Fear of Flying: An Email About Turbulence

I receive many emails from readers regarding the fear of flying. Many of them follow the same theme though, and this one that I received yesterday is relatively typical. I thought it would be helpful to post the email and my response here for all to see. Obviously names are left out.

I think your website is absolutely brilliant and just upon reading it, I’m starting to feel a little better about flying generally.

I am originally from Australia and I came to the U.S. three weeks ago on vacation. On the flight over here, we experienced sudden turbulence where I think the flight lost quite a bit altitude. The captains just told us to put our seat belts on but we didn’t get any further words from him. The movement was so rapid that people in the flight actually yelped (some shouted). As someone who already has a fear of flying, this has caused me a great deal of tension.

At the end of the flight, we talked to the captain who said that it was nothing to worry about and that the turbulence occurred because they just hit a cloud that they didn’t foresee. Is this generally anything to worry about? I have a 20 hour flight back to Sydney in two days and am tensing up just thinking about it. Would it be wise to take sleeping pills on the plane to calm myself down so that I don’t notice anything or is that a dangerous thing to do (in the event that something happens to the plane)?

Your website is fantastic and your time and efforts in writing this for passengers like myself is very much appreciated. I must also tell you that I have always respected the hardwork that is done by cabin crew on any flight. It can’t possibly be easy to manage so many responsibilities and yet it is done in a way that seems so effortless.

Thankyou so much! Please keep this website going. If (and only if) you have time, it would be great to hear from you within the next day or so – my flight is in two days!!!

Kind regards,

Flying Fear Reader

Here is my reply. As you know I am not a pilot, so I only have limited technical knowledge…..

Firstly, thank you for your kind comments. Feedback like that makes it worth my while running the site. You are in luck as I’m on a well earned day off today, so I am able to reply to you quickly.

Turbulence is a source of many passengers fear of flying. Even the most experienced flyers can be turned into a quivering wreck if things get a little bumpy. Personally, I was surprised to find out how scary it is for most people. Guess I’m just used to it.

Pilots always try and actively avoid turbulence. They don’t do this for safety reasons, but for comfort. When you’ve paid hundreds of Pounds/Dollars/Euros for a flight, the least we can offer is a comfortable, hassle free journey. Pilots who fly cargo (i.e. FedEx) will not avoid turbulence because they don’t have anyone sat in the back to worry about!

Sometimes though, it’s impossible to avoid bumpy air, and in this case a pilot will normally slow down. This has the same effect as driving slowly over speed bumps, minimizing the feeling of movement.

Most turbulence is visible on aircraft radar, but some ‘Clear Air Turbulence’ isn’t. This seems to be what you experienced on your recent flight. The Captain was correct in saying that there was absolutely NO DANGER. I can promise that he was not just saying that to make you feel better! Every now and then we can hit sudden turbulence, and that’s why we always recommend you keep your seatbelt loosely fastened throughout the flight.

Another important point to make is that the aircraft did not drop anywhere near as much as it felt it did. Even the most severe turbulence only causes a drop of a matter of inches, but it feels more due to the fact that the aircraft drops before you do leading to a sensation of falling. What you may not have noticed is the aircraft immediately moving upwards again. A falling sensation always seems more scary than an upwards movement, and therefore your mind focuses on the drop and forgets the corresponding upwards movement immediately following it.

One final point. Many fearful passengers imagine the pilot struggling to control the aircraft during turbulence. This is not the case. The autopilot will remain in control of the aircraft. In fact, modern autopilots have a special turbulence ‘mode’ that reduces the amount of corrections it makes. For example, in normal mode if the aircraft is pushed left by turbulence, the autopilot will immediately move it back towards the right. In turbulence mode however, it will not make that adjustment, as it understands that the aircraft will automatically be pushed back in that direction by the movement of air. I hope that makes sense! Turbulence mode basically helps allow a smoother journey through turbulent conditions.

Turbulence is completely natural. It has always been around, and always will be. Media reports that suggest that turbulence brings down aircraft is untrue, and unjustified. Fear sells news, and so these reports are simply selling fear. It annoys me enough to have emailed my complaints to a few journalists in my time! People that know nothing about flying, should not write about these subjects unless they are willing to do a little research first!

Sleeping pills are not recommended, but if you feel you need to take them then it’s ok. All I would say is not to take a high dose!

If you have a question you would like to ask, then please do so. I will always try to answer you as quickly as possible.

2 responses to “Fear of Flying: An Email About Turbulence”

  1. Hi!

    i just recently discovered your websit and i have a HUGE fear of flight. ive flown many times and never had any problems (obviously). I never was really afraid of flying as a kid. I mean, as a kid i thought it was awesome to be that high up in the air. in eight grade i even flew straight form LAX to Osaka, japan and LOVED flying but now that im not a kid anymore, i have a HUGE fear of flying. The thought of it literally makes me dizzy, nauseous, black out, etc… im flying from LAX to JFK and recently ive been considering taking a train due to my large fear. my fear is not of turbulence or anything to do with turbulence but of engine failure. engine failure or a wing falling off. something like that. something where the plane equipment actually fails and we are goin down.

    i leave in about 12 days to NYC and i couldnt be happier. but my anxiety is getting worse and worse. the thought of being that high up in the air….i dont know if i can do it again. i just want to have FUN on my flights now. i want to get on that plane and NOT have a panic attack. Im flying jetblue, which i read has had no fatalities at all. so that makes me feel better!!! but any tips or advice would make me feel SO much better. thank you so much for your time

    Sheldon Bishop (temecula, CA)

  2. Hello everyone
    I’m Monica, from Italy. I’m reading as many articles as possible related to the topics since the end of august when on a flight London Glasgow I had my worst flying experience ever…after 20 years flying…

    Since then I’ve been flying everywhere with no fear, really facing the flight as normal travel and no more, after that turbulence and strongly shake of the plane, where the hostess was thrown from one side to the other and everything was shaking…
    Since then I cannot face to get on a plane…or when I did to go to Romania , I had to spent the whole time with hostess in the back, not able to breath and going on panic all the time the plane lightly shaking…

    And this panic comes even before…when I just think about getting on the plane…similar to panic attack…I feel sudden cold and then sudden warm and so on..and nightmares about dying ….

    I need to fly as I lead a youth organization and we work at international level, but at the moment I’m stuck at home!!! No way about thinking of flying!! ( I was supposed to fly to Poland this weekend, but left it, could not overcome fear)

    Thanks for helping somehow!

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