Are Pilots Afraid Of Turbulence? (4 Bouncing Facts)

Colored smoke depicting wingtip vortices
Turbulence caused by Aircraft wing vortices

I taught a lot of pilots how to fly in weather throughout my days flying FAR 135 operations and I was often asked, “Are Pilots Afraid Of Turbulence?”

Turbulence while flying is uncomfortable and can cause unnecessary anxiety to all aboard.

Are Pilots Afraid Of Turbulence?

No, pilots are not afraid of turbulence. Some pilots may have some anxiety about the thought of flying in turbulence, but as one’s experience grows the anxiety dissipates because turbulence is understood.

1. What Causes Turbulence?

Turbulence is caused by airwaves that are irregular or wave motion of air relative to the aircraft flying through it.

Waves of air moving across mountainous terrain can cause turbulent motion of air for miles beyond mountain ranges. A good analogy would be like the waves on the ocean, the meeting of two oceans.

There are numerous types of turbulence that we will discuss here.

2. Psychology Of Air Turbulence.

Avoidance of uncomfortable conditions while flying is always a priority of pilots both for themselves and passengers or cargo aboard.

It is perfectly natural to have some fear about things we cannot control so turbulence, especially severe, can scare the daylights out of you.

I have been there and it is most uncomfortable, but that’s all it is. Uncomfortable. The airplane is a safe stable platform so it can withstand even severe turbulence.

If you have developed a fear of turbulence forget about it.

3. Intensities Of Turbulence.

Turbulence is categorized by the intensity and there are four categories, light, moderate, severe, and extreme.

Light turbulence is not any more than being slightly bumpy and is usually not constant but can become so. It is referred to as light chop. It can cause slight deviations in altitude and attitude.

Pilots will hear aircraft asking for ride reports often and it is a search query to ATC, (Air Traffic Control) trying to find a more comfortable ride at a different altitude.

Moderate turbulence is slightly more intense and can be felt as a slight strain on the seatbelt against your body. Loose objects in the aircraft can be dislodged.

It can be annoying but it will cause more pronounced deviations in altitude and attitude.

Severe turbulence is very uncomfortable and can cause large and sudden changes in altitude and attitude. The aircraft can be momentarily out of control. This is a time to have your seatbelt fastened and tight. Loose objects can fly about the cabin.

Extreme turbulence is dangerous and can cause large differentiations in altitude and attitude. Loss of control of the aircraft may occur. Structural damage may occur. Thankfully it is rare.

4. Types Of Turbulence

There are four types of turbulence.

A. Mechanical turbulence is friction between the air and the ground. Wind velocity is a major factor as the air is moving rapidly across the ground causing greater turbulence.

This type is associated with mountainous terrain but even buildings can cause mechanical turbulence.

The stability of the air is the major factor in forming turbulence.

If the air is heated by the ground the vertical motion will be more pronounced and in unstable air, the eddies can grow in size while in stable air eddies will not grow but will dissipate more slowly.

Mountain waves can create strong eddies above and on the leeward side of the range. The wind need not be terribly strong to cause turbulence so it is always wise to err to the side of caution in mountainous terrain.

B. Thermal turbulence. (Convective).

As the sun heats the ground unevenly over fields and barren ground and water, the air begins to rise over barren areas and fall over water and grassy fields. It can rise and fall rapidly causing turbulence.

The formation of cumulus clouds during these conditions causes further turbulence and can cause thunderstorms.

It is wise to fly early in the morning or late evening to avoid these days of turbulence. Its also wise to fly above the cloud layer.

C. Frontal Turbulence

You can always bet that the passing of frontal systems will cause turbulence. As two air masses meet the friction caused will result in turbulence. Warm moist unstable air can create thunderstorms resulting in heavy turbulence.

Cold fronts cause most of the turbulent air but warm fronts can cause turbulence as well.

D. Wind Shear

Wind shear is a change in wind direction over a vertical and horizontal distance. It is present around lows, temperature inversions, and along troughs (A region of low pressure).

A trough can be high altitude or low and wind shear is present when they are close to the ground.

Clear air turbulence is present near the jetstream and this turbulence is difficult to forecast or see.

You can read more about aviation weather here.

Final Thoughts

Meteorology is the most difficult subject area of study for a pilot license in my opinion.

Not because it is hard to understand but because it can be hard to apply until you witness weather phenomena firsthand while flying.

I once flew a freight run from Billings MT. to Kalispell MT. and it was the most difficult flight I ever made.

There was not any altitude where moderate turbulence was not present. On my dreaded return trip one and a half hours later I flew the same route and there was not any turbulence at all. I guess it was just a test of my nerve.

There is a lot of weather that allows pilots to predict turbulence and avoid it, but turbulence isn’t a fearful issue. It does not have any redeeming qualities but it is safe to fly through.

There is an area of turbulence in Montana 50 miles west of Great Falls MT. that I refer to as the chuckhole.

That specific area of turbulence is from the wind that crossed the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains and on very windy days I would just go to flight idle on the power levers and reduce airspeed to the design maneuvering speed and wait. Once past it, everything went back to normal.

Related: Can You Fly Through Thunderstorms? ( 6 Thundering Thoughts )

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