- Turbulence occurs when there’s a change in the air flow around your aircraft
- In the 21st century, turbulence is unlikely to bring down a modern airliner or private jet
- Historically, however, severe and even mild turbulence could easily bring down an airplane, and did so on numerous occasions
- Turbulence is unlikely to bring down a small GA aircraft, however they are more susceptible to extreme turbulence, so it’s still possible
- Extreme and even severe turbulence can permanently damage an aircraft
For many passengers and new pilots alike, turbulence is the worst possible nightmare. But can turbulence actually bring down an aircraft or cause it to crash?
Thanks to advances in aviation technology, modern aircraft can’t really be brought down by turbulence alone. When combined with other factors like poor maintenance, it absolutely can. In the past, turbulence could very easily cause an aircraft to crash, even with an experienced pilot at the helm.
As a pilot who’s flown nearly every aircraft imaginable, I’ve experienced my fair share of turbulence. But like every pilot, I trust my aircraft implicitly and know how to avoid turbulent air to avoid risking this as much as possible.
What Is Turbulence?
Put simply, turbulence is the response to any change in the airflow around your aircraft. It is usually characterized as a shaking movement (to those inside the aircraft) or a rapid rise/drop (to those outside the aircraft).
Turbulence can be caused by a number of things (more on that in a moment) however is generally caused by the meeting of warm air and cooler air and/or fast air and smooth air.
Types of Turbulence
There are two “types” of types of turbulence (no that’s not a typo). The first type is cause-based, whilst the second type is severity-based.
The types of (cause) turbulence include:
- Clear Air Turbulence - this type of turbulence is caused by the plane moving between different air masses that are traveling at different speeds or directions. This is the hardest to see visually, as things like clouds aren’t there as a visual indication.
- Wind Shear - this type of turbulence is caused by a sudden change in wind speed or direction.
- Mechanical Turbulence - this type of turbulence is caused by things like mountains or tall buildings blocking or otherwise disrupting normal airflow.
- Mountain Wave Turbulence - this type of turbulence is caused by air currents oscillating at different speeds between altitudes, usually as a result of flowing up/down the slope of a mountain.
- Thermal Turbulence - this type of turbulence is caused by the sun heating up the air near the ground which makes it lighter, and thus makes it rise. It mixes with the cool air to cause turbulence. This happens particularly often on warm summer’s days.
- Thunderstorm Turbulence - also known as frontal turbulence, this type of turbulence is caused by the lifting of warm air caused by weather phenomena, usually a thunderstorm.
- Wake Turbulence - this type of turbulence is caused by other aircraft flying ahead, as their wings create vortexes, thus changing the airflow of the surrounding air.
Similarly, the types of (severity) turbulence include:
- Light Turbulence - Usually characterized as a rise/drop of about 3 ft (1 m). Most passengers won’t notice it.
- Moderate Turbulence - Usually characterized as a rise/drop of between 9 and 18 ft (3 to 6 m), drinks may spill and passengers may be forced violently into their seats.
- Severe Turbulence - Usually characterized as a rise/drop of up to 90 ft (30 m). If not properly strapped in, occupants can be thrown out of their seats, items may fly out of the overhead bins, unopened soda cans may explode due to the pressure differentials
Can Turbulence Bring Down An Airplane?
Turbulence alone isn’t enough to bring down most modern airliners. However, when combined with other factors, such as poor maintenance or pilot error (such as in how they deal with the turbulence), turbulence can absolutely help bring an aircraft down.
In the past, even as recently as the 1990s, this was very different. There are literally tons of examples of crashes - the vast majority of which had no survivors - of plane crashes caused by turbulence.
But perhaps the best example of this would be BOAC Flight 911. In March 1966, a BOAC (now a part of British Airways) 707 was flying from Tokyo to Hong Kong.
Just after takeoff, the 707 hit severe clear air turbulence, which shook the aircraft so violently that it broke apart mid-flight. Because of this, the aircraft crashed into the forest and hilly terrain below. None of the 113 passengers and 11 crew survived the crash.
At the time, it was one of the deadliest crashes in Japanese aviation history and remains one of the deadliest crashes caused by clear air turbulence to this day.
Why Doesn’t Turbulence Crash Modern Planes As Much?
In an effort to reduce, and ultimately eliminate the number of plane crashes caused by turbulence, aircraft manufacturers and their suppliers have been working hand-in-hand to reduce this risk, particularly over the last 40/50 years or so.
One of the main things modern airplanes are now subjected to that they weren’t previously are all the rigorous tests.
Before any type certificate will be granted, an aircraft has to prove it can withstand many different kinds of pressures, including +3.8 g/-1.9 g forces similar to those caused by most turbulence. Similarly, their design is also reviewed for structural as well as aerodynamic integrity.
Similarly, before any individual model is delivered, they must undergo a number of FAA-mandated tests, which push the aircraft to its limits - far more than what turbulence would ever do - to ensure it never buckles under the pressures the aircraft will be subjected to in turbulence.
Even within my own time as a pilot, flight training has changed in how turbulence is viewed, tackled, and taught.
Previously, turbulence was spoken about (what causes it, what to do etc.), and perhaps experienced it a little, but that was about it. Today, however, it takes a much more center-stage role, with nearly every student pilot, no matter the rating, to experience turbulence and have to fly through it on multiple occasions.
For airlines especially, flight attendants are also given more turbulence-related training, such as how to calm passengers down before/during/after turbulence and the importance of encouraging passengers to keep their seat belts fastened the entire flight.
This has helped minimize the negative impact of arguably the most damaging effect of turbulence for a commercial flight: the aftermath, and passenger’s angry or bewildered tempers.
Better Weather Data
Mostly spurred on by the likes of Honeywell and Garmin, whose avionics systems power the majority of aircraft in our skies, pilots are also given better quality flight data that’s updated far more often than it was previously.
This helps us with flight planning, as we can circumvent the turbulent air or other weather conditions that might cause turbulence, to prevent it entirely.
We can also view it in-flight and make an executive decision to divert from the planned flight path (subject to permission from air traffic control of course) to avoid newly-emerged turbulence that wasn’t there when we were planning the flight.
Most modern aircraft also have a piece of technology called a doppler radar which their older predecessors did not. Among the things a doppler radar can do is detect a wind shear ahead of the aircraft, long before the pilot ever feels it.
If it detects a wind shear, the doppler radar can transmit this information to the autoflight systems, which can put the aircraft into a climb to avoid hitting the wind shear.
What About Smaller Planes?
Small aircraft, such as GA or light sport aircraft, are also unlikely to be brought down by turbulence for many of the same reasons; modern advancements have been scaled down and installed on them to reduce the number of crashes as well.
That being said, the chance of these kinds of aircraft having a turbulence-caused crash is far greater than that of larger aircraft, as their smaller profile does make them slightly harder to control when flying through even moderate turbulence.
According to some aircraft investigators I know, this risk is also higher because of the type of flying experience most of these pilots have.
Though there are a few with CPL and ATPLs, the majority of pilots flying those kinds of aircraft have either Private Pilot’s Licenses or Sport Pilot’s Licenses.
Whilst they are not dangerous or inexperienced by any means, PPL and SPL holders tend to have far less experience dealing with turbulence (which airline pilots tend to encounter on a regular basis), which means when they do encounter it, the chances of things like pilot error increase, along with the chances, and number, of crashes.
That isn’t to say, however, that just because you have a PPL/SPL, you will crash if you encounter turbulence; it’s just the view of crash investigators that less experience with how to deal with turbulence will likely lead to more fatal errors.
Does The Type of Turbulence Affect Any of This?
Yes, the type of turbulence a pilot is experiencing can absolutely affect the chances of it leading to a crash.
It should go without saying, but severe turbulence is likely to pose a greater risk of crashing (no matter how experienced a pilot you are) than light turbulence will, though both levels of turbulence intensity can lead to crashes in their own right.
Likewise, wake turbulence is often cited in accident investigator and pilot reports as being the worst type of turbulence to encounter. This is because it doesn’t dissipate as quickly as other types of turbulence and is often more severe than the other types, particularly if the aircraft ahead is slightly larger or more powerful.
Because of this, wake turbulence has a much greater chance of crashing (by around 45% according to the accident investigators I know).
It’s also the only type of turbulence that modern aircraft are still as susceptible to as their older counterparts, as illustrated by the 2008 Mexico City Learjet crash, which saw a Learjet 45 crash due to the wake turbulence created by a Boeing 767.
The crash killed a total of 16 people, including Secretary of the Interior Juan Camilo Mouriño, and injured a further 40.
Can Turbulence Damage an Aircraft?
Although turbulence might not be enough to bring down an aircraft, it can very easily damage an aircraft.
Whilst you might think that the turbulence required to damage a plane would have to be severe, even light turbulence can damage things like rivets which can eventually break off, causing a problem for maintenance crews when the plane lands. Thankfully, this is rather minor damage and easy to fix.
At its most extreme, however, severe turbulence can cause irreparable structural damage to the aircraft, regardless of whether it's a small GA aircraft, military fighter jet or large commercial airliner.
I know other pilots who’ve had such severe turbulence that the airframe has literally been bent, rendering the aircraft unairworthy and in effect, retiring it to the aircraft graveyard for the rest of its days.
Similarly, I know of an airline pilot who unknowingly flew through an area of extreme turbulence which was so violent it cracked the wing spar of the aircraft (no biggy, the wing spar only holds the wing together, it’s not important…)
Safe to say, turbulence, no matter how calm or violent, can damage an aircraft of any size.
How Difficult is it to Fly Through Turbulence?
Although it depends on the type and severity, as a whole, turbulence isn’t overly difficult to fly through.
Yes, sometimes there’s a patch of turbulence that’s like it came straight from hell, but as a general rule, so long as a pilot remembers their training and doesn’t do anything overtly careless or reckless, turbulence is much like driving down a bumpy road; a bit uncomfortable but not much else.
How do Pilots Avoid Turbulence?
A general rule about pilots: we hate turbulence as much as you do. Not because it’s difficult (as mentioned above) but because of how passengers react: not well. As such, we try to avoid it as best as possible.
As pilots, we never reuse the same flight plan over and over, and we certainly never use outdated weather reports. We plan a new path for every flight using the most recent weather data available to us.
In flight, we all use the technology at our disposal, as well as our wits to make sure we never see a patch of turbulent air coming and just head straight for it as fast as possible; we always act with care and physically move our aircraft out of the path of turbulence as much as possible subject to ATC permission.
All that being said, every pilot knows that sometimes, turbulence is just unavoidable. Sometimes you physically (or usually legally) can’t divert the flight around the turbulence, the doppler radar doesn’t catch it in time or it’s straight-up clear air turbulence and you don’t see it until you’re in it.
Are Pilots Scared of Turbulence?
Whilst the answer to a question like this will obviously differ from pilot to pilot, the general consensus is: no.
Particularly among airline and corporate pilots - the types I know the most of - and flight instructors, we’ve all experienced turbulence (of all kinds and intensities) enough times to know that if we stick to our training and don’t do anything stupid, we’ll be fine.
That being said, there have been times where I and my co-pilot (we both have tens of thousands of flight hours combined) have encountered particularly severe and/or unrelenting turbulence and scared us both for a second before we composed ourselves and got through it.
From the point of view of a flight instructor, I’m well aware that for many student pilots, or those who have only recently gotten their wings, the idea of turbulence is still a scary one. I once had a student who refused to get in the aircraft for fear of hitting some turbulence.
However, from my experience, with enough time (and a little bit of practice), these fears soon go away. To date, I have yet to meet a pilot with more than 500 hours or so of flight who is scared of turbulence so much they refuse to get in their aircraft.
About THE AUTHOR
Having fallen in love with aviation at the age of 12 when he went to visit family abroad, Salomon Marco decided to pursue a career in aviation. As an avid pilot and flight instructor, Salomon Marco has flown nearly every aircraft imaginable, from small single-seat kit planes to some of the world’s most expensive corporate jets.Read More About Salomon Marco