Understanding Turbulence: Navigating Through Nature’s Bumps

November 14, 2023 Written by; Aviation Seminars

Cirrus flying through turbulence

If you have ever flown, you have more than likely experienced unexpected jolts in mid-air. That shaking is called turbulence! While it might feel alarming, especially since we’re not naturally equipped for flight like birds, turbulence is a normal part of flying.

This edition of Quick Tips aims to demystify turbulence, explaining what causes it and why it’s usually no cause for alarm. The understanding and management of turbulence have significantly evolved with advancements in aviation technology.

What is Turbulence?

Turbulence is essentially a sudden change in airflow, causing the airplane to experience various levels of bumpy movement. Most turbulence encountered during flights is “clear-air” turbulence, resulting from the collision of different air temperatures. It’s categorized as light, moderate, severe, or extreme, though 80% of turbulence experienced is typically light. 

What is turbulence?

Pilots are trained to understand and react to these different types, and aircraft are equipped with instruments like gyroscopes to aid in maintaining stability.

Causes of Turbulence

  • Mechanical Turbulence: Occurs when airflow is disrupted by physical obstructions like buildings or mountains.
  • Thermal (Convective) Turbulence: Caused by the sun heating the Earth’s surface, leading to rising warm air that mixes with cooler air.
  • Frontal Turbulence: Happens due to the friction between opposing air masses and is common in thunderstorms.
  • Wind Shear: Arises from changes in wind direction and speed over a certain distance, potentially causing severe turbulence.
  • Clear Air Turbulence: Occurs at high altitudes when moving between different air masses and is challenging to detect visually or with standard weather radar.

Turbulence Intensity

  • Light: Gentle shaking felt, akin to crossing over mountain ranges.
  • Moderate: Sudden jolts, similar to hitting a pothole in a car.
  • Severe: Comparable to a roller coaster ride.
  • Extreme: Intense shaking, extremely rare and potentially dangerous.
Turbulence intensity

Turbulence: Common and Safe

Contrary to what passengers might feel, turbulence typically causes only minor altitude changes (10-20 feet). It’s common and safe, with the FAA reporting that from 2009 to 2021, 146 people suffered serious injuries from turbulence out of millions of flights, about one serious injury per million flights.

These injuries, which the FAA defines as those requiring hospitalization for more than 48 hours or resulting in severe physical harm, illustrate that while turbulence is the leading cause of in-flight injuries, it is still a relatively rare occurrence (source: NewsNationNow, KPCC).

Pilot Training

Pilot training for managing turbulence is a comprehensive process, combining theoretical knowledge, practical skills, and the use of advanced technology. Here’s a detailed look at how pilots are trained to handle turbulence:

Theoretical Training

  1. Meteorology: Pilots learn about weather patterns and phenomena, including the causes and characteristics of turbulence. Understanding thermal, mechanical, and clear-air turbulence, along with wind shear and frontal systems, is crucial.

  2. Aerodynamics: Training covers how turbulence affects aircraft performance. Pilots learn about the aerodynamic principles that keep the plane stable and how turbulence can impact these principles.

  3. Turbulence Intensity Levels: As mentioned, pilots are educated about different turbulence categories (light, moderate, severe, extreme) and the specific challenges each presents. Each level of turbulence has a set of strategies or interventions for pilots to overcome or at least lessen the impact on passengers. 

Simulator Training

  1. Flight Simulators: Pilots undergo extensive training in flight simulators that can mimic various turbulence scenarios. These simulations provide a safe environment to practice responses to different levels and types of turbulence.

  2. Decision-Making Exercises: Simulator sessions include scenarios where pilots must decide whether to change altitude or route to avoid turbulence. They learn to balance passenger comfort with flight efficiency and safety.

  3. Instrumentation Familiarization: Pilots practice using the aircraft’s instruments to maintain the correct flight attitude during turbulence, even when visual cues are unreliable.

Practical Skills

  1. Maintaining Attitude: Pilots are trained to focus on maintaining the aircraft’s attitude (orientation with respect to the horizontal plane) rather than a specific altitude during turbulence.

  2. Speed Adjustment: Training includes how to adjust the aircraft’s speed to the optimal rate for different turbulence intensities, reducing the strain on the aircraft and the discomfort experienced by passengers.

  3. Communication Skills: Effective communication with the flight crew, air traffic control, and passengers is crucial. Pilots are trained to provide clear, timely updates about turbulence and safety instructions.

Advanced Technology Usage

  1. Weather Radar: Pilots learn to interpret weather radar data, which helps in anticipating and avoiding areas of potential turbulence.

  2. Automated Systems: Training includes using the aircraft’s automated systems, which can assist in maintaining stability during turbulence.

Recurrent Training

  1. Ongoing Training: Pilots regularly undergo recurrent training to keep their skills sharp and stay updated on the latest best practices and technological advancements.

  2. Emergency Procedures: While extreme turbulence is rare, pilots are trained in emergency procedures should a severe turbulence encounter lead to injuries or equipment malfunction.

Real-World Experience

  1. Mentorship and Co-Piloting: New pilots gain experience by flying with seasoned captains, observing and learning how to handle turbulence in real-life situations.

  2. Continuous Learning: Pilots are encouraged to learn from their own experiences and those of their peers, continually refining their approach to turbulence management.

Passenger Tips for Turbulence

  • Stay Calm: Understand that turbulence is a regular part of flying.
  • Follow Safety Measures: Keep your seatbelt fastened when seated.
  • Distract Yourself: Engage in activities or practice relaxation techniques.
  • Listen to Cabin Crew: Follow their instructions for safety.


Turbulence, while potentially unsettling, is a manageable aspect of air travel. Modern aircraft and pilot training are adept at handling these natural occurrences, ensuring safety and comfort. When compared to other modes of transportation, air travel remains one of the safest, with incidents like turbulence being well within the scope of normal and manageable conditions. Remember, turbulence is like a bumpy road in the sky – annoying, but not a threat to your journey.

Whether you are an aspiring pilot, aviation enthusiast, or a seasoned professional, there is always something new to learn in the world of aviation.

Stay engaged, keep exploring, and join the conversation on how these innovations are shaping the future of pilot training. Contact Us and share your experiences, ask questions, and connect with a community of like-minded individuals passionate about aviation. Together, we can soar to new heights!