How much turbulence can an airplane withstand

Everything you need to know about turbulence

"Seven injured in turbulence from American Airlines flight" - This headline recently sent a shiver down the spine of many passengers. But the fear of shaky flights is unfounded. And it's pretty easy to protect yourself from getting hurt. We have collected the most important information about turbulence for you - firsthand from the cockpit.

Are the pilots challenged in turbulence?
No matter how bad the turmoil you are in, it is not as bad as you think it is. So if you sit on a plane and it starts to wobble a lot, remember what a pilot for a large European airline reported to aeroTELEGRAPH. "The greatest concern for us is usually whether we can now eat and drink in peace." When you see the pilots in the cockpit in panic operating the instruments in front of your inner eye, then you couldn't be further wrong. “You just have to stay calm and wait for them to pass,” says the pilot. If possible, however, one tries to avoid the turbulence by changing the cruising altitude for the benefit of the passengers.

Can the plane really always take it?
“What an aircraft can withstand in terms of turbulence exceeds what most of you can imagine,” the pilot told aeroTELEGRAPH. Airplanes are significantly more resistant to air than any ship in the water. Nevertheless, many passengers are concerned about looking out of the window when there is turbulence: they see the wings bend when it wobbles. Yet that is exactly what you want to see! Because: In this way, the aircraft adapts to the air resistance and absorbs part of the turbulence. So don't worry about the plane.

Is there technology that can prevent turbulence?
Turbulence cannot be prevented. But: Boeing has also touted the so-called “smoother ride technology” as one of the sales arguments for the Dreamliner. This is intended to stabilize the aircraft in turbulence so that it wobbles less. Boeing does not reveal exactly how this works. Just this much: the computer sends signals to the wings depending on the weather, which then adjusts certain parts. Did you notice during a Dreamliner flight that the technology was working? Share it in the comments.

And the engines?
Here is a somewhat macabre example: aircraft engines are tested to the limit before they are used. For certification it is necessary to ensure that they can withstand a collision with a large bird. A few irregularities in the air resistance - and turbulence is nothing more - an engine can easily withstand.

How low does an airplane fall during turbulence?
Patrick Smith was a pilot for decades and answers passengers' questions on his “Ask The Pilot” website - including on the subject of turbulence. "I remember one flight when we were halfway across the Atlantic and there was unusually strong turbulence," said Smith. "It was the kind of turbulence that passengers tell their friends about afterwards." Then when he heard plates breaking and trolleys falling over, he remembered a question from a reader. How much does altitude change during severe turbulence. So he looked at the altimeter. "It was always under forty feet," said Smith. "More like ten to twenty feet most of the time." That is still between around three and twelve meters - a good reason for a queasy feeling in the stomach. But passengers who report hundreds of meters of air holes are definitely wrong.

Are there routes that are particularly affected?
Yes. The jet stream can cause turbulence on flights over the North Atlantic. This phenomenon is called wind shear when turbulence occurs because the wind direction or speed changes. Even flights that lead over the equator are therefore more likely to get into turbulence - regardless of the altitude. In the USA it can get shaky over the Rocky Mountains and it can also jerk more often when flying over the Alps. In general, mountains are turbulent areas. Air is churned when it moves over a mountain peak. If the aircraft is not far enough over this area, turbulence will occur.

Will there be more turbulence in the future?
Climate change has a significant impact on passenger comfort, Paul D. Williams and Manoj M. Joshi found. The meteorologist from the UK's University of Reading and the environmental scientist from the University of East Anglia carried out extensive climate simulations and found that turbulence will be stronger and much more frequent in the future. The two researchers showed that the turbulence over the North Atlantic in winter could be 10 to 40 percent stronger than it is today over the next forty years. According to the calculations of the British researchers, their frequency is even increasing by 40 to 170 percent, as stated in an article in the renowned science magazine Nature. That means: On average, turbulence will occur twice as often in 2050 as it does today.

Can you foresee turbulence?
On the one hand, there is the turbulence that pilots can take into account when planning the flight. They result from measurable weather phenomena such as storms or thunderstorms. This is why pilots usually know in advance whether they should turn on the seat belt sign. In addition to weather reports on the ground, turbulence is also recorded by the aircraft and shared with one another. And then there is the so-called Clear Air Turbulence - that is, turbulence that occurs out of the blue without warning. This is the kind of turbulence that often results in injuries - because the pilots cannot turn on the seat belt sign in time. They are no more dangerous for the aircraft than other types of turbulence. But: just fasten your seat belt whenever you are seated. The flight crew does not say this in the security announcement for fun. Again and again there are injuries due to this sudden turbulence.

Can you prevent turbulence?
At most, pilots can easily adjust the cruising altitude or their route to make it more comfortable for passengers. Otherwise they just have to wait and see. But: Researchers are working on developing methods of how to detect turbulence earlier. American Airlines and Alaska Airlines are already testing a NASA early warning system. And even the most unpleasant type of turbulence - Clear Air Turbulence - may soon be predictable. With laser technology. The German Aerospace Center has developed an ultraviolet laser that can detect clear air trubulence up to nine miles before it occurs - enough time for the pilots to adjust the route.

As a passenger, what can I do in the event of turbulence?
Remind yourself that the wobble is completely harmless and that airplanes can easily take it all. If you are really scared, tell the flight attendants. They experience turbulence every working day and can certainly help you to put the whole thing in perspective. Most importantly, buckle up and listen to instructions from the staff.