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How to Deal With Mid-Air Bumps and Severe Turbulence
Guidance from pilots, psychologists and air-travel experts.
Use these tips and tricks from aviation experts to stay calm at cruising altitude.
For many of us, the prospect of flying from point A to B in bumpy conditions can incite panic, dread and a few white-knuckled moments. Though flight anxiety can be triggered by myriad fears, turbulence tends to be a top catalyst, explains Martin Seif, a clinical psychologist and author who studied phobias to remedy his own fear of flying. And with an uptick in reports of turbulence-related injuries in 2016 and 2017, it's no wonder jetsetters are jittery about unexpected jolts at 35,000 feet. While getting over a fear of turbulence takes practice and patience, these expert pointers can help you begin to navigate bumpy rides with relative ease.
Debunk common misconceptions about turbulence.
"People have very skewed ideas of what turbulence is," Seif explains. While shifting wind patterns, stronger winds and atmospheric pressure can cause air to turn choppy and planes to rise, fall and tilt, the reality is airplanes are constructed to withstand turbulence. "If you're worried that the airplane will break up during a turbulence encounter, don't. Engineers took care of that that for us a long time ago," explains Steve Casner, author of the book, "Careful: A User's Guide to Our Injury-Prone Minds," a flight instructor and NASA research psychologist. "If you're flying slower than what we call the 'turbulence penetration speed,' nothing on the airplane will break as a result of rough air," he says. Pilots always slow down commercial planes to prevent reaching this speed and ensure they maneuver through turbulence safely and avoid putting the aircraft itself at risk.
Learn about flight safety features and statistics.
Before your trip, brush up on flight mechanics. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America offers online resources for jittery flyers. Or, you can attend a Fear of Flying clinic at San Francisco International Airport. "Engineers designed the airframe [of commercial planes] to withstand more force than your own body can tolerate without suffering any deformity or damage. Then, they multiplied that force factor by 1.65 for good measure and designed our aircraft to withstand that force," explains Chris Manno, a pilot, professor, author and current Boeing 737 captain for a major U.S. airline. It's also wise to educate yourself on turbulence statistics to use logic as an antidote to emotional thinking. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, only 44 passengers suffered from serious turbulence-related injuries in 2016, and of those flyers, 33 were flight attendants.
"Turbulence still spooked me even after I became a commercial pilot," Casner admits. "I knew it was completely irrational, but I couldn't turn off that fearful reaction when the bouncing started up," he says. To combat his anxiety, he took a lighthearted approach after watching a flight instructor bounce with the aircraft during turbulence. "A pretty silly routine, but I couldn't help being affected by his confidence and calm," Casner says. "So I started doing it, too. … You're not only empowering yourself, but you're empowering those around you by broadcasting your confidence to them," he explains. With your seatbelt securely fastened, turbulence is harmless, he adds. "Let that knowledge guide your reactions."
Focus on the present.
"Turbulence is primarily a form of anticipatory anxiety," or a phenomenon in which flyers increase negative expectations to respond to the possibility of a panic-inducing trigger, Seif says. You might start to think to yourself: What if the turbulence lasts for a long time and rattles the plane? What if I get sick? What if the plane gets damaged? Instead of trying to escape an uncomfortable situation, challenge yourself to experience discomfort and confront your fear head on, he says. To pacify anxious thoughts, rely on reason rather than letting your mind drift to "what-if" scenarios and aspects of air travel that are outside of your control, he says.
Trust your pilot.
Pilots are not only aware of upcoming turbulent conditions, but they're also taking additional safety measures you might not realize. "First and foremost, we're in constant contact with air traffic control and other aircraft sharing what we call PIREPS [pilot reports] about turbulence and weather along our route of flight," Manno explains, emphasizing that pilots warn of bumpy conditions, along with "routes and altitudes that are smooth," he says. What's more, pilots research weather patterns, change their course and adjust their altitude to dodge choppy conditions, he says.
Don't ignore the seatbelt sign.
To prevent in-flight injuries, engineers have developed an effective safety feature: the seatbelt. "Not everyone understands how effective that little waist strap really is," Casner says. Even in severe turbulence, "if you're wearing that belt, your chances of getting hurt become vanishingly small," he says. He advises listening to your flight attendants and keeping your seatbelt fastened at all times while seated. "That's your protection against sudden, unexpected turbulence," he says, noting that nearly all turbulence-related injuries happen to passengers who have unbuckled their seatbelt and neglected to follow instructions provided by their pilot or flight attendant.
Technological advancements help pilots detect and steer clear of turbulence.
"We get better at detecting turbulence all the time, and it will get even better in the future," Casner says. While clear air turbulence is still difficult to detect because it's invisible, "there's a laser-based detection system in the works that will allow us to see it," he adds. Plus, pilots currently rely on state-of-the-art technology, Manno says. Today's "solid state radar constantly measures changes in the air ahead, using Doppler technology that continuously detects and compares changes in wind speed and direction ahead," he explains. "The radar system is integrated with the navigation platform," he says. The result: Pilots can use the system to predict upcoming turbulence on the horizon.
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