Can Turbulence Cause a Plane to Crash?

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.

If you have ever wondered: can turbulence cause a plane to crash, the short answer is yes.

Although, a more accurate response is that the disruption in wind patterns can be a contributing factor in an accident, but airplanes are complicated machines, so there is often more than one factor at play.

To better answer this question, we will explore the following topics in this post:

  • The science behind flight and air flow,
  • The role turbulence plays in plane crashes
  • Common myths about turbulence and
  • Statistics that will help you better understand this phenomenon.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) keeps a record of turbulence-related injuries. In 2017, 17 people were injured because of turbulence on a plane, eight of whom were crew members. In 2018, the numbers were much lower: nine people were injured, five of whom were airline staff.

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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, air that circulates around mountains, weather fronts and, storms.

There are five common types of turbulence:

1. Mechanical 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 currents.

2. 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.

3. Thermal Turbulence

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.

4. Frontal Turbulence

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.

5. 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:

  • Level 1, which is considered light
  • Level 2, moderate
  • Level 3, moderate to severe
  • 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. During Level 3 turbulence, unsecured objects may move within the cabin and passengers won’t be able to walk down the aisle. In rare cases, extreme turbulence can result in the entire aircraft becoming impossible to control. Planes which have experienced severe turbulence may sustain structural damage and can crash.

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How Many Planes Have Gone Down Because of Turbulence?

Turbulence can cause a plane to crash, 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.

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Turbulence Myths

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 be able to 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.

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.

Smaller aircrafts may be more vulnerable to these types of disturbances, though. 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.

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What Really Causes Crashes?

Plane crashes are usually caused by a number of factors. The top causes of plane crashes are pilot error, mechanical failure, weather, sabotage, and other forms of human error.

Weather

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. Some weather conditions that can be hazardous include:

  • Fog – loss of visibility
  • High winds – affects aircrafts speed
  • Snow – reduces visibility and makes runways slippery
  • Severe thunderstorms – can bring rain, lightning and strong winds

Pilot Error

Aircraft accidents due to human error accounts for around 50 percent of all crashes.

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

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.

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.

Sabotage

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.

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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:

  1. Keep your seatbelt securely fastened when you are in your seat.
  2. Follow the safety guidelines as instructed by the flight crew.
  3. Secure infants in an airline-approved infant carrier in his/her own seat.

Slack Davis Sanger Applies Extensive Aviation Experience to Represent Victims of Airline Accidents and Crashes

Thankfully, airline safety has improved dramatically over the years. When tragedy does strike, however, you want 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 Sanger 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.

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