What to do when your plane is hit by turbulence

There were some confronting photos published this week following an incidence of turbulence on a flight that left one person dead and many injured.

The Singapore Airlines London-Singapore flight experienced turbulence after dropping 6000 feet in about three minutes, which launched those people not wearing seatbelts into the cabin ceiling.

One man died and seven people were seriously injured in the incident on board a Boeing 777-30ER aircraft.

So what causes turbulence and how can you protect yourself?

The air up there

Turbulence is caused by the movement of ‘disturbed’ air through which an aircraft is flying. Or as National Geographic calls it, ‘chaotic and capricious eddies of air’.

It can happen anywhere, but three causes increase the risk: mountains, jet streams and storms. These can cause clear air turbulence (CAT) which is unpredictable because you can’t see it and is often the cause behind most moderate to severe injuries. 

Keeping safe

If you are worried about turbulence on an upcoming flight, or just flying in general, try and book a seat towards the front of the plane or over the wing. These positions in the cabin experience the least amount of turbulence. 

The front is better because it is beyond the centre of gravity and the wings balance the plane.

Former flight attendant and author of Cruising Attitude Heather Poole says the difference can be quite marked between front and back.

“There have been times when I’ve seen the folks in coach holding on like it’s a rodeo, and I’ve had to call the cockpit because they experience it differently up there,” she told National Geographic.

And if you are over the wing and are in an episode of turbulence, don’t be alarmed if the wing seems to be flexing at an impossible degree. That’s exactly what it’s designed to do. Bending and flexing absorb energy and are way better than remaining rigid, which could damage the wing. 

It’s the same science behind buildings in earthquake zones that are built to sway with a quake instead of remaining steady.

Belt up

Your best rule for staying safe during turbulence is to keep your seat belt on.

It’s the reason those safety warnings at the start of every flight ‘recommend’ you keep your seat belt on as much as possible. It’s not just to keep you chained to your seat and thus better behaved for the stewards, although it’s probably a little bit of that too.

Turbulence can lift you up or shift you side-to-side, and keeping your seatbelt on will minimise any movement and keep you anchored to your seat. 

Remain calm

Turbulence can shake you up both physically and mentally but it’s important not to panic. 

Yelling, screaming, crying and praying to a god of your choice is not going to stop the turbulence. It’s only going to impair your decision-making ability and wind up everyone around you. Do the best you can to remain calm and follow any instructions. 

If you are a nervous flyer it may be a good idea to learn some calming breathing techniques before your next flight. And if the turbulence isn’t too bad, try and take your mind off it with a crossword puzzle or in-flight movie if possible. 

Go figure

If it helps your mental state, take heart from the fact that figures show the last plane crash from turbulence was in 1966. That’s right, more than 50 years ago.

The recent fatal incident is of course tragic, but the last death due to severe turbulence was in 1997. 

Air travel is also statistically safer than almost all modes of transport and severe turbulence is exceedingly rare. But don’t just take my word for it. 

“In 15,000 hours of flying experience, I’ve encountered severe air turbulence just once, so it’s a rare occurrence,” pilot Steve Cornell told the ABC.

Have you ever experienced severe turbulence? How did you cope? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: Frequent flyers share their top travel tips

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisherhttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/author/JanFisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.
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