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How to Protect Yourself When Turbulence Hits

Although there seem to be more cases of clear-air turbulence, flying is still the safest form of travel

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Keeping your seat belt fastened is the best defense against injury when there is turbulence.
Getty Images

Let’s start with words of reassurance: Commercial aviation is the safest form of public mass transit in the world.

It’s important to establish that point from the outset, because last week two cases of severe clear-air turbulence occurred that caused one death and injured several passengers.

On Friday, a Bombardier CL30 private plane headed from Keene, New Hampshire, to Leesburg, Virginia, experienced such violent turbulence that Dana Hyde, 55, one of three passengers on board, died. Just two days earlier, on March 1, actor Matthew McConaughey and his wife, Camila Alves McConaughey, were on a Lufthansa flight from Austin, Texas, to Frankfurt, Germany, when the Airbus A330 encountered “severe turbulence” that forced the plane to divert to Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Seven people were injured. In December 2022, 25 people were injured when a Hawaiian Airlines flight from Phoenix to Honolulu encountered clear-air turbulence.

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Although because of recent media reports it may seem like cases of extreme turbulence are occurring more frequently, pilots say their experiences in the skies do not point to stepped-up encounters. From 2009 to 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported 146 serious turbulence injuries. Two pilots who spoke to AARP indicated that although turbulence is scary, there is virtually no likelihood of it being the cause of a plane crash, and that clear-air turbulence is, was and always will be a part of flying.  

Capt. Timothy Raynor is a director of flight operations for American Airlines. He says that in the more than 35 years he’s been flying (including as an F-18 pilot in the Marine Corps), he’s encountered all three types of turbulence classifications — light, moderate and severe — yet he has no concerns about the effect of any of them on his aircraft.

“As pilots, we try to avoid encounters with turbulence at all costs, but oftentimes it is an inevitability,” says Raynor, 55. “The key to dealing with turbulence is to give your crew and your passengers a heads-up — as much of a heads-up as possible — especially to your crew, so that if the encounter is severe, they can communicate to the passengers while we aviate.”

Clear-air turbulence makes it a little more difficult to give passengers a preemptive warning, because it’s harder to detect. “But we communicate consistently with air traffic control and receive reports if clear-air turbulence is encountered by other pilots,” Raynor says.

The term “clear-air turbulence” (CAT) is distinguished from traditional convective turbulence (the kind caused by clouds and weather systems) in the sense that pilots cannot see it, and radar — for the most part — cannot detect it. Scientifically speaking, according to SKYbrary, an electronic repository of flight safety information put out by global air traffic controllers with FAA approval, CAT occurs at high altitudes and is caused by a disruption of smooth horizontal airflow into the jet engines or by vertical currents of air hitting the plane in unstable atmosphere.

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“The first thing I do as a captain is to turn on the seat belt sign,” Raynor says. “Then I pick up my intercommunications system and speak to my purser and tell them to prepare for certain types of turbulence, depending on what kind air traffic control is reporting.”

Raynor and other pilots have experienced enough cases of CAT to know that once it starts, you don’t necessarily know how severe it might become. As such, it’s better to hope for the least amount but to prepare for the extreme. It’s a sentiment reiterated by a former Air Force and current airline pilot.

Col. Sam Joplin, a 23-year veteran of the Air Force who now flies for a major carrier, says that while pilots can account for and prepare for most types of convective turbulence, clear-air turbulence sneaks up on pilots without any warning.

“Clear-air turbulence isn’t necessarily associated with visible weather,” says Joplin, who flies international flights two times per month. “Still, clear-air turbulence can happen out of the clear blue, and pilots and crews react accordingly.”

Joplin and Raynor offer these tips in the event that clear-air turbulence goes from light to severe.

  • Keep your seat belt fastened. “It sounds cliché and you’ve heard it a thousand times before,” Joplin says,” but it really is your best defense against injury.” To wit, the FAA requires that seat belts must be fastened during takeoff and landing, and whenever the pilot illuminates the “fasten seat belt” sign. Joplin says that most turbulence-related injuries are to passengers who were not strapped in when clear-air turbulence occurred and were therefore violently thrown across the cabin or into the ceiling. Major injuries also can occur when passengers who are not wearing their seat belts are thrown into or on top of those who are.

“A good rule of thumb: If you hear me tell you to take your seat and buckle up, and if you hear me instruct the flight crew to take their seats, suspend in-cabin services and buckle up, it’s a good idea to listen,” Raynor says. “It means we’ve been alerted to some encounters of turbulence, and we’re trying to prepare you for it.”

  • Make sure all your personal belongings and luggage are secured. Passengers also can be injured when the beverage cart is out, and luggage and drinks are unsecured. In that instance, aluminum cans and laptops can become projectiles.
  • Avoid panicking. Joplin encourages passengers to practice diaphragmatic breathing. He points to the University of Michigan health department’s recommendation to inhale through your nose for four seconds, hold for two seconds, then exhale out of your mouth for six seconds.

Although turbulence can be jarring, keep in mind that pilots train for every kind of weather phenomena. In addition, the aircraft has been tested to withstand 1.5 times the force on their frames, according to Executive Flyers, a trusted source of information for civil, commercial and military aviation.

“I know it’s scary when the plane is shaking while you’re 35,000 feet in the air,” Joplin says. “Just keep in mind that your pilot is not concerned, so you shouldn’t be either.”

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