Q: Peter, I have always been told that turbulence is nothing to be afraid of. However, since the Air France crash off the coast of Brazil in June, I am no longer confident. What can you tell me about turbulence to help me overcome this fear?
–Sheri, Washington, D.C.
A: It's perfectly understandable to be a little concerned about airplane safety in light of recent events, but you know what? There's really no need to be.
According to AirSafe.com, there have been only six deaths caused by turbulence since 1980, and these all resulted from people not being buckled into their seats when the plane hit hazardous weather conditions. There have been also been hundreds of injuries, but again, these were overwhelmingly caused by failing to use a seat belt.
Airplanes have incredibly safe cabins. The FAA mandates that all commercial aircraft be built to withstand far more stress than they would ever encounter during rough turbulence, assuming they are traveling at an appropriate airspeed. Additionally, pilots of large commercial airliners are trained to avoid particularly nasty thunderstorms if they can.
The crash of Air France Flight 447 is suspected to have been caused indirectly by turbulence, but at this writing, the focus of the investigation has shifted to faulty speed readings and computer malfunctions. Investigators currently believe that airspeed indicators were displaying incorrect readings, which may have caused the pilots to speed up to unsafe levels. When a plane goes too fast in turbulence, it could potentially be subjected to excessive g-forces that it cannot withstand. Investigators also think there was a massive electrical failure, which would have made the plane very hard to control in any weather.
It is worth noting that other planes traveled through the same storm at the same time that the doomed Air France jet did, yet they made it to their destinations safely.