(Below is my contribution to the Travel 3Sixty in-flight magaine for October 2015)
Some air travellers describe their encounter with air pockets as dropping thousands of feet.
I have often explained that the experience is similar to travelling on land where a smooth road suddenly gives way to bumps and potholes, making the journey a little uncomfortable.
WHAT IS AN AIR POCKET?
In spite of the term being quoted so often, it is in fact impossible for there to be a ‘pocket’ in the sky as air vacuum cannot exist in the atmosphere.
The term ‘air pocket’ was allegedly invented by a journalist who was covering the First World War from an aircraft. It is assumed that he was referring to the jostling of the plane and attributed the cause to ‘pockets of air’ while he was flying around. The expression caught on and travellers still refer to turbulence as air pockets.
For the purpose of this article, let me replace the term ‘air pockets’ with ‘turbulence’. It is almost impossible to avoid turbulence on most long-haul flights, and even on some short-haul trips. Pilots do their best to steer clear of the conditions that cause turbulence by deviating from the aircraft’s pre-determined route and climbing or descending. However, there are still times when the aircraft may experience unavoidable turbulence.
During turbulence, the wings can be seen flexing a little and the engines, shaking slightly on the pylon. This should not cause alarm as the wings and engines are designed to do just that.
There is a requirement that planes must be manufactured according to a number of regulations. One such regulation stipulates that the aircraft’s wings are built strong enough to withstand up to 150 per cent of force (the most extreme force an aircraft is ever expected to encounter during normal operation).
THE SCIENCE BEHIND IT
According to Captain Tom Bunn, a therapist, pilot and the founder of SOAR (a programme designed to help those with a fear of flying), turbulence is the number one problem among people who have a fear of flying. According to Captain Bunn’s research, what people see is the inside of the plane and they imagine the plane being vulnerable high up in the sky as nothing is holding it up. Though their rational brain may understand that air can hold the plane up, their emotional brain needs to ‘see to believe’. The emotional brain, which is primarily visual, cannot see anything holding the plane up. And with nothing holding it up, it cannot comprehend how the plane remains in the air.
If you were on a stepladder, lost your balance and fell, the amygdala (part of the brain that releases stress hormones) would zap you with stress hormones to make you aware of the situation. When the plane drops in altitude during turbulence, the amygdala reacts in the same way.
Always buckle up during turbulence. Image: GETTY
It would be okay if the turbulence consisted of just one drop. But turbulence means one drop after another, and you get bombarded with stress hormones. When stress hormones build up, the ability to think normally decreases. This is something akin to temporary schizophrenia. Whatever you have in your mind is accepted as real and a drop of a few feet feels a lot more dramatic!
HOW YOUR BRAIN REACTS
There are two types of memory cells in your brain: quick-learning and slow-learning. When two incidents happen at the same time or in quick succession, the quick-learning cells link the two incidents together. But, if the first incident happens several times without the second incident happening, the quick-learning cells do a quick relearning – they unlink the two incidents.
The slow-learning cells on the other hand, need the two incidents to happen at the same time or in quick succession several times before they link them in the mind. Then, after linking them, if the two incidents stop happening together, the slow-learning cells are slow to relearn that there is no connection between the two incidents.
During a trauma, both the quick-learning and slow-learning cells treat the situation as life-threatening. If the situation repeats a few times and nothing traumatic happens, the quick-learning cells accept that. This, however, is not the case with the slow-learning cells. They refuse to accept that what once was convincingly life-threatening is now not.
What does this tell us about turbulence? Once you have been in turbulence and believed you were in a precarious situation, the slow-learning cells will continue – although not as strongly as at first – to react to turbulence.
This I believe, explains why no matter how much I try to reassure guests that turbulence is not a safety problem, anxious fliers, who have experienced rough turbulence, still fear it.
Please remember that a pilot can fly safely through turbulence. This phenomenon is really just a nuisance for all, including the crew. It is not a safety issue but rather one of discomfort. Just remember to always buckle up!
BE NOT AFRAID
I hope my explanation will help you understand why you should not be afraid of turbulence. Knowledge is power.
Turbulence is something that all fliers go through and there is no reason to fear it.
DID YOU KNOW?
• Aircraft rarely experience dramatic drops in altitude as the autopilot is in control most of the time.
• Airplanes experience turbulence because they are moving under their own power against the atmosphere. In hot air balloons, there is no turbulence because they flow with the wind, not push against it.
• Turbulence has been given nicknames such as ‘roller coaster ride’, ‘spiller of coffee’, and ‘rattler of nerves’.
Captain Lim Khoy Hing is a former AirAsia Airbus A320 and AirAsia X A330/A340 pilot who also used to fl y the Boeing 777. He has logged a total of more than 25,500 flying hours and is now a Simulator Flight Instructor with AirAsia X. In his spare time, he shares his opinion on aviation issues with others. For more air travel and aviation stories, check out his website, ‘Just About Flying’ at www.askcaptainlim.com.
Captain Lim’s book, LIFE IN THE SKIES, which won third place in the Reader’s Choice Award at the Malaysia BookFest 2015, and its Mandarin version 【飞行日记】 are now available for purchase onboard all AirAsia and AirAsia X flights. Enjoy these great collections of articles by a veteran aviator.
If you like what you read, more stories are found in my book LIFE IN THE SKIES (Preview here) and you can purchase a copy here. To check for any latest updates or postings, you can follow my Twitter at @CaptKHLim or Facebook here