Let’s say you’re in seat 26C, an aisle seat, on some airliner halfway between Denver and Atlanta late-ish one winter night. You’ve been comfortably cruising for about an hour, the flight attendants are almost done with their in-flight service, you’re starting to doze off. Happily strapped into a big, new, modern metal machine, you’ve gotten over that initial pang of nervousness as the airplane took off and climbed up to 37,000 feet. You wouldn’t admit you were nervous; besides, everybody gets nervous during takeoff, right? Except that guy across the aisle from you. I don’t know how people can sleep through takeoff, you think. But now everything’s fine, in a few hours you’ll be at your sister and brother-in-law’s house in Raleigh-Durham after making a connection in Atlanta.
“Ladies and gentleman this is the captain speaking,” the PA suddenly squawks, “uhhh, looks like there’s some weather up ahead over Nashville and there may be a few bumps so, uhhh, we’re going to turn on the fasten-seatbelt sign. If you wouldn’t mind please, uhhh, return to your seats and fasten your seat belts, thanks.”
You take a sip from the cup of water sitting precariously on the tray table in front of you. Then you down the rest of the cup in one gulp. Okay, that didn’t sound too bad, just a couple of bumps, you think to yourself, reaching down and tightening your seatbelt without even thinking about it. A flight attendant comes by and you hand her your empty cup and latch the tray table into the seat back, glad to be free of any extra junk. You glance up the aisle, wishing with envy to be one of the people that already fell asleep. You look across the aisle, noticing the guy sitting there, now awake, open a book and start reading. Seems like he couldn’t be bothered. You feel the plane gently jolt and jostle with a few bumps in the air. You unconsciously grip your armrest and the muscles in your neck and jaw clench. That’s not so bad, you silently hope, maybe that’s what he meant. You take a breath and sit back, closing your eyes, trying to find that calmness that was so rudely snatched from you a few moments ago.
The PA barks to life once more. Maybe we’re through it, you think, already feeling better. This time the voice that comes through the speaker is not the captain. It’s the co-pilot. His announcement is more terse than the previous one; indeed, it’s not even meant for the passengers.
“Flight attendants please discontinue service and take your seats.”
That’s it? you think, incredulous, suddenly realizing with a sickening feeling in your stomach that the previous announcement concerning “a few bumps” was a little rose-colored. You lean over, looking up the aisle and back, pleading with your eyes for signs from the flight attendants that everything is fine, that this is totally normal. With a sinking feeling you see them hurrying to their seats and buckling in, carefully fastening their lap belts as well as, could those be, shoulder harnesses?
Why don’t we have shoulder harnesses?, you wonder as the jolts and jostles become more frequent.
Now you’re more than a little nervous, bordering on frightened. Along with the muscle tension in your jaw and neck, the muscles in your legs and abdomen contract, restricting your breathing. Your neighbor, an older man with thin glasses and slight features sitting in the middle seat, turns to you and says something, smiling and tightening his seatbelt. You couldn’t hear what he said so you just mock smile and nod and retreat back to your own thoughts. You don’t even realize it, but a very primal force has complete control over your mind and body. In a cruel example of irony, your “fight-or-flight” response has been triggered, sending a cascade of hormones and nerve signals throughout your body, priming it for immediate action if necessary. It’s thought that we evolved this response, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, to better protect our relatively fragile bodies from dangerous animals and other life-threatening situations. Right now you could jump higher or run faster than you probably could at any other time. But the cruelest irony is that you’ve got nowhere to go. You’re strapped to a big, cold, unfeeling machine.
The airplane jostles a few times in a row, you look outside into the black night, all you see is the red glow at the end of the wing, bouncing up and down in concert with the light turbulence. Suddenly the entire window–all of the windows you can see–flash brilliant white zap zap, then blackness. You realize it was lightning.
Just at that moment, you hear the steady whine of the jet engines spool down inexplicably. And even though you have no reference to which way is up, down, left, or right, your inner ear senses that the plane is turning, sharply, to the right. A second later the airplanes enters clouds, you can tell by the glow of the red light on the wingtip and the flash of the strobe light. Suddenly the plane is gripped by three successively stronger jolts, pushing you down into your seat then lifting you back up slightly then shoving you to the left. Are we still turning? you wonder. I think we’re still going right, you think, or is it left? The tubular structures in your inner ear are extremely sensitive, but with no visual reference they can wreak havoc with your spatial orientation, sending signals to your brain that seem to conflict with your visual cues, especially when you’re inside a moving airplane and can’t see the horizon due to clouds or nighttime. Another bolt of lightning outside makes the windows flash brilliant white.
The turbulence is getting worse, each jolt is more intense, as if a giant hand has reached down and is tossing the airplane around for fun. Suddenly you feel the plane lurch upwards and you’re pushed down hard in your seat. The plane seems to tremble for a moment before the bottom drops out and the plane falls sharply, a few people yelp, and you feel weightless for a second before the plane seems to catch the air again. Maybe you yelped too, you can’t remember. You glance across the aisle, the guy is still reading, you think, now more annoyed than envious. The plane is rocked by a gust that lifts it to the left (or is it right?), then another, stronger one, the strongest yet, that seems to make the plane lift up and fall down at the same time. More people yelp. Somebody whisper-shouts “Dear Jesus!” You swear that last one felt like we were out of control for a second. You feel as though your heart will beat right out of your chest as you sense the airplane is turning again, but now you’re sure you don’t know whether it’s left or right.
You try to think of something, anything, that will get your mind off of the terrifying, helpless situation you find yourself in, but it’s no use. In this condition you’re primed to react to every bump, jolt, drop, shove, turn, every sight sound and feeling that comes your way. Your mind is racing along with your heartbeat. It’s agonizing. You start making deals with yourself, or maybe with God, no longer thinking about your sister in Raleigh, now saying you’ll be happy just getting to Atlanta. You start thinking about how you should drive more.
The bumps get less intense, then, gradually, less frequent. You start to sense that the airplane is no longer making any turns, and your inner ear seems to agree, so you start feeling more at ease. A few minutes go by, and finally your heartbeat slows to normal, and your grip on the armrest loosens.
“Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to apologize for the tosses and turns we had there for a few minutes,” the captain says over the PA, as if he owed anybody an apology. “I know a few of those bumps may have felt a bit, uhhh, severe, but, I assure you we had everything under control up here in the flight deck.” I’m pretty sure no one feels assured, you think. “The weather is behind us now and we should have smooth air for the rest of the flight,” he says, “We’ll have you on the ground in Atlanta in about, uhhh, 30 minutes. Again, sorry for the delay and the turbulence.”
Listen, the moral of this story is not to make light of the fact that people react in different ways to different situations. Some people are nervous or frightened. Some might pray to a higher power. Some are just going to remain calm, from experience or simply from nerves of steel. The moral of this story is that it’s perfectly normal to get stressed out while strapped inside a machine going 500 mph through the top of a thunderstorm 5 miles above the ground. Or when making a difficult approach to land with low visibility and gusty winds and rain or snow. Or any number of other situations at which you should marvel at the miracle it is to be flying.
What you can do to stay calm through it all is to trust that, indeed, everything is under control up front in the flight deck. Too often the general public marginalizes the role of pilots (you could argue, based on salaries, that airline management is guilty of doing the same). This attitude is probably caused by the perception that the airplanes do most of the flying, and that the pilots are little more than babysitters. While modern airliners are marvels of technology and safety, all of that technology is there to serve the pilots’ decision making and situational awareness, so they can make the decision on precisely which path to fly through that storm up ahead to avoid the dangerous, convective parts of the clouds. Or to have the information necessary to bring an airplane carrying 120 people, flying at 160 knots, to a safe landing at a busy airport that’s shrouded in fog or rain or any number of things the atmosphere can throw at it.
The public perception of pilots is also tarnished by unfortunate accidents. There is no good way to change this fact. Things can go wrong, we can’t predict and train for every situation, and even if we could we would still not be able to completely prevent human error. Just remember that commercial airlines continue to become safer and safer, all while making more and more flights. Remember that the traveling public expects to leave and arrive on time, no matter what. In service of that very high expectation, pilots can and do fly through weather that would make a small-airplane pilot like me cower in fear. They can do it because they fly amazing machines and undergo intense training and frequent recurrent training, and have a depth of experience that gives them the confidence to know they can do it and do it safely. So next time you take a flight and it lands safely, when you’re shuffling off the airplane, looks in the pilots’ eyes, say “thank you,” and mean it.
I sat there in my aisle seat one night, trying to read a book through what I knew to be just moderate turbulence. I knew to expect it when the first officer told the flight attendants to take their seats, and I braced for some good bumps after I saw the lightning outside. I even found myself a little nervous, likely since small-aircraft pilots like me are trained to give thunderstorms a very wide berth. I kept having to re-read the same sentence in my book. I was thinking about the pilots, how this was probably the best part of the day, getting to turn off the autopilot and hand fly through the radar echos. They’re probably having fun up there, I thought, as about 100 people back here are freaking out. Especially the poor guy sitting across the aisle from me.