How to cope with turbulence and the fear of flying?

Do you like travelling but hate flying? Does the word turbulence scare the hell out of you? 

When flying, you are likely to experience turbulence. Pilots have weather radar in the system and they will try their best to avoid turbulences. However some may be unavoidable if there is a large cumulonimbus cloud (One large vertical cloud which may produce bad weather such as thunderstorm, lightning and tornado) along flight paths and if it takes too long to deviate, then planes may have to fly through and passengers have no choice but to bear with the uncomfortable rides for a period of time. Usually, pilots will announce early to get the passengers and crew (depends on how serious) prepared.

 There is also another type of Turbulence, CAT (Clear Air Turbulence), which can happen in clear blue sky and is hard to detect on flight weather radar. Flights can get bumpy but usually pilot will request for a different flight level, to find smoother air and this is usually granted by Air Traffic Controller in the area which the aircraft is flying past.

 Turbulence can happen even in beautiful weather like this.
Turbulence can happen even in beautiful weather like this.

Take a look at the photo above, it looks like a beautiful day in Taiwan however the take off on this Boeing 747-400 was very rough. It is due to a typhoon nearby. The wind was so strong that the aircraft shook violently while trying to climb quickly and it only smoothen after flying out of Taiwan. Cases like this should not worry passengers as aircrafts are build to handle stress caused by strong wind, up to 30 knots.

Strangely enough not all bad weathers produce turbulences, some flights are surprisingly smooth despite heavy downpours.

Heavy downpour as Airbus A380 take off from London Heathrow Airport.
Heavy downpour as Airbus A380 took off from London Heathrow Airport.

Depending on the size of aircrafts, the bigger is the aircraft, the more stable it would be. Low Cost Carriers normally use smaller aircraft such as Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, they can equally handle turbulence too.

Take-offs and landings are two phrases that can be considered dangerous and Air Traffic Controllers have to ensure aircrafts are separated a distance away from one another, particularly small and big aircrafts to ensure smaller aircrafts will not suffer heavy turbulences due to vortex caused by larger planes. For safety reason, this is why sometimes planes have to wait a a little longer at the runway before departing. Same thing for landing, aircrafts have to be slowed down and separated, sometimes they are placed on holding patterns (in a queue) to wait for clearance to land.

In this kind of weather, you are most likely to experience some turbulences, especially flying through the clouds but remember, turbulences do not simply bring down aircrafts, it takes much stronger force, like a hurricane to do so. Endure the ride, it will be over before you knew it.

IMG_6237 Trigana734

I enjoy watching aeroplanes, discussing aviation in civil aviation forums and flying but I was once a nervous flyer especially when flying through bad weathers.

When I was young, I would go into ‘praying’ mode, hoping the turbulences will end soon. The more I fly, this fear becomes lesser even though some turbulences can be really intense. Despite the number of recent accidents, I continue to fly and strongly believe that flying is still safer than driving or even crossing the road. Look at the number of retired pilots and flight attendants out there, they are still around to share their stories.

Overcoming the fear of flying

I managed to overcome my fear when I flew on one of the most turbulent flights I had ever experienced. On a Peach Aviation flight from Seoul Incheon to Osaka Kansai, the plane was bouncing around pretty badly for the last 40 minutes of the journey. After the flight, I felt uncomfortable and did consider forfeiting my return flight and take the train to Tokyo instead but I was glad I did not. The next few flights were nerve wracking but somehow I got used to it by the end of third flight. It is mind over matter – “if pilots and cabin crew can deal with it, so can I.” How can I let the bad weather affect my love for aviation? Accidents do happen, but the odds are very slim.” This is what I told myself and since then on, I had no issues at all.

Types of turbulence:

Light: Turbulence can cause a slighty uncomfortable ride but pilot is able to read flying instrument and control the plane while cabin crew are able to continue their work. Seat belt sign is usually not turned on unless it gets worse.
Moderate: Turbulence is of a greater intensity compared to the light chops, pilot will have little difficulty reading instrument and sometimes unsecured items may dislodge. Food service and walking may be difficult. Seat belt sign is definitely turned on during this period.
Severe: Turbulence cause large changes in attitude, pilot may not be able to control the aircraft. At this stage, everyone has to be buckled up and items have to be secured. Usually pilot will avoid this kind of weather.
Extreme: Pilot is unable to control the aircraft, as it is tossed about violently. This may cause structural damage to the aircraft. Pilot will definitely avoid this kind of weather either by doing a re-route or delaying the flight until weather condition improves.

Words of comfort

1. Cabin and Flight crews

 Cabin and flight crews have to fly almost daily as part of their job scope. They deserve our salute because they have to go through bad weathers more often than most of us which can make them more nervous especially if they have to the fly the return sector few hours later. Although they are trained to handle turbulences, they certainly experience turbulences more than any other passengers.

Flight crew will ensure that they find the best possible route to avoid bad weathers but sometimes that is unavoidable. Rest assure that Traffic Controllers and pilots will work together to find the most suitable flight level for aircrafts to fly through and have confidence in your pilot.

Cabin crew are most vulnerable especially when they have to appear calm and soothe the nerves of nervous passengers. Sudden turbulence such as vertical drop can cause them injuries if they are walking down the aisle ensuring all passengers have already buckle up.

Always have your seatbelt fastened even if the seatbelt sign is off because turbulence can happen unexpectedly.

2. It can happen to any type of aircrafts. 

Whether you are flying on a narrow-body or a wide-body, turboprop or jetliner, do remember that there are others who encounter turbulence just like you. Turbulence can happen anywhere and always remember that there are worse turbulence elsewhere especially for those flying on turboprops. These planes are vulnerable to turbulence especially in windy conditions. If you are flying on one, just pretend you are on a roller-coaster. The last time a turbulence brought an aircraft down was many years ago with old technology.

Aircrafts these days are equipped with weather radar. Together with the Air Traffic Controller, it is possible to find a smoother air for everyone on board.

3. Severe turbulence only happens to a small percentage of flights.

Usually pilots have briefings before departure and weather is always part of the discussion. If pilots think the weather may be too rough for the aircraft, flight will either be delayed or cancelled. Sometimes flights which got cancelled due to bad weathers may be a blessing in disguise. Maybe you are unlucky and experience some bad turbulences but not to worry as pilots will not deliberately fly through bad weathers.

My advice

When you are going through turbulences, try to look at what is around you, watch your seat mates especially those younger ones as they tend to be braver or anything that is eye-catching. Remember, you are not alone during these time. Try talking to your seat mate next to you as that may help to calm your nerves. Keep your mind occupied during turbulences is a good way of overcoming it.

For example, imagine yourself going over bumpy roads or write down on a piece of paper on the list of things you want to do. Even when the aircraft is shaking violently, make sure your mind is fixed on to the ideas you have. Mind over matter.

Else, try sitting upright with a pillow behind your back, lift your leg off the floor and hold onto the side of your chair as it may reduce the uneasiness during  turbulence drops.

Do not let the fear of flying ruin your travel plans. So go travel, share your adventures! Flying is just like our lives, we go through some good and bad times.

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