Add turbulence to the mix, and flying can be downright terrifying.
But as commercial pilot Clark Morawetz points out, turbulence is a completely normal — and safe — part of flying.
“Turbulence is caused by air moving from one place to another,” Morawetz told Global News.
He says it’s helpful to think of air like water.
“If you look at a stream or a body of water… there are pockets of water that are moving faster than other pockets, and pockets that are more turned up than other pockets,” he said.
In this analogy, the aircraft is like a boat on choppy water.
“Boats are designed to handle the waves as they go through the water, and airplanes are designed in a similar fashion,” said Morawetz.
“They go through a certification process… and some of the tests they conduct are for turbulence.”
According to Morawetz, the typical testing is for conditions much more severe than what’s common in everyday flights.
“Planes are able to withstand far and above what you can expect on any normal airline flight,” he said.
In the event that your pilot does foresee some turbulence, though, they will do what they can to avoid it.
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“The great thing about aviation is that you’re traveling within a three-dimensional space,” said Morawetz. “You’re not confined to a road.
However, sometimes turbulence is inevitable: either there’s nowhere for your flight to divert, or it’s not safe to do so.
In the event that a plane can’t travel a diverted route, a pilot may be instructed to fly a hold, which is a racetrack pattern over a certain point.
Pilots will do so until it’s safe to move on.
“We prioritize safety over schedule,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter which airline you fly with, that’s the primary objective: safety over everything.”
Occasionally, turbulence will happen unexpectedly, which is why it’s important that passengers listen carefully to the pilot’s instructions.
“That’s why it’s always a good idea to stay in your seat and wear your seatbelt, even if the seatbelt sign is off,” said Morawetz.
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It has happened before, but it’s extremely rare that turbulence causes an actual plane crash.
“Because airliners fly at a high altitude, there’s plenty of time to recover from most severe turbulence encounters,” said Morawetz.
“It might be a moment of discomfort for people, but the pilots do everything that they possibly can to avoid flying through turbulence. And, for us, safety and comfort are very high priorities that we take very seriously.”
According to Dr. Christine Korol, there are two camps of people who fear flying: those who worry about having a panic attack and being trapped on the plane, and those who worry the plane is going to go down.
She works as a psychologist at the Vancouver Anxiety Centre.
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For some people, education about what turbulence is and how planes work can help, but it’s not always a fix.
“You can understand something intellectually but still be afraid of it,” said Korol.
Here are some ways to quell your anxiety the next time your plane hits turbulence.
When patients come to her worried about an upcoming flight, she tells them to visualize themselves successfully coping with what they’re afraid of.
“I typically have them write down the narrative they’re afraid of, and I look for the ‘hot spots’ in their writing,” she said.
“Hot spots” are the more catastrophic outcomes her patients can imagine, like a plane crash.
“There’s not much difference biologically between excitement and anxiety, so I’ll get them to re-frame that,” Korol said.
“At first, you’re just going through the motions, not really believing yet, but the more you rehearse mentally, the more prepared you are to do it in real life.”
A comforting note
If you’re nervous about having an unwanted reaction mid-flight, write down phrases or sentences that comfort you on a small piece of paper.
“Flying is about building your confidence,” said Korol.
This can be anything, from what you know about aviation to the safety of planes and the safety precautions taken by pilots, or memories from the last successful flight you took.
“We’ll write down a few things, depending on what their sort of triggers are and what makes them nervous.”
Korol calls these “coping statements.”
Avoid drugs and alcohol
Korol recommends that you try to fully experience your time in the air.
“A lot of times, you’ll read different articles about coping with fear of flying or turbulence, and they’ll say sit at the front of the plane because the back is bumpy,” she said.
“I recommend you sit in the back of the plane or wherever on the plane — don’t be afraid of it!”
According to Korol, when you’re treating anxiety, you don’t want anything to dampen your experience of it. You want to face it head on.
“If you take the medication, you might attribute your success to the medication or to the alcohol, rather than to yourself,” she said.
“You don’t really overcome the fear… you’re just white-knuckling it.”
If you struggle with a severe fear of turbulence or flying, Korol recommends you see a psychologist for treatment at least four weeks prior to air travel.