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What Exactly is Turbulence?

We've all been on a flight that's run into turbulence – the fasten-seatbelts light comes on, things get bumpy for a while and cabin service gets put on hold. At Skyscanner Australia, we talk with a pilot about turbulence in the air.

Although it can be uncomfortable, turbulence is very rarely dangerous. We spoke with James Nixon, a retired pilot of 31 years and 18,000 hours for the likes of Emirates and Ansett, about turbulence from a pilot’s perspective.

As well as his time in the skies, James has written three books about planes and flying.

What causes turbulence?

Turbulence happens when there’s a disturbance in the air. This can have many causes — it might be from jetstreams, from the wake of another aircraft or from a storm. You can also think of turbulence to being akin to driving over a gravel road rather than smooth tarmac.

James says that as pilot he would expect to encounter light turbulence once or twice a flight, but for moderate or sustained turbulence it would only be two or three times a year.

However, aeroplane engineers are clever people and all planes are designed to cope with the strain of turbulence.

James said, “The aircraft can take much more turbulence than you’d ever imagine. It’s designed to bend and flex otherwise it’d snap. Have a look at palm trees during hurricanes. When rigid street signs are bent and twisted, the flexible trees keep waving in the breeze.”

“Airbus planes have the protection of LAF (load alleviation function) where the wing spoilers will momentarily lift up, breaking the lift over that part of the wing and reducing the stress on the airframe.”

“The only worry about turbulence is inside the cabin. Unrestrained kids really concern me. Although in 31 years I never heard of it happening, I was always worried that a child would go flying around the cabin. Maybe I was over-cautious, but with that in mind, I’d reach for the seat belt sign earlier than later.”

Where in Australia is bad for turbulence?

If you feel like you’re unlucky with turbulence, it might be because of the routes you’re flying. There are definitely some areas where it’s worse than others.

In Australia, James says that there’s a time and a place (or two) that pilots know are bumpy.

He said, “In Australia, September is the worst month for turbulence, with the strong west-to-east jet streams.”

“Eastbound aircraft want to pick up the free ride that can be had with a strong 150 knot (300 kph) tailwind, so they put up with the turbulence, getting into and out of it. It lasts maybe five or ten minutes.”

“Flights to and from Perth and the east coast will suffer turbulence. Dropping out of the ‘jet’ on SYD-ADL flights will usually be rough.”

“Also, for some reason, crossing the coast of the Great Australian Bight near Esperance generates turbulence.”

With many types of turbulence, pilots and airlines can see and predict where it’s going to hit. When possible, they’ll try to avoid it but there are times when it’s necessary to briefly fly through it.

What should you do when turbulence hits?

Although it’s unlikely that you’ll get injured during turbulence, it’s wise to listen to the captain when they turn on the seatbelts sign. A jolt at the wrong time as you’re walking down the aisle could lead to a trip and a nasty bump. If you’ve ignored the pilot’s advice, it’s unlikely that you’ll be covered by your travel insurance. 

So what should you when turbulence hits? Essentially, keep seated and wait for it to pass.

James said, “Go to the toilet before you need to, anytime the flight is smooth. Listen to a good audiobook and have a sleep mask to distract you.”

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