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BUMPY RIDE

What is turbulence and is it dangerous? We explain why some plane journeys are more bumpy than others

MOST of us have experienced turbulence on a flight at one time or another.

But nervous flyers might be wondering what causes the bumps in the journey and whether it's dangerous for those on board.

 Turbulence can occur for a number of different reasons
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Turbulence can occur for a number of different reasonsCredit: Alamy

As it turns out, turbulence is fairly common and most of the time it shouldn't be feared.

Read on to find out the things that causes turbulence and how pilots deal with it.

What causes turbulence during flights?

Turbulence is, in essence, a change in the air that can rock a plane.

There are many kinds of turbulence that can occur during a flight, from the “clear air” type to “wake turbulence”.

Most of the time weather conditions such as thunderstorms are the cause of disruption during flights, but jet streams caused by large aircraft can also impact a journey.

Jet streams from planes can stretch for thousands of miles long and a few miles deep.

When a plane transitions from an area of fast jet stream to slowing moving area, or vice versa, turbulence can occur - this is known as Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) and is the most common type.

Often pilots will try to either avoid these areas (if they are flying into a headwind, or against the direction of travel) or use them (if they are flying into a tailwind, or towards the direction of travel) to help reduce fuel usage.

Wake turbulence occurs from vortices that spin from the wingtips and are typically created when a plane is lower in the sky so the wings are working hard to “lift” the aircraft.

 Often turbulence occurs when an aircraft encounters a different speed of air flow, such as with fast-moving jet streams
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Often turbulence occurs when an aircraft encounters a different speed of air flow, such as with fast-moving jet streamsCredit: Getty - Contributor

Is turbulence dangerous?

Turbulence is relatively common and is usually harmless, but that doesn’t stop it from being an unpleasant experience at times.

Writing on askthepilot.com, the author of Cockpit Confidential pilot Patrick Smith said: “For all intents and purposes, a plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket.

“The pilots aren’t worried about the wings falling off; they’re trying to keep their customers relaxed and everybody’s coffee where it belongs.

“Planes themselves are engineered to take a remarkable amount of punishment, and they have to meet stress limits for both positive and negative G-loads.

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“The level of turbulence required to dislodge an engine or bend a wing spar is something even the most frequent flyer - or pilot for that matter - won’t experience in a lifetime of travelling.”

The main concern for pilots will be the comfort of passengers, so often will result in them slowing down or rerouting to escape any wind tunnels.

Injuries have occurred in the past on planes experiencing turbulence.

In June 2019, a cabin crew was sent crashing into the ceiling of a plane due to turbulence.

Where in the world is turbulence most common?

Turbulence is worst when you're flying over the equator or over big mountain ranges.

Captain Stuart Clarke told Sun Online Travel: "When you cross the equator, there’s a belt of weather called the inter-tropical convergence zone. It moves north and south with the seasons.

“I used to fly a lot from Heathrow to South Africa as an airline pilot. When I got to the equator area, I’d always encounter thunderstorms.

“That series of storms extends right around the world on the equator line. The weather and the resulting turbulence is a result of hot weather and the coming together of the winds from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.”

Another area where turbulence can hit is over mountain ranges such as the Alps and the Pyrenees.

This is due to “mountain waves”, when currents of wind hit mountains and disturb the air flow around them.

 A plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocket
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A plane cannot be flipped upside-down, thrown into a tailspin, or otherwise flung from the sky by even the mightiest gust or air pocketCredit: Getty - Contributor

How do pilots deal with turbulence?

CAT is not visible to the naked eye and is not detectable on radars, so often pilots will rely on reports from other planes.

Most of the time, a plane is able to safely withstand any turbulence, although the pilot will switch on the seat belt sign and it can be an uncomfortable experience.

Pilots can also try to fly higher (if the aircraft allows it) or lower (which can burn more fuel and could risk making the conditions worse).

They can also try to fly at the aircraft turbulence penetration speed, which is slightly slower than normal cruising speed.

Most of the time, pilots will try to avoid an area of turbulence altogether, such as if it occurs near a thunderstorm.

 Pilot will switch on the seat belt sign during turbulence and will often reduce their speed to the aircraft turbulence penetration speed
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Pilot will switch on the seat belt sign during turbulence and will often reduce their speed to the aircraft turbulence penetration speedCredit: Getty - Contributor

Where is the best place to sit on the plane to avoid the worst effects of turbulence?

Patrick advised that your plane seat doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to the experience of turbulence.

However, he explained: “The smoothest place to sit is over the wings, nearest to the plane’s centres of lift and gravity.

“The roughest spot is usually the far aft—the rearmost rows closest to the tail.”

Sun Online Travel previously mapped the areas where you're most likely to experience turbulence.

We also revealed the phrase flight crew use to signal turbulence.

A pilot explained how you can keep calm in turbulence with the help of a pen and a piece of paper.

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