When you experience turbulence on an airplane, your mind quickly wanders. What’s going on, and how long will it last? Will it get worse? Am I safe? Can turbulence cause a plane to crash? Whatever questions we may have, we can agree on one thing: turbulence puts our nerves on edge.
The Federal Aviation Administration (more commonly known as the FAA) keeps a record of turbulence-related injuries. In 2016, 44 people were injured because of turbulence on a plane, 11 of whom were crew members. In 2015, the numbers were much lower: 21 people were injured,14 of whom were airline staff. If injuries related to turbulence are on the rise, should I be worried?
In 2017 alone, two planes reported injuries as a result of turbulence. On August 5, 2017, American Airlines flight 759 encountered severe turbulence, which sent 10 people to the hospital, according to the New York Post. Although victims did sustain injuries, including a dislocated shoulder, the pilots were able to keep the plane in the air, so thankfully, a crash did not occur. In May, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Bangkok ran into a “pocket of clear air,” resulting in injuries to more than 24 passengers. Again, turbulence did not cause the plane to crash.
If you have ever wondered if turbulence can cause a plane crash, the short answer is yes. A more accurate response is that although the disruption in wind patterns can be a contributing factor in an accident, airplanes are complicated machines, so there is often more than one explanation for a crash. To better answer this question, we’ll explore the science behind flight and air flow, the role turbulence plays in plane crashes, myths about turbulence and statistics that will help you better understand this common but relatively misunderstood phenomenon.
What is Turbulence?
We all know that feeling in the pit of our stomach when we hit rough skies when flying. What is turbulence, exactly, and what conditions can make it worse? Passengers feel turbulence when a plane moves through an area where air and wind flows have been disrupted. These “rough patches” can be caused by atmospheric pressure, jet streams, the air that circulates around mountains, weather fronts and storms.
There are five common types of turbulence:
Sometimes, mechanical turbulence occurs close to the Earth’s surface when horizontal wind flow is disrupted as air flows over buildings, mountains, hills and other physical features. These unusual air movements can manifest as squalls, which can result in severe turbulence if your plane travels through these eddies.
Mountain wave Turbulence
Found downwind from mountain ridges, mountain waves occur when air currents fluctuate between different altitudes. This type of turbulence can be quite severe and can occur hundreds of miles from a range.
As the name suggests, thermal turbulence is caused by a temperature imbalance. When a column of warm air rises, a corresponding, slower moving and larger body of air flows downward, which causes irregular air flows.
Associated with cold fronts and, to a lesser degree, warm fronts, frontal turbulence is caused by the friction between two opposing air masses when weather changes. Fast-moving cold air masses are usually the culprit for the most severe cases of this type of turbulence.
Clear Air Turbulence
Clear air turbulence (CAT) is caused by strong changes in air flows within the jet stream. Wind shear is the technical term for the change in wind direction or speed over a specific horizontal or vertical distance. This type of turbulence can be caused by temperature inversions and along troughs and lows. Clear air turbulence usually occurs above 15,000 feet and is most frequent during winter.
There are various intensities of turbulence, from level 1, which is considered light, to level 4, which is extreme. Passengers on a flight with level 1 turbulence may feel a strain against their seat belts, and items may shift on the plane. Unsecured objects may move within the cabin and passengers won’t be able to walk down the aisle during level 3 turbulence. In rare cases, extreme turbulence can result in the entire aircraft being impossible to control. Planes which have experienced severe turbulence may sustain structural damage and can crash.
How Many Planes Have Gone Down Because of Turbulence?
Turbulence can cause plane crashes, either as the primary reason for an accident or a contributing factor.
According to the FAA, 234 turbulence accidents occurred from 1980 to 2008 resulting in 298 serious injuries and three fatalities. Of those serious injuries, 184 victims were flight attendants and 114 were passengers. Of the three fatalities, two were passengers who were not wearing their seat belts while the fasten seatbelt sign was on. Most turbulence-related accidents occur at or above 30,000 feet and many are linked to passengers not being securely fastened in their seats.
In 1966, a British Overseas Airways plane crashed and the tail fin tore apart after experiencing winds in excess of 140 miles per hour. In 1968, turbulence tore a wing off a Wien Consolidated Airlines flight in Alaska. More recently, in 2009 an Air France flight flew into a storm. In an attempt to steer away from inclement weather, the pilot sent the plane into an aerodynamic stall, which caused the plane to crash. In that tragedy, a combination of turbulence, airspeed sensor malfunction and most likely pilot error all contributed to the crash.
When it comes to turbulence, it can be hard to separate what is fact from what could be simply an urban myth. Let’s explore the most common misconceptions about turbulence and reveal the truth about this unsettling feeling you can experience while in the air.
Myth: You Can always Predict Turbulence
There is no system to predict turbulence 100 percent of the time. However, in many cases, pilots will warn passengers over the public address system that rough skies are ahead. Measures to prevent turbulence start before the plane even leaves the ground.
First, meteorologists and dispatchers plan each flight’s route to avoid any possible air disturbances. Once the plane is in the air, displays in the cockpit indicate any changes in weather that could cause the pilot to alter the flight plan. For example, precipitation can cause shifts in air flows, which can result in turbulence. Pilots can use radar data to avoid developing storms and other weather events. In some cases, readings may show multiple storms ahead and the flight crew may choose an alternate route with the least severe weather. In these cases, flight attendants may ask passengers to return to their seats and put on their seat belts until the plane emerges from the impacted area.
Mountain turbulence can also be predicted in some cases, but clear air turbulence is harder to foresee. Sometimes, pilots who have recently flown through problem areas can warn other planes of potential problems. In other cases, air traffic controllers can relay this information directly to flight crews. Pilots may be able to alter their course or adjust their altitude to avoid the worst of the turbulence.
As we all know, despite all of these sophisticated tools, turbulence still occurs relatively frequently on commercial flights.
Myth: Severe Turbulence Can Tear Apart a Plane
The last major air disaster blamed on turbulence was near Mount Fuji in Japan in 1966. Airplanes are now designed to withstand significantly more turbulence. That explains why, in many cases, although turbulence can cause injuries, these incidents don’t usually result in a plane crash, unless there are other contributing factors.
Although turbulence is often not severe enough to cause a crash on a major airline, smaller aircraft can be more vulnerable to these types of disturbances. Private planes are usually flown by less experienced pilots operating aircraft which are not subject to the same rigorous testing and maintenance requirements as commercial airlines. Helicopter passengers can also face similar risks in bad weather.
MYTH: There’s No Way to Avoid Turbulence
Turbulence is so common that you could easily think there is no way to avoid it. If you want to avoid this unsettling experience during the summer, when passengers typically experience more turbulence, you can choose a flight in the morning when it’s less likely to occur. You can also choose to sit near the wings of a plane where turbulence tends to be less noticeable.
What Really Causes Crashes?
Plane crashes are usually caused by a number of factors. According to a DailyMail article, the top reasons planes crash are pilot error, mechanical failure, weather, sabotage and other forms of human error.
Pilot error accounts for around 50 percent of all crashes. A recent example in the United States was in 2015 when a Delta plane skidded off the runway at LaGuardia Airport. Thankfully, the incident resulted in no serious injuries, but the pilot used too much reverse thrust on the snowy runway, which caused him to lose control of the plane.
In 2009, an Air France plane crashed after flying through a thunderstorm because of instrument failure. Afterwards, the pilot mistakenly put the aircraft into a rapid climb, which caused the plane to stall. Instead of following normal protocol and lowering the nose, the pilot continued to attempt to ascend. Sadly, all 228 people on the flight perished.
Although there are cases where commercial airline pilots cause a plane to crash, most flight fatalities caused by pilot error occur on private planes.
Mechanical failure accounts for about 20 percent of aircraft losses. As you might expect, the older a plane is, the more likely its parts will fail. On September 30, 2017, an Air France flight made an emergency landing after one of its engines disintegrated. In August of the same year, an AirAsia flight lost power in its left engine. A few months earlier, actress Jennifer Lawrence’s private jet suffered double engine failure. In that same month, a United Airlines flight had to return to O’Hare after its engine caught fire when it struck a bird. Thankfully, in each of these instances, no one was seriously injured.
Obviously, there are many different parts and components that make up a plane. Even during routine maintenance, human error can play a role in the plane’s safety. For example, a technician may install parts incorrectly, parts may be missing or necessary checks may go undone if the aviation maintenance technician’s physical state is compromised. This line of work requires attention to detail and any one of these factors can be an issue, as well as the technician’s capabilities and limitations or even the environmental conditions he or she is working in. When it comes to mechanical failure, many factors can play a role in the safety of an aircraft.
Weather can cause delayed or canceled flights and accounts for 10 percent of aircraft losses. Pilots go through extensive training to deal with a variety of weather-related situations. Fog reduces visibility, and if it becomes too dense, it can close runways. Some airports, like the one in San Francisco, deal with this issue more than others.
High winds can also cause issues during takeoff and landings. Planes need to maintain a certain speed and an unexpected gust of strong wind can alter optimal flying conditions. New York City’s John F. Kennedy airport is one location in particular that tends to see problems due to inclement weather. Accuweather reported that JFK averages 43,124 weather-related delays each year.
Snow not only reduces visibility, but also it makes runways slippery and impacts the functionality of the plane. How many times have you flown from a snowy region and had to sit at the gate while the plane is de-iced? Chicago’s O’Hare airport experiences 160,000 weather-related delays.
Severe thunderstorms can also bring with them lightning, strong winds and heavy rains, as well as ice. Thanks to these storms, the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport experiences the most weather-related delays, which contribute to its abysmal 72 percent on-time departure rate.
Although this occurs less frequently than we might imagine, hijacking represents 10 percent of aircraft losses. Sabotage rarely results in fatalities, but there are documented cases leading back to 1948. In recent US history, 9/11 is the event that most people remember, when an American Airlines plane and a United flight were flown into the Twin Towers. On that same day, an American flight hit the Pentagon and a United flight crashed to the ground in Pennsylvania. Today’s increased security measures are meant to reduce the opportunity for these occurrences.
How You Can Protect Yourself and Your Family From Turbulence-Related Injuries
Once you learn that turbulence can play a role in airline accidents, your next question is probably how to prevent yourself or someone you love from being involved in a crash or incident. The biggest risk passengers face is falling inside of an aircraft when a plane experiences turbulence, so the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to:
- Keep your seatbelt securely fastened when you are in your seat.
- Follow the safety guidelines as instructed by the flight crew.
- Secure infants in an airline-approved infant carrier in his/her own seat.
Slack & Davis Applies Extensive Aviation Expertise To Represent Victims of Airline Accidents and Crashes
Thankfully, airline safety has improved dramatically over the years. When tragedy does strike, however, you want an someone on your side who understands both how airplanes operate and the complicated set of rules that govern airline travel. The nationally recognized attorneys at Slack & Davis have worked for decades to apply their extensive technical aviation knowledge to successfully represent hundreds of passengers in complex aviation crashes. With a winning track record and compassion for victims and their families, our attorneys have become a leader in this area of law.