Turbulence Explainer: Does Severe Turbulence Cause Plane Crashes?

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Severe turbulence forced a New York-bound flight to divert and land
shortly after leaving Houston recently. Passengers were thrown into
the ceiling and then back onto the floor. Can turbulence cause a plane
to crash?

Yes, but it’s very unlikely these days. In 1966 a British Overseas
Airways captain strayed from his flight path out of Tokyo so
passengers could get a look at Mount Fuji. As the Boeing 707
approached the mountain, it was hit by powerful winds—probably in
excess of 140 miles per hour—that tore the tail apart and downed the
plane.

Aircraft design has come a long way since then, and aerospace
engineers say modern aircraft are extremely unlikely to suffer a similar
fate. Commercial airliners are now designed to withstand forces 150
percent stronger than anything experienced in the last 40 years of
flying. There have also been advances in detection systems.

There are two types of turbulence, though they feel basically the same
inside the passenger cabin. Storm-related turbulence results when
water vapor condenses into droplets, which heats air and makes it
rise quickly. The resulting updraft can jostle planes.. Pilots can change
course, speed or altitude to avoid this kind of turbulence.

Clear air turbulence is harder to detect. It usually occurs when two air
masses contact each other at different speeds or directions—like when
winds move over mountain peaks, or a plane crosses a jet stream.
Pilots must notify air traffic control when they encounter clear air
turbulence, which caused the 1966 crash in Japan..

While planes are designed to survive even the most severe forms of
turbulence, improper maintenance can leave them vulnerable. And
injuries—and even deaths—have been known to occur within the
plane as a result of turbulence. So when the captain turns on that
seatbelt sign, don’t forget to buckle up!

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