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Home > Air Turbulence > More on turbulence - how severe is this experience?
More on turbulence - how severe is this experience?
Weather - Air Turbulence
Tuesday, 11 December 2007 21:08

Hello Capt Lim,

Thank you so much for your great site! I have some questions for you.

I am wondering what CAN happen to a plane in the air, for instance, I was flying this weekend and we had turbulence like I have never felt before. We are talking about full-fledged amusement-park-ride antics... no joke! We were holding onto our seats and praying, holding hands. People were throwing up! I was bargaining with God. It was probably the most scary experience I have ever been in my entire life! The wind was batting us around like we were some little piñata. We did the dips where you felt like you are losing your stomach, the speed varied a lot, we went higher, lower, side to side! It was CRAZY! and of course, we were incredibly freaked out.

We got within 13 miles of our destination and had to turn around and go back to Chicago because the pilot said it was too dangerous to land. There were thunderstorms coming in. It was insane. We landed back at our point of departure. It was after midnight. They said they have got another plane all fueled up and ready to go. We heard the weather had moved east and it would be okay.

In the meantime, at the airport we were told that for our ride home, we needed to change crews, and that was why we were late. Nice lying tactics! ANYWAY, after an hour of waiting for a new plane, the Captain came out and talked to us and told us he was too tired to fly back. They tried to call up another Captain at home. They could not and had to cancel the flight.

So, my questions are:

(1) How close were we to something REALLY going wrong? Someone was talking about wind shear and how these planes were not meant to withstand it. (Boeing 737, I think, 6 seats across, one hour flight). I mean, what can possibly go wrong in the air? Can we get battered around and have the wings snap off? What is the REAL scoop?

(2) Was this the pilot incompetent? Why did they send us up if they KNEW there were storms?

(3) What would you guess was the severity of this - severe? extreme?

Thanks so much for your time,

J Dolce

Hi Jessica,

I do empathize with your predicament that you were caught up with. As a pilot, I must confess that a bad turbulence is really a bad experience and I always steer clear of them whenever I could!

To answer your question, I can assure you that the airplane is fully capable of taking a severe turbulence without the wings snapping off (I have said this a number of times in my other answers to many previous FAQs!). Of course, it must have been very uncomfortable to be thrown about. If you were securely fastened to your seat belts and the overhead luggage doors were locked, you could say that your turbulent flight was similar to an amusement-park-ride and nothing more!

It is difficult for me to judge if the pilot was competent or not. If your flight were a short sector of about one hour, it would usually depart as scheduled. Depending on the type of weather that is forecasted, a flight in the vicinity of a thunderstorm or microburst can be very turbulent. It is up to the pilot to avoid them. What happen if the thunderstorm is exactly overhead the airport? The pilot is usually informed of turbulence by the air traffic information service or if he is flying with a wind shear warning equipment, he could avoid the turbulence by aborting the landing or divert to another Airport.

I would access the turbulence you experienced as 'severe'.

Hi again,

Thanks so much! This is a VERY thorough answer and I will pass it on to my friend who flew with me. One final question, can turbulence ACTUALLY cause any harm? I mean what would be the WORST CASE SCENARIO? I can't find this sort of information anywhere and I figured you would probably know. I understand that I was safe in the circumstances I was in... and I know most fatalities happen because individuals are not belted in. But, what CAN happen? Could we go into a nose dive? Could the wings be damaged? Could we somehow flip over? Or are the ONLY dangers in planes happen during take-off, landing, climb and descent?

Thank you so much for all your time and attention!

Jessica

Hi Jessica,

A severe turbulence can cause injuries to crew and passengers if they are not fastened to their seat belts. The airplane will not nose dive because is designed to be very stable horizontally and laterally. It will follow any updrafts or downdrafts in severe turbulence but it will still remain in level flight. The wings will not be damaged nor can it flip over. However, during the approach to landing phase of the flight, a severe wind shear quite close to ground can cause an airplane to crash. All pilots have been trained to abort such a landing if an approach is not stabilized by 500 feet. The Boeing 777 has a wind shear warning system to warn pilots of severe turbulence during approach to land.

Please read my previous topic on Wind Shear.

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