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.
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.”