Plane Answers: When are pilots afraid of turbulence?

Welcome to Plane Answers where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Kyle writes:

First of all, thanks for taking the time to respond to people’s questions. There’s something I’ve always wanted to know. Do pilots ever get scared of turbulence? If so, what makes them bad enough to actually be scary. Is there a way a passenger can know when to be concerned and when it’s just normal bumps and shakes?

Thanks, Kyle.

Turbulence is more annoying than frightening, usually. But I think it’s more upsetting for passengers than some pilots realize.

I learned a good lesson when flying as a passenger some years ago. I was sitting next to a really nice lady who had previously worked as an agent for another airline. She had obviously flown a great deal, but she startled me when she grabbed my arm as soon as the airplane hit the slightest bit of light chop (pilot-speak for small rhythmic bumps). She said to me, “If the pilots would just ACKNOWLEDGE this turbulence–if they would just say something, I’d feel so much better.”

That moment stuck with me. As a co-pilot, it’s not really my place to make reassuring PAs–that’s up to the captain–but I will do my best when I move to the left seat.

Turbulence becomes worrisome to a pilot when it could cause harm to our flight attendants or passengers who aren’t buckled in. That’s our biggest concern. I’m very confident that the airplane will hold up to the roughest of air, but we just don’t want anyone to get hurt. Take a look at this Boeing video showing the maximum inflight load the 777 will take before failing. The wing finally failed at 154% of the maximum rated load. The video that follows after the jump has to give you confidence in today’s airliners.

Often though, pilots might not realize just how bad it is for the flight attendants in the back. When flying on the longer airliners, the ride in the cockpit can feel like light chop, while conditions in the aft galley make it impossible to stand up. The next time you fly, see if you can tell the difference with the flight attendants working in first class versus those in the back during a bumpy period.

Moderate turbulence is strong enough to move things around in the cabin. As a test, you can set a cup or glass on your table. If it gets knocked off–and not just small sliding movements that take it over the edge–then you are likely experiencing moderate turbulence. You’d feel a definite strain against your seat belt. If we encounter this kind of ride, be assured that we’re talking to air traffic control or other airplanes to try and find a smoother altitude. This would be a good time to mention how important it is to wear your seatbelt when seated.

Pilots don’t like these bumps any more than passengers do, but they’re generally not something that cause us to be frightened. That said, we always have a healthy appreciation for the turbulence that thunderstorms are capable of, so we strive to avoid them by at least 20 miles. Fortunately, these cumulonimbus clouds are relatively easy to spot on our weather radar. But don’t be too concerned about flying into the puffy cumulous clouds that have little vertical development. These clouds don’t show up on our radar and pose little problems other than light chop or turbulence.

We also rely on pilot reports from other aircraft in the area to keep us away from any clear air turbulence. Over the North Atlantic, we monitor a pilot-to-pilot frequency that allows us to give some warning to flights behind us when we enter areas of unforecasted turbulence. When flying in the domestic U.S. we rely on Air Traffic Control to let us know where the smoothest rides may be.

Have you ever been curious about what goes on at the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use your question for next Friday’s Plane Answers feature.