You are 30,000 feet up in the air in a plane that starts shaking violently. Your first thought—will it break in half? Rest assured, turbulence will not pull the plane apart or cause it to plunge. Each year, pilots report about 70,000 cases of turbulence over the US. These incidents usually are caused when a plane passes through shifting air currents that are strong enough to push the craft up or down just a few feet or as much as 100 feet.
During episodes of strong turbulence, you could experience minor bumps that spill your drink or powerful jolts and lurches or even feelings of being in free fall. Among US flights, about 60 midair injuries a year are caused by turbulence, two-thirds of them involving flight attendants.
But the plane itself can handle the turbulence. The wings and tail of a typical commercial aircraft are designed to withstand load forces of up to about 3.5 Gs, about 1.5 times the maximum load they likely will ever face in flight. As a result, the only way that turbulence in midair could cause catastrophic structural damage on a passenger jet is through gross pilot error. Example: A pilot trying to fight the turbulence and overcompensating.
This possibly could happen during a thunderstorm (where turbulence typically is most severe) or when flying over a mountainous region (where it is most unpredictable because of the air passing over and around varying terrains). However, pilots are trained to handle these situations and to maintain lower speeds at these times because it’s easier to lose control and sustain damage if the plane is going very fast.
The only other time a crash occurs due to turbulence is during takeoff or landing when one plane follows another too closely and gets caught up in its airflow—but this, too, is very rare.
Self-defense: If you’re a nervous flier, schedule your flight in the morning when thunderstorms are less likely…and don’t sit in the back of the plane, where turbulence often is roughest.