Confession: I am an anxious flyer.
It hasn’t stopped me from flying, but I walk down the jet bridge as if down a plank, doomed to think dark thoughts until the plane lands. The thing that makes those feeling acute for me – and many others – is turbulence. On a recent flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia I turned to my fellow passengers at the gate for fretful solidarity. This strategy initially backfired – “I like turbulence, it’s kind of fun. Kind of like a rollercoaster,” one bright-eyed Josie Cole told me –until I found Kathryn Winterle.
She called herself a “terribly frightened flyer,” and said she usually took medication and prayed a lot on flights. She’s driven long distances to avoid flights, taken trains.
“I just freak out,” she said. “Fortunately I’ve not been in one of those planes where it’s so bad people are harmed. I’m convinced if I were, I’d be murdered because I would carry on so badly. I don’t like turbulence at all and it freaks me out. I’d be screaming we’re going down, we’re going to die.”
Winterle was one of the last people to board. As the plane took off, a man several rows down reached his hand across the aisle to comfort his companion, who was clutching her armrest.
Twelve-year-old Daniel Kim wasn’t excited to fly, either. He was headed to a family reunion; it was just his second time flying.
“I already know that I’d be pretty scared if [turbulence] happened,” he said. He didn’t know why, just that it worried him.
It’s a common fear, said Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot. Smith also authored a book and writes a blog about flying. “It really amazed me when I started writing and covering air travel and fielding questions from the flying public just how many people are put off and made anxious by rough air,” he said. “It’s far and away the number one concern of anxious flyers and even just regular flyers.”
It surprised him because in the cockpit, turbulence is normal, more annoyance than concern. And pretty hands off. “When the air gets rough, you’re not fighting the forces, you’re not turning left as the plane wants to go right, and kind of battling with the turbulence. You’re more or less just riding it out,” Smith said.
While I am, wrongly, I admit, thinking about the wings or tail falling off and the plane spinning out of the sky like an injured bird, Smith is apparently thinking about….other stuff. “If I had a dollar for every time at the conclusion of a flight a passenger said, ‘Boy, that was pretty bumpy,’ and me and the other pilot will look at each other and just not have any recollection of it being bumpy at all.”
What is turbulence?
“A lot of turbulence comes about because of the same thing that causes all weather, which is the differential heating of the Earth’s surface by the sun,” said Roger Connor, an aeronautics curator at the National Air and Space Museum, who also has a pilot’s license.
The sun heats the Earth’s surface, which in turn warms the air sitting above it, causing it to rise. But things absorb and reflect heat at different rates. And so air, depending on whether it’s sitting over hot pavement or a cooler grassy field, will float up at different speeds. The streams of chaotically moving air bump up against each other and cause a plane flying through them to wobble. Features on the ground, like hills, can force air up and create turbulence, too.
Think of it as a river, where the current changes depending on whether the water courses over a smooth bottom, or over large boulders, or hits the bank. If you’re in a canoe, the uneven currents can jostle you, just like uneven air shakes up a plane.
This kind of turbulence is common low to the ground and because planes flew below 10,000 feet in the early days of commercial flight, in the 1930s, passengers experienced it often and fully.
“People would start getting sick and then it would start to sort of move up the cabin. That could be very unpleasant,” Connor said.
Unpleasant is a bit of an understatement, if we believe what a pilot named Ernest Gann wrote about flying in the 1930s, in his memoir. He wrote: “The winds are stagnant and sullen, yet the air is annoyingly potted with a multitude of minor vertical disturbances which sicken the passengers… The airplanes smell of hot oil and simmering aluminum, disinfectant, feces, leather, and puke. The stewardesses, short-tempered and reeking of vomit, come forward as often as they can for what is a breath of comparatively fresh air.”
Connor says the airsickness bag, now mostly a novelty, was well used back then.
After WWII, propeller driven aircrafts flew for another decade or so, but pressurized cabins and turbo superchargers allowed the planes to get up higher.
By the mid-1950s, jet aircrafts came online.
“Which of course means we can really get into the stratosphere, which really gets you out of that lower level zone of turbulence in the troposphere. And that does a huge amount to improve the quality of flight,” Connor said.
Also, turbulence prediction improved. Onboard and grounded radar, as well as constant updates from other planes all help pilots see where turbulence might happen and how to avoid it.
Though flights have become smoother, turbulence hasn’t disappeared. At higher altitudes, tall mountain ranges can lift up large air masses, which interact with other air streams, causing turbulence hundreds of miles downwind. Thunderstorms cause turbulence. And then there’s clear air turbulence – it’s caused by jetstreams, fast moving rivers of wind that loop around the globe, interacting with slower moving air. It’s invisible and hard to forecast.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, from 2010 to 2015 turbulence played a role in injuring 174 people, and killing 42, on domestic flights. The majority of fatalities were on personal or small planes.
Still, flying remains the safest mode of transport. There are .07 passenger fatalities per billion passenger miles on commercial aviation. That’s less than on buses, urban mass transit, rail, ferryboats, cars, and motorcycles.
So what comforts we’ve lost as plane cabins went from well-appointed living rooms to sardine cans with seatbelts, we gained in the quality of the ride itself.
The flight to Philadelphia proceeded smoothly – not a peep out of Kathryn Winterle. Daniel Kim, too, seemed more at ease. “Once I witnessed it, I guess it wasn’t too bad,” he said of the mild turbulence. “My next flight home, it’s probably going to be okay, as well.”
That’s right, it’s probably going to be okay.