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Pilot explains what causes air turbulence and how dangerous it can be

Pilot explains what causes air turbulence and how dangerous it can be

Turbulence isn't a mystery, but it's still pretty scary.

A British man died when a flight to Singapore was hit by severe turbulence, after he reportedly suffered a suspected heart attack on the flight from Heathrow, and seven other people were seriously hurt.

While many of us have been on bumpy flights and perhaps even been warned about incoming turbulence by pilots as they turn the seatbelt lights back on, it can be a little tough to understand quite what it is.

If you'd guess that it's wind outside the plane, though, you wouldn't be too far off, albeit with some complications thrown in.

Much turbulence is caused by sudden or unexpected up or down-drafts of wind that jolt a plane up or down with their force.

While this happens a lot, it's worse in heavy weather as storm clouds often have higher winds in them, while another category is called "clear air turbulence" because it's impossible to actually see.

mcKensa / Getty
mcKensa / Getty

However, talking to the BBC, a variety of aviation experts have clarified just what the risks are when it comes to turbulence, despite this week's tragic news.

Guy Gratton, associate professor of aviation and the environment at Cranfield University, told the BBC that despite the potentially strong winds that can batter an aircraft, they're very much designed to bear this treatment.

He said that it was "unlikely" that an aircraft could be destroyed by turbulence alone, although sustained exposure to it could eventually cause mechanical or structural failures.

This is part of why pilots often adjust their speed to move more slowly, which can reduce the strain on the plane, and typically keep the seatbelt sign switched on.

This advises passengers that they should remain seated with their belts secured, to avoid being thrown around or launched by sudden drops or rises in altitude.

murat4art / Getty
murat4art / Getty

This sort of bumpiness reportedly caused many of the injuries onboard the Singapore Airlines flight, as those without seatbelts fastened were thrown out of their seats.

While this might be the sort of story that puts people off flying, though, John Strickland, another aviation expert, said that it's important to remember that turbulence injuries are "relatively rare" given how many millions of flights go off without a hitch each year.

With an average of 12 serious injuries per year caused by turbulence on US-based airlines, it's another statistic that underlines how much safer air travel is than road travel, for example.

Still, this has been a week to underline how sensible it is to obey instructions when you're on a flight. The mandatory safety briefings always mention that you should keep your seatbelt on whenever seated, regardless of the light being on, but it's been a salutary reminder of the importance of that step.

Featured Image Credit: Gudella / Diy13 / Getty