Turbulence – is it safe and where should I sit?

When talking to various people I find that at least half of them have some sort of anxiety towards flying and almost all of them charge turbulence as their main fear.  It’s an understandable fear – you’re being bounced around in a metal tube more than 6 miles up with nowhere to go, which is never a nice feeling (apologies if that’s just instilled a new fear into those who didn’t have one – I’ll attempt to allay it now).

The fact is, apart from it being uncomfortable and possibly spilling your coffee, turbulence isn’t going to damage the plane and is perfectly safe. What causes it is basically differing layers of air pressure pushing against each other (in other words blustery wind). These layers change as you climb in altitude and can sometimes result in turbulence. If you’ve ever had the rare encounter with severe turbulence (your coffee no longer in its cup) you may think that the plane is dropping hundreds (or even thousands) of feet – in reality, it’s fluctuating usually not more than about fifty feet. 

A good analogy to understand it better is a speedboat bouncing along the waves at sea. Turbulence is essentially the same thing. It’s levels of air (fluid) at different pressures and density on top of each other – in the case of the speedboat, light density fluid (air) on top of heavy density fluid (sea water).

So as uncomfortable as it is for you in the cabin, the aircraft itself is made to withstand it (and a lot more). 

So where do I sit to minimise the effect of turbulence on a flight? 

Unfortunately there’s no where on the aircraft that you can sit to completely avoid turbulence if the plane encounters it, but you can minimise the effect by sitting close to the wings (in the middle of the aircraft) – this is the aerodynamic centre of the aircraft and, when in turbulence, it pivots about this point. If you’re in a position to select your seat before you board the aircraft then check out www.seatguru.com and it will show you what seat numbers are by the wings on your particular flight. 

If you have any further questions about turbulence (or any other flying query) then email us at hello@askthepilots.com or on Twitter at @AskThePilots

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