Q: How much turbulence can a typical twenty-year-old passenger jet take before something really important breaks? And what actually goes on in the flight deck during a crazy wind-whipped landing? Do the pilots sweat bullets?
A typical airframe — even an old one — can take a remarkable amount of punishment. In talking to nervous passengers, turbulence seems to be the most frequently brought up topic. Yet pilots, as a matter of routine, would not consider it a “safety issue.” People often will say, “Wow, what a bumpy flight that was,” yet a pilot may have little or no recollection of it being bumpy at all! There’s is nothing like a good jolt of turbulence to remind a passenger he or she is aloft and at the mercy of the workings of an aircraft. But turbulence is not going to break off a wing or otherwise knock an airplane from the sky. Planes are built with rough air in mind, and what may feel like a serious airborne pothole to you, is probably nothing to the airframe. That said, really strong turbulence (it is graded from “light” to “extreme”) has damaged airplanes and injured passengers in the past. And keep in mind that rough air and so-called “wake turbulence” are very different things.
What you experience during your wind-whipped arrival is probably nothing too exciting on the flight deck. Just as you don’t suddenly grab the wheel in a white knuckle panic when your car drives over a gravel road, pilots don’t sweat during in-flight bumpiness. Airplanes are inherently stable, wanting to return to their original spot in space when disturbed by a jolt of turbulence. Thus, the crew is not wrestling with the beast as much as simply riding it out. The crew or the autopilot may be flying a particular approach, but either way there’s usually not much tension up front. A crosswind landing is a matter of routine — a little extra input on the controls to allow for the “sideways” touchdown that is, in fact, the properly coordinated technique. And a firm touchdown is not necessarily a bad landing.
This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.