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Don't let turbulence freak you out

By Brett Snyder, Special to CNN
Turbulence is usually more unsettling than it is dangerous.
Turbulence is usually more unsettling than it is dangerous.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rough air usually feels a lot worse than it is
  • Planes are built to withstand tremendous force on the body and wings
  • Thunderstorms can be dangerous, but pilots are trained to navigate around them

Editor's note: Brett Snyder writes a weekly CNN.com travel column. Snyder is the founder of air travel assistance site Cranky Concierge, and he writes the consumer air travel blog, The Cranky Flier.

(CNN) -- From a little jolt to an all-out roller coaster ride, turbulence is a routine event when it comes to flying, but it scares the heck out of a lot of travelers. Fortunately, if you follow directions, your chances of getting hurt are slim to none.

The first thing to remember with turbulence is that it's almost never as bad as you think. In severe turbulence, it might seem like you dropped 100 feet, but it was probably not even 10.

Consider driving fast down a dirt road. If you tried to hold on to a cup of water on that ride, you'd be just fine except for the thorough soaking you'd get about two seconds in. On the other hand, if you're in an airplane that hits turbulence, your water usually won't even splash outside of the cup.

Unfortunately, we don't have the ability to see that next bump in the sky just yet. For control freaks like me and countless others, that's an anxiety-producing experience. But there are some important things to know about turbulence that should help calm your nerves.

You aren't going to crash

Airplanes pass through turbulence all day, every day, and how often have you heard of an airplane actually crashing because of it? At cruising altitude, it just doesn't happen. And in other stages of flight it's, at most, very, very rare. It takes a lot more than bumps along the way to down a plane.

Planes are built to stay in the air. They are meant to withstand insane amounts of force on the body and wings. (See how far the Boeing 777 wings bent in testing before breaking). Airplanes have come out of extreme turbulence with the interiors looking like they were hit by a tornado, but the aircraft itself flew just fine. But that doesn't mean you should just ignore it. Turbulence can still break bones or even kill if you aren't smart.

Fasten your seatbelts

If there's one thing you should do when flying to stay safe, it's keeping your seatbelt fastened any time you're sitting down. If you need to get up to go to the bathroom, do it when the seatbelt sign is off. Otherwise, stay seated. Why?Because the people who don't put their seatbelts on are the ones who do their best impression of pancakes sticking to the ceiling when the ride gets really rough.

There are several severe turbulence incidents each year that get reported in the news. And inevitably, a handful of people get hurt. But if you have your seatbelt on, you'll be fine. The injuries come from hitting heads on the ceiling or being thrown around in the aisle like a rag doll. If you're seated with your belt on, it's like a roller coaster ride and nothing worse.

Thunderstorms

Remember that I said it's rare, not unheard of, for turbulence to bring airplanes down. There is one kind of turbulence that has been known to cause accidents -- the turbulence generated by thunderstorms.

The updrafts and sudden wind shifts can be so violent that a big thunderstorm can bring an airplane down, especially if it happens near the ground. But pilots learned long ago to fly around storms.

Modern airplanes have sophisticated radar detection that allow pilots to navigate around thunderstorms. You might be in the middle of the clouds, but you aren't flying through the heart of a storm cell unless your pilot has made a big mistake.

Though we don't know exactly what brought down Air France flight 447 over the Atlantic on its way from Brazil to France back in 2009, some speculate that the pilots flew right into some nasty storms that led to a series of events that brought the airplane down. But even then, turbulence was probably at most a contributing factor to the confusion in the cockpit after systems starting failing for other reasons.

The best news is that technology and training continue to get better, and that helps pilots avoid turbulence with greater ease year after year. In fact, one of the biggest threats, windshear near an airport, has been significantly muzzled for that reason.

Windshear

Windshear near the airport is one of the most dangerous types of weather. It involves a dramatic shift in wind direction that causes airplanes to gain and lose speed and altitude quickly. It's often related to a thunderstorm. The reason it's so dangerous near the airport is because the airplane is pretty close to the ground at that point. There just isn't much room to recover if something goes wrong.

In the past, there have been a handful of accidents from windshear including Delta flight 191 in Dallas in 1985. The airplane ran into windshear from a thunderstorm just before it was to land and the pilots couldn't recover in time.

It's incredibly unlikely that this kind of accident would happen again in the United States today for two reasons. Training and technology are far better. As with any accident, people learned from Delta 191 and training has changed to reflect those lessons. Pilots are taught to be more conservative in situations like that and they're trained to abort landings when conditions aren't right. They're also aided by windshear detection equipment on the airplane and at major airports.

In the end, turbulence is frightening but the chance that something bad will happen to you is incredibly small. Of course, fear isn't always rational. Just keep that seatbelt fastened.

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