If You Hear This on a Flight, Prepare for Bad Turbulence, Pilots Warn
It's a sure sign your flight is about to get really bumpy, so buckle up.
Whether you're a frequent flyer or a novice traveler, no one likes feeling turbulence on their flight. The sensation of a jostling cabin can produce the worst kind of anxiety, even if such events practically never result in any kind of serious emergency besides a plane full of frightened passengers. But while you can expect some light turbulence any time you're on a flight, there is still one way to tell the bumpiness is about to get particularly bad. Read on to see what can tip you off to rough skies ahead.
Hearing a pilot ask flight attendants to take their seats means nasty turbulence is ahead.
Anyone who has flown is familiar with the strict rules on board a plane and how important it is to follow the captain's instructions at all times—including fasten seatbelt signs. Most also know that any indication things are about to get bumpy will lead the pilot to turn the sign back on mid-flight to make sure people stay buckled into their seats. But while an illuminated fasten seatbelt sign might be an unmistakable signal to passengers that some choppiness is ahead, hearing the pilot request that flight attendants take a seat and buckle in usually means you can expect seriously bad turbulence.
"If [a pilot] tells the flight attendants to sit down, you'd better listen," John Greaves, an airline accident lawyer and former airline captain from Los Angeles, tells Reader's Digest.
Flight attendants make up half of the turbulence-related injuries reported each year.
As anyone who has had to make a quick visit to the bathroom on a bumpy trip knows, the fasten seat belt sign has lost a bit of its effectiveness for passengers due to how often it can flick on during a flight. "We keep the sign on longer after takeoff, even when the air is smooth, and will switch it on again at the slightest jolt or burble," Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and host of AskThePilot.com, writes. "In some respects, this is another example of American overprotectiveness, but there are legitimate liability concerns. The last thing a captain wants is the [Federal Aviation Administration] FAA breathing down his neck for not having the sign on when somebody breaks an ankle and sues. Unfortunately, there's a cry-wolf aspect to this: People get so accustomed to the sign dinging on and off, seemingly without reason, that they ignore it altogether."
But while cabin crew will still go about their duties even when the fasten seatbelt sign has relegated passengers to their seats, there's a good reason pilots will ask them to strap in when things are about to get particularly rough. "Each year worldwide, about a hundred people—half of them flight attendants—are hurt by turbulence seriously enough to require medical attention, [with] head, neck, shoulder, and ankle injuries being the most common," Smith says. "That works out to about fifty passengers. Fifty out of the two billion or so who fly each year. And a majority of them are people who fall or are thrown about because they aren't belted in when they should be."
Seeing certain types of clouds can also be a warning sign that things are about to get bumpy.
Fortunately, even in the worst cases, pilots can rely on special instruments both onboard and on the ground, weather reports, and information from other pilots to get a heads up on any potential pockets of rough air in the flight path. But there are still some visual cues that could tip you off that you're about to experience some turbulence.
"It's as simple as looking out the window," Smith says. "Those burbling, cotton-ball cumulus clouds—particularly the anvil-topped variety that occur in conjunction with thunderstorms—are always a lumpy encounter. Flights over mountain ranges and through certain frontal boundaries will also get the cabin bells dinging, as will transiting a jet stream boundary."
Even at its worst, it's all but impossible for turbulence to create a serious emergency for a flight.
Fortunately, pilots are well trained to deal with even severe turbulence and can usually go out of their way to avoid any major bumps in the sky. "The great thing about aviation is that you're traveling within a three-dimensional space," Clark Morawetz, a commercial pilot, told Canadian outlet Global News. "You're not confined to a road. When we're traveling through the skies [and] we can see evidence of potential turbulence, we can avoid it by requesting a diversion from air traffic control."
But even if you don't hear a pilot tell the cabin crew to take their seats and strap in, there's always the possibility rough air can take the cockpit by surprise. "That's why it's always a good idea to stay in your seat and wear your seatbelt, even if the seatbelt sign is off," Morawetz recommends.
And even though it may be hard to remember during a bumpy flight, you can rest assured that even the worst of it rarely results in much more than a few spilled drinks. "Because airliners fly at a high altitude, there's plenty of time to recover from most severe turbulence encounters," Morawetz explains. "It might be a moment of discomfort for people, but the pilots do everything that they possibly can to avoid flying through turbulence. And, for us, safety and comfort are very high priorities that we take very seriously."