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.
“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:
Too 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.