Sometimes passengers are nervous or scared of flying because of factors such as bad weather like thunderstorms or uncomfortable levels of turbulence. Also as most of the time aviation accidents end up as severe disasters with almost little chance of surviving, the level of anxiety and nervousness of flight is even greater.
Flight in disturbing weather conditions as above makes people very uncomfortable in a fuselage so small at altitudes over 30,000 feet.
What is turbulence?
It is simply a disturbed flow of air which happens to occur unexpectedly and is also hard to detect. In the air the most accurate turbulence reports are in fact from other aviators and pilots. This allows ATC to keep a log of levels, routes and times of turbulence including its severity. Turbulence can be caused by a number of factors including:
- flying in the zone of thunderstorms. - flying through clouds. - flying over mountainous terrain, i.e. mountain waves. - flying at high altitude near strong jet streams. - flying in or close to a weather front. - flying between air masses of differing temperatures.
There is also a phenomena known as Clear Air Turbulence (CAT) which is undetectable and is usually only predicted or forecast based on certain shear rates and weather and frontal data. Sometimes the forecast is accurate but at times can be wrong. Pilots therefore rely very much on turbulence information for various levels in order to plan their desired flight level and fuel requirements for the enhancement of passenger safety and comfort.
Turbulence severity can be categorised as Light, Moderate, Severe or Extreme. Modern aircraft designs can handle pretty much very high levels of turbulence however beyond certain G-forces it is not desirable to continue flight with such disturbances. It is an extremely rare occurrence to have heard of aircraft crashing due to just turbulence alone. For safety Pilots will also keep the seat belt sign ON throughout such flight conditions as the main harm that can occur to people is through physical injury.
Sometimes high levels of turbulence is also associated along with bad weather conditions such as storms. Flight intentionally into storm clouds is not recommended due to strong gusts of winds, hail, precipitation, icing and lightening presence. All or a combination of these forces can upset the aircrafts intended flight path leading to the autopilot struggling to fly it and even disconnecting. Manual flying in such conditions can be very difficult due to blurry vision of instruments and g-forces on the body. Even the most skilled pilots may struggle to properly fly an aircraft in such conditions and it could lead to a total loss of control in flight. If a situation ends up in such a phase then recovery chances become lower and lower and the aircraft could end up in a full stall therefore loosing altitude fast. This occurred with both Air France Airbus A330 over the Atlantic in 2009 and even recently with Air Asia A320 in 2014 over the Java sea. In both cases there was a total loss of crew and passengers and therefore it only emphasises the importance of avoiding completely such flight situations.
Pilots will be trained to stay clear of such weather conditions and to avoid storm cell clouds by a certain distance laterally in relation to wind direction to avoid flight even near or in the vicinity of storms. There are also safety recommended procedures of how to fly if you end up penetrating through such clouds but the priority is to always avoid. Pilots use reports from ATC and other flights together with their on board installed weather radar to detect such weather conditions ahead of the aircraft in order to plan the safest route and actions. At high altitudes, Pilots will avoid storm cells by at least 25 nautical miles (about 40 km) when possible. Even then they will monitor constantly the course ahead, fly at recommended speeds and have the seat belt signs on for precaution. Pre flight planning will already give pilots a heads up on where there could be possible bad weather along their intended flight route. This means Pilots can always be ahead of the aircraft and further more use all possible data and information during flight to ensure passenger safety and comfort is not compromised.
Can such weather damage the aircraft or break it?
Modern aircraft go through very extreme testing of forces before being approved and released as commercial jets. Even in extreme turbulence and storms aircraft are far away from possible levels of forces that could damage the aircraft. Normally severe hail or lightening strikes can cause some aircraft structural damage but not enough to break major aircraft components. Here is an example extracted to show you despite severe damage in a hail storm, the aircrafts main structures remained intact to allow the pilots to safely land back.
The aircrafts major flight components e.g. the wings go through rigorous testing before approval. They always need to demonstrate a certain amount of forces which go way beyond severe turbulence or storm weather forces. Modern jet wings can almost bend up to 70 degrees before starting to dis-form or crack. The engines are invested with frozen poultry birds at high speed to test the amount of force the engine can take before completely failing and damaging. Such tests form a major part on every new aircraft's design and manufacturing phase.
Is flying Safe?
In summary, flying today in a very well built and modern machine designed with so many redundancies with flight crew trained to handle several abnormal situations who undergo constant training of such scenarios every six months in state of the art simulators can only mean flying remains one of the safest forms of travel to date. You can get on board your aircraft, sit back and enjoy your trip to the maldives or the caribbean without assuming any worse. Even when you do feel light air turbulence and it seems very uncomfortable, just remember you are not even 10% close to what the aircraft and its systems can handle.
Wish you all a safe flight ahead :)