License to Learn: Turbulence—yuck!

Don’t let your imagination shake you up

August 1, 2013

Rod MachadoI don’t like clear air turbulence, and my passengers like it even less. It’s one of those things that saps the fun from flying, because it affects the neural nooks that are the primitive levels of our biology. It’s unlikely that you or your passengers will learn to like turbulence, but by understanding and sharing with your passengers what it can and can’t do to your mind and airplane, you can make turbulence tolerable.

Pilots and passengers alike worry a great deal about the potential for structural failure in strong turbulence. This concern is almost always misplaced when speaking of clear air turbulence. Years ago, I looked at six years of accident data covering 16,220 accidents. Seventy-three of these accidents involved in-flight structural failure as a result of pilots attempting to fly in or near adverse weather, or attempting to fly VFR in IMC. Only two out of the 73 accidents resulted in in-flight structural failure in clear air turbulence. One of these resulted from unknown causes, and the other was a suspected encounter with wing tip vortices.

If you’re out of the clouds and beyond the reach of convective turbulence, keeping your airplane upright and under control is relatively easy to accomplish. You should find solace in knowing that structural failure almost always is associated with excessive airspeed from loss of control. That’s why it’s extremely rare for clear air turbulence to result in the in-flight disassembly of a properly flown airplane. Tell your passengers the good news. I’m not saying that clear air turbulence isn’t something to respect; I’m saying it’s something you don’t have to fear.

Why is turbulence such a discomforting experience for most people? There are two good reasons that explain our adverse reaction to this phenomenon.

The first is that we are hard-wired to be straight and level. If you grew up with a circus troupe of tightrope walkers (as many of us did), it’s unlikely you made any friends by playing the game called jiggle the rope. That’s because no one likes the feeling of losing their balance, especially when it’s lost at 50 feet above the ground.

Human beings have a specialized vestibular system designed to help them remain upright. That system is confounded in turbulence, when Mother Nature plays her favorite game, called jiggle the airplane. As the airplane tilts to one side, it instinctively induces the feeling that we’re about to fall. Just look at the hand motion of passengers (and pilots who aren’t holding the controls) in turbulence and you’ll see them grabbing for something in an attempt to prevent their plummet. This is how turbulence affects the deeper layers of our biological being.

It takes experience for pilots to learn that it’s extremely rare for any airplane to actually tip over (roll beyond 90 degrees, or even inverted) in flight because of turbulence. After years of flying in, near, and around California’s mountains, I’ve never encountered turbulence that rolled me beyond 60 degrees of bank, much less beyond the vertical. I’m not saying that this can’t happen, but I am saying that it’s extremely rare. Most pilots become less fearful of turbulence as they accumulate experience. While their basic biology prevents them from ever liking aerial rock and roll, they do learn to live with it.

It’s one thing to experience consistent moderate chop. Despite the bumps, we find the regularity somewhat acceptable because it seems predictable. It’s something entirely different to experience a light chop, then at unpredictable intervals a significant swat, followed by the who-knows-what additional kung-flew blows we might suffer. This is where we often are slaves to our imagination.

Our imagination is the second reason we dislike turbulence. We are unable to predict how bad the turbulence might become. In the absence of real data, we tend to imagine the worst of outcomes. In my opinion, this is what creates the most angst among both inexperienced and experienced pilots. While a proactive imagination might serve you well in daily life, it’s a big nuisance in the cockpit. Unfortunately, when it comes to your neocortex, you can never leave home without it. You can, however, find refuge in the knowledge that it’s extremely rare for clear air turbulence to turn an airplane turtle—let alone break one apart. Knowing this is the antidote for an active imagination; apply as needed.

Despite the unpredictable nature of turbulence, with knowledge in our pocket and our noggin, we can learn to live it with it. Like it? That’s rough.