For frequent travelers, a little bit of turbulence on a flight is a humdrum occurrence. The seatbelt light pops on, the pilot might offer a brief explanation over the speaker system, the ride gets bumpy, it smoothes out, the light goes off.
Some airplane passengers straight-up ignore the warning light — casually strolling to the bathroom or grabbing an iPad out of the overhead bin while the airplane dips and quivers.
But a recent airborne tragedy underscores why taking heed of those seatbelt signs are so essential — and how turbulence can even be deadly.
Dana J. Hyde, 55 years old and a mother of one, died in a turbulence incident on March 3.
She was traveling from New Hampshire to Virginia with her husband and son in a small private jet. (The jet belonged to her husband’s employer.) Rocked by severe turbulence, the plane was forced to divert to a Connecticut airport.
At some point during the bumpy flight, Hyde, a D.C.-area attorney, was injured; she was later declared dead at a Connecticut hospital. No one else aboard the flight, including two crew members, was hurt.
According to NPR, a medical examiner declared that Hyde died of blunt-force injuries. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
It’s a terrifying, frightening and unusual story. In the wake of this incident, you might be wondering, “Is turbulence dangerous?”
But as a sort-of-former anxious flyer, I can share that learning as much as you can about flying actually helps ease the nerves. Here are the answers to some common questions about this sometimes-scary phenomenon.
What Is Turbulence?
Basically, turbulence is an irregular motion of the air, according to the National Weather Service. Vertical currents and eddies (swirls) cause aircraft to bounce, shudder or momentarily go out of control. In extreme cases, structural damage can result.
Various atmospheric conditions, like thunderstorms, frosts or sharp changes in wind speed or direction, cause turbulence. So can mountain ranges or other large, static objects that divert wind in unpredictable ways.
Clear-air turbulence is particularly dangerous. Unlike other types, which pilots can usually predict and prepare for, this type seemingly comes out of nowhere. It typically occurs at higher altitudes, too, when the plane is cruising and passengers may move about.
The NWS categorizes turbulence into levels of intensity: light, moderate, severe and extreme. If you fly a lot, you’ve probably experienced most of these — light turbulence is those little bumps and jitters that don’t really do much; in severe turbulence unsecured objects fly around and passengers may be considering which deity they need to pray to.
The NWS’s description of the effects of extreme turbulence is simple: “Strong desire to land.”
Is Turbulence Dangerous?
Despite the occasional scary stories or videos, turbulence is usually not very dangerous at all.
Damage to the aircraft may happen if the turbulence is extreme, but that is uncommon. Pilots and flight attendants are trained to handle it in all kinds of conditions.
While deaths due to turbulence are rare, injuries do happen. The NTSB reported 146 turbulence-related injuries from 2009 through 2021. Most of those were crew members, who are usually up and about in airplane cabins, and not in a seatbelt.
Turbulence will not cause a plane to crash. Experts agree that the phenomenon is normal and that how we feel it tends to be subjective. We may overestimate altitude changes we experience as a result, for example.
Does The Size Of The Plane Matter?
In short, no. Some folks swear that the larger the plane, the smoother the ride, simply because heavier aircraft wouldn’t get jostled around as much by shifting air currents. But since so many factors come into play in any given situation, there’s no evidence that this is true.
“There’s no significant difference, though in people’s minds certain planes feel bumpier than others,” said commercial pilot Patrick Smith, on The Points Guy UK.
Can’t The Pilot Avoid Turbulence?
Another short answer: Not really.
On his blog, Ask The Pilot, Smith says that pilots do their best to avoid turbulence by watching the weather, keeping in contact with ground control and talking to fellow pilots in the sky. But there’s no way to completely dodge swirling, ever-changing air currents in the atmosphere.
He says that most of the time, pilots sidestep rough air for passengers’ comfort rather than for safety reasons. (They’re more likely to be worried about spilling their morning orange juice.) And a glance at the cockpit’s altimeter shows that those bumps that seem like big deals are just tiny hiccups in the plane’s altitude.
If It’s So Harmless, What’s The Big Deal?
A patch of bumpy air won’t hurt the aircraft. But it can hurt people who aren’t secured to their seats inside the aircraft.
Neck and head injuries result from unbuckled passengers or crew suddenly being thrown against the ceiling of the plane or into the seat in front of them. Tumbling bodies can slam into and injure other passengers, including those who are seated and buckled.
(This is why I cringe when I see folks clawing and weaving up the aisle like they’re summiting Everest, ignoring the lit seatbelt signs and all the sensory data available to them. “Please don’t go airborne and crash into my head, brawny adult man,” I’m thinking.)
How Do I Stay Safe?
It’s as easy as following the rules: When the seatbelt sign is illuminated, buckle your seatbelt. And, as the preflight announcements always say, keep it buckled when you’re seated. Even when the sign is turned off.
The Federal Aviation Administration recommends bringing along a flight-approved car seat to keep the littlest travelers secure. Unfortunately, your lap isn’t that safe in this situation — the FAA says unexpected turbulence is the number-one cause of pediatric injuries on an airplane. This is one reason you should buy an extra ticket for your child and use an approved child restraint system.
You don’t need to ruin your flights by never visiting the restroom or by keeping your wiggly kid strapped in for hours. But when the sign is lit, definitely get everyone buckled up. When it’s not lit, you should still limit the time spent unbuckled.
So, is turbulence dangerous? It can be, but extreme turbulence is rare. still, there’s a good reason for the precautions. You probably don’t want to start your vacation — or end it — in the back of an ambulance.