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Airplane turbulence can be scary, but it’s no cause for alarm

Patrick Smith compiled a list of the five things that worry him the most when flying. Bird strikes and cargo fires made the cut; turbulence did not.

“Most of us in the cockpit are thinking, ‘This is really annoying,’ and not, ‘I hope the wings don’t rip off,’” said Smith, a veteran commercial air pilot who hosts the website Ask the Pilot.

Flight-crew members are not typically ruffled by turbulence; it’s one of their occupational nuisances. Smith describes bumpy air as an issue of “comfort and convenience over safety.” However, turbulence rattles many passengers, especially when untethered objects, such as drinks, snacks and electronics, briefly levitate.

Take, for example, a recent incident aboard an American Airlines flight traveling from Athens to Philadelphia. The intense bucking resulted in 10 injuries and, according to social media posts by travelers, beverage-stained ceilings and seat backs. One witness described the plane’s motion as a “free fall.”

A passenger’s fraught relationship with turbulence can cloud their experience. A nervous flier might compare the bobbing plane to a puppet on a jerky string or the Drop Tower theme park ride. But in reality, the plane is just shifting on its axis.

“The plane isn’t dropping or free-falling,” Smith said. “Even in relatively strong turbulence, a plane will barely budge from its heading or altitude.”

A boiling brew of meteorological, atmospheric and geological factors causes turbulence. For example, wind streaming over or downwind of mountains can unsettle the air. If you have ever flown over the Rockies, you have coasted on the “mountain wave.” Jet-stream turbulence happens when the air current flows around high- and low-pressure systems; terrain-induced turbulence results from land formations that stir up the air, such as the mountain range surrounding Hong Kong International Airport.

In summer, the ground can heat up unevenly, creating thermal updrafts capable of jostling…

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