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Is turbulence dangerous? And other frequently asked questions from nervous flyers

by Steve Landells Flight Safety Specialist

You may have seen the news reports on the United Airlines flight that experienced unexpected turbulence that led to the plane making an emergency landing and 12 people needing hospital treatment.

Although on this occasion there were unfortunate injuries, turbulence is something we’ve all felt on a flight and it’s often so slight we ignore it. However, for nervous passengers even the slightest bump can bring out a cold sweat – so how dangerous is turbulence? As a former BA pilot and now Flight Safety Specialist at BALPA, I am often asked by nervous passengers some of the following common questions.

1. “Is turbulence dangerous?”

Turbulence can be uncomfortable, annoying and tiring but is rarely dangerous. Aircraft are designed to cope with any turbulence that nature can throw at them and I can’t recall any modern airliner crashing due to turbulence. The injuries we see tend to occur when people aren’t strapped in. This may be because the turbulence is encountered without warning but we also see quite a lot of people hurt because they don’t obey the “fasten seat belt” instructions. So, even if the signs aren’t on, always have your seatbelt done up when you are sitting down and don’t be tempted to get up when the Captain has told you to strap in; we are always talking to the pilots of aircraft ahead of us and, even if it is smooth when we put the signs on, we may know it is going to get bumpy soon.”

2. “What happens if the plane is struck by lightning?”

When an aircraft is struck by lightning, the energy within the lightning is kept on the outside of the fuselage either by the metal that the aircraft is made of or, in the case of modern composite materials, by a metal mesh that is built into the skin. This allows the lightning to track around the aircraft to a point where it can be discharged into the atmosphere. On occasion, some energy from a lightning strike will not stay on the outside so all electrical components within the aircraft are shielded against lightning and it has been many, many years since lightning caused an airliner to crash.

3. “What if I fall ill on the plane? How will I get help?”

Cabin crew are trained in first aid and aircraft often have quite comprehensive medical kits on board. When a passenger falls ill, and the cabin crew require more in depth medical assistance, many airlines sign up to 24 hours aviation medical services. This allows the pilots to contact the medical services in flight via SATCOM and receive advice from fully trained and qualified doctors who can advise what medication and treatment should be given and, if required, where the nearest airport with suitable medical facilities is in case a diversion is required.

4. “What if the pilot falls ill on the plane? Who will fly it?”

Pilots have regular, in-depth medicals and are given advice on food safety and potential issues concerning their health and the places they are flying to. But you can’t predict or prevent some cases of illness and precautions are taken to minimise the impact. All commercial airline flights have at least two pilots on board and on longer flights there may be three, or even four, pilots. In the case of a two pilot flight all pilots are trained to fly the aircraft on their own and he or she will declare an emergency to air traffic control so priority can be given to their aircraft.

5. “But isn’t flying getting less safe? There were lots of crashes last year…”

Flying is still the safest form of transport. While there were some high-profile crashes in 2015 it was, in terms of the number of fatal accidents, an extraordinarily safe year. More than 3.5 billion people flew safely on 37.6 million flights last year and there were only four fatal accidents. Hard to believe when you see the terrible images popping up on the news but these occurrences are incredibly rare and only get so much media attention because of how unusual they are.

6. “Don’t aircraft fly themselves now?”

Learning how to become a pilot is tough. Saying an aircraft flies itself is a bit like saying your computer sends emails. Yes, the email does go from your computer but you have to turn it on, you have to select the correct programme, decide who to send the email to and ultimately you have responsibility for what gets written and sent. Autoflight systems are just a whole bunch of computers that need to be loaded, monitored and fixed when they fail. It is the pilots who take responsibility for ensuring the safety of all on board when the systems fail, and it is their extensive training and knowledge that enables them to keep the plane in the air. “Crashing” is a term often associated with both computers and aircraft; one is an inconvenience and the other is avoided every day by highly-skilled professional pilots.


7. “What if the engine fails?”

In the early days of commercial flights if an aircraft suffered an engine failure the consequences were often very unpleasant. Nowadays, engine reliability is excellent and aircraft are designed to operate pretty much normally in the event of a single engine failure. Indeed, if a four engine aircraft loses an engine it may be possible to carry on with the planned flight as long as all the safety issues have been addressed. Pilots are trained to deal with an engine failure at any stage of flight and are tested on this during their regular simulator tests; the fact that the vast majority of us will never have to deal with one ever in our careers does not make pilots complacent.