Fear of Flying: Understanding Turbulence

How much is the plane actually moving?  Can it be torn apart?

Picture this:  you’re sitting somewhere in the main cabin of a Boeing 737 about 30,000 up in the air when suddenly the plane starts to shake.  As if the physical sensation isn’t bad enough, everything is rattling noisily too.  When you lift your eyes to gaze up the aisle, you can actually see the fuselage flexing.

Fear of Flying: Understanding Turbulence“Seat belts,” barks the captain over the PA system as the flight attendants race to find their seats.  Maybe it’s not an emergency, but it certainly feels like one.  You could be forgiven for panicking.

Turbulence is caused by heat, wind, clouds, and the jet stream, and pilots don’t worry about it at all.  Because they know it’s not a problem, they seldom think to reassure passengers.  Although statistics can’t totally reduce an emotional response, here are some facts about turbulence I learned from the  SOAR Fear of Flying complete course that give me comfort:

1. Pilots use the restroom during turbulence

It takes a while for pilots to push back their seats, take off their headphones, and remove their harnesses to go use the restroom.  They usually do this during turbulence since the first class restroom is only guaranteed to be unoccupied when the fasten seat belt sign is on.  In his entire career as an airline pilot, the course instructor has never been in turbulence so bad that he couldn’t go to the bathroom.

2.  Airplanes are designed to withstand a lot of force

Modern jets are designed to withstand several times the amount of force that any turbulence can produce.  Don’t believe it?  Go to www.hurricanehunters.com.  These people fly into hurricanes and stay there for hours taking meteorological readings,and they use a plane similar to the ones we use to go on vacation.

What about the wings?  Can they be torn off?  In a word: no.  The wings of an airplane are built to be flexible (like a fishing rod), and can flex up to 20 feet if they need to.  And they never need to.

3.  Clear air turbulence is just a fact of life

The earth’s rotation causes two swathes of fast-moving west-bound air that we call the jet stream.  Pilots try to ride it going west and avoid it going east.  When the air (which is traveling around 800 m.p.h.) scrubs up against still air right next to it, it creates rolling “bumps” about the size of a football field.  The nose of the airplane lifts going over the front edge and drops going over the back edge of many of these in succession.  That’s clear air turbulence.

4.  What feels like thousands of feet is really just a fraction of an inch

This is my new mantra in turbulence and the single most helpful thing I learned with this program.  Even when you feel like the plane is dropping thousands of feet, it’s only moving a fraction of an inch.  The planes instruments don’t even pick it up.  There’s a way to prove it too.  Go to your sink, fill a cup halfway with water, hold it high, and then quickly lower it two feet.  What happens?  The water gets left behind (and spills everywhere).

Now consider turbulence.  Wouldn’t the same thing happen?  Imagine the plane drops, and along with it your tray table and plastic cup.  Sure, your drink sloshes around a little in turbulence, but it doesn’t fly up in the air above your head.

So why does turbulence feel so big?  Because you’re traveling so fast.  The best analogy is speed bumps.  Hit one at 10 m.p.h. and you don’t even feel it.  Hit one at 80 m.p.h. and your head will bounce off the roof of your car.  Now imagine hitting it at 500 m.p.h.

Feeling better?  I know I am.

This is the fourth post in a five-part series about conquering fear of flying.  Topics will include:

1.  Symptoms and causes
2.  Choosing the right treatment
3.  The SOAR video course
4.  Understanding turbulence
5.  How flying works and why it’s safe

Fear of Flying TreatmentToo busy to read all that?  Flying very soon?  The online video-based fear of flying program I tried (and highly recommend) has recently published a book called SOAR: The Breakthrough Treatment for Fear of Flying.  It’s available on Amazon for much less than the cost of the full program.



  1. says

    Definitely help to ease the fear of flying. Also try riding on in the back a 15 passengers van from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and the airplane turbulence will be nothing. :)

  2. says

    I am committing #4 to memory! :) It’s so good to have some calm, logical perspective on the matter – because there are times that I really do gasp and convince myself, “This is the end!”

    I’m so melodramatic sometimes. :)

  3. says

    I’ve been getting more scared of turbulence the older I get. What about flying in those little jets on vacation? Those puddle jumpers. When I was coming back from Colorado last month, I was the only one peeing my pants as the plane was shaking. I’m a guy and a big sissy!

  4. says

    @Anthony Don’t get me started about flying to and within Colorado! The Rocky Mountains are pretty to look at but very troublesome as far as turbulence goes.

    As for small planes, I gave those up years ago.

  5. says

    On our website one of the things we encourage to minimise the fear of flying generally is to avoid using emotive language. As long as you secure your seat belt tightly you’ll come to no harm. In all my years as a pilot I only encountered severe turbulence twice.

    If you have a fear of flying try us at flyingwithoutfear.com where there are hundreds of pages of free help.

    Captain Keith

  6. Kam says

    Hi, Jamie! The water in the cup analogy reminded me of this video. I guess it’s a little different in a small plane.

  7. David says

    Turbulence has always been my big worry. I know in my head that it is not a danger, but thought that we might hit severe turbulence would make me very anxious about flying. I did not mind the bumps as we are coming in to land as I know it will end soon and the plane is slowing, so the bumps are less severe and also expected. But the thought that some point mid flight that we might hit turbulence and that it might get worse and not being able to stop it meant that I would be tense for the whole flight and in the period leading up to the flight. I have found some coping mechanisms in addition to the ones above. Listening to music helps and even rocking a little in the seat to the beat (bumpity bump, rockety rock lose yurself in the beat as we bump through the air). I have tried watching videos, but I used to find as soon as the turbulence hit, I would lose concentration. I found animated videos better to watch as they are aimed at a kids concentration, so I could actually watch without needing to concentrate to hard. Also I remember watching a video involving boats at sea and the imagery of the boats going up and down on the waves sort of fitted with the bumps of the plane which was helpful. Finally, I read a book about fear, the crux of which said that fear was mearly the thought that we could not cope with a situation. I found that if I tell myself that I might not like the bumps, but I will walk off the plane with the hundreds of others including kids and old people and I will cope. I think that was the biggest help, bringing back some level of control – I may not like it but I will cope

  8. Tammy says

    I have a mild fear of flying (well actually not flying, but death by flying). But, guess what? I do it anyways. My love of travel wins every time!


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