What is turbulence?
Turbulence occurs when the plane flies through pockets of rising and falling air called eddies. These can be caused by several factors. When we fly in layers of cloud, we experience turbulence, for instance, and also when we take off and land in gusty winds. Wake vortices created in the air by the airplane’s wings are another cause. “Clear-air turbulence” is the most unpleasant form of turbulence and can be of medium to great intensity. It occurs at high altitudes.
How do pilots cope?
During takeoff and landing, aircraft need to keep their distance from others to avoid the impact of wake vortices. In radio communiations, pilots describe large aircraft types as “heavy” and the A380 as “super” for differentiation purposes. The weather radar in the cockpit indicates the presence of nearby electric storms and turbulence so that we can give them a wide berth. Lastly, there are turbulent takeoffs and landings. Experience and good training are required to master these manually, as the autopilot may not be used in such situations.
Can turbulence be dangerous?
While turbulence is usually unpleasant for both passengers and crew, it can only become dangerous if it occurs suddenly and cannot be detoured, as in the case of clear-air turbulence. Aircraft stress limits are so high, however, that serious damage is improbable. All the same, it’s a good idea to keep your seatbelt fastened whenever possible, as we pilots do.