speed, attitude and velocity, exceeding 1.5 g.

Confused about the concept of a g-number? Check out our article on what a g-force is!

Can turbulence cause an aircraft to crash?

One of the most widespread fears among passengers is: Can turbulence cause a plane to crash? We assure you that they can’t. Commercial aircraft are built to withstand the most severe turbulence that nature can generate.

In fact, the US Federal Aviation Administration requires aircraft to be able to cope with extreme levels of turbulence that rarely occur in nature.

In addition, pilots and flight crew are highly trained to handle turbulence. They have state-of-the-art technology and a series of protocols to avoid areas of severe turbulence whenever feasible. If they encounter unanticipated turbulence, they know precisely how to maintain control of the aircraft and ensure the safety of all passengers.

So, turbulence is dangerous?

For your peace of mind, no. Although turbulence can be quite uncomfortable for passengers, it does not pose a risk to the safety of the aircraft.

In the event of severe turbulence, the crew will slow down the aircraft, modify the altitude and, if necessary, request a slight deviation from the route.

A good simile would be to compare potholes on a road to turbulence; they are annoying, but do not compromise safety.

Is turbulence felt in the same way on all aircraft?

It is relevant to consider the size and structure of the aircraft, factors that can influence how turbulence is perceived.

Larger aircraft, such as commercial passenger jets, tend to offer a more stable flight experience in turbulent conditions compared to smaller aircraft, such as those in our Diamond 42 fleet. This is due to their greater mass, which can help neutralise turbulent air currents.

However, this does not imply that smaller aircraft are unsafe. They are equally prepared to deal with turbulence, although passengers may experience it more intensely.

Secondly, the speed and altitude at which the aircraft is located can also influence the experience of turbulence. Turbulence is more common in the lower layers of the atmosphere because, as explained above, it is more likely to encounter obstacles, intense meteorological phenomena or the radiation emitted by the Earth itself.

It is all about altitude and perception

Therefore, aircraft flying at higher altitudes avoid some types of turbulence, such as thermal or mountain ones. However, they may be more prone to other types, such as those generated by jet streams.

It is crucial to remember that the perception of turbulence can vary between individuals. Some people may be more susceptible to turbulence than others. Therefore, what one person may regard as moderate turbulence, another may perceive as mild.

Does the time of day of the flight also play a role? The answer is yes: early morning and evening flights tend to be more pleasant.

You know that turbulence is not the enemy

Turbulence in air travel is certainly one of the most talked-about topics among travellers.

We hope this post has helped you to understand a little more about what is turbulence and peculiarities of turbulence, and that, although it can be uncomfortable, it does not represent a danger to the aircraft and passengers.

So, the next time you are on board an aircraft and experience some turbulence, don’t be alarmed. Tighten your hands, fasten your seatbelt and remember that you are in the hands of experts. Aircraft turbulence is just another part of the journey, and should not stop you from enjoying the fascination of flying.

If you want to continue to learn more about aviation, visit our aviation blog, where you will find a wealth of information just a click away.

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