What Causes Turbulence? And How Do Pilots Deal With It?

For some, turbulence is little more than an annoying disruption during a flight. For others, it’s an absolute nightmare. In all instances, it’s important to bear in mind that turbulence is seldom dangerous, although it can be very uncomfortable. But what causes turbulence? And how do pilots deal with it?

What kind of causes of turbulence are there?

In short, you have 5 kinds of causes. It can be caused by…

  1. …  wind
  2. … rising air
  3. … jet streams
  4. … mountains
  5. and an aircraft’s wake vortex.

1. Turbulence caused by wind

To put it simply, we have to deal with it if we fly through turbulent air. It’s much like steering a boat through stormy seas. There’s a distinction between high-altitude and low-altitude turbulence. Turbulence close to the ground is often caused by heavy winds. This may be problematic when taking off or landing in stormy weather.

Plane in a storm

2. Turbulence caused by rising air

At higher altitudes, turbulence arises when air rises vertically – from low to high. This works as follows: the sun warms the earth and the air above it. Hot air expands and rises. This causes what we call an updraft. As the air rises, its temperature drops to dew point. If the air rises further, particles of moisture begin to form in it, creating clouds. And that’s a good thing, because we can now see the turbulence, not only through the cockpit window, but also on our weather radar.

However, if the rising air is very dry, condensation doesn’t form and we can’t see the turbulence. This is known as clear-air turbulence and it’s tricky because it can take us by surprise. The weather radar can’t detect it either, because there are no moisture particles in the air to reflect our radar signals.

Vertical air movement usually stops at high altitude, because the temperatures are very low, which is why we can fly in smooth air above the clouds. Sometimes, however, cumuliform clouds can break through to greater heights. We usually encounter these cumulonimbus clouds in tropical areas, and we do our best to fly around them.

Cumulonimbus clouds

In short, we usually have to deal with turbulence at lower altitudes in our atmosphere. In the old days, before aircraft had pressurised cabins, we had to fly at much lower altitudes, where turbulence was more common.

3. Turbulence caused by jet streams

A jet stream is an extremely strong wind at a higher altitude, reaching speeds of more than 300 km/h (150 knots). These winds mainly blow from west to east in the northern hemisphere, which is why it usually takes longer to fly from Amsterdam across the Atlantic Ocean to North American destinations, than the other way around.

On the outbound flight, we try to avoid the jet stream if we can, because this would mean flying into a headwind. On the homebound flight, we try to take maximum advantage of the tailwind. As a result, a flight from New York to Amsterdam can take up to two hours shorter than the outbound flight.

The tricky thing about a jet stream is that it can suddenly change direction when it encounters high or low-pressure areas. Lots of turbulence can arise in these so-called bends, which are similar to those in a fast-flowing river.

4. Turbulence caused by mountains

If there’s a strong wind, the air may be steered upward when it encounters higher mountains. This may cause waves that can be felt at a high altitude and at a great distance. As a result, we sometimes encounter turbulence when passing over a mountain range.

Turbulence caused by mountains

5. Turbulence caused by an aircraft’s wake vortex

There is also a form that is caused by the aircraft itself. This wake is similar to that left behind by a big ship passing through water. As a rule, bigger planes result in bigger wakes, and smaller planes are more vulnerable should they run into one. That is why we have rules specifying the minimum distance and interval between two aircraft.

Now you know why a Boeing 737 appears to wait for such a long time on the runway after a wide-body aircraft has taken off.

But what can pilots do?

When preparing for a flight, we always study the weather forecast charts. This allows us to predict whether and where we can expect some discrepancies.

During the flight, we try to avoid any turbulence we can see from the cockpit or on our radar screens. We also maintain contact with air traffic control and other aircraft in the area to keep abreast of the latest weather conditions.

Unavoidable turbulence

Sometimes air traffic constraints prevent us from avoiding turbulence or we may be surprised by turbulence we cannot see on the radar. That’s when the fasten seatbelt sign goes on and you are urged to take your seat immediately. If it’s really bumpy, we even stop serving passengers and cabin crew have to buckle up as well. That’s important for everyone’s safety.

fasten seatbelts sign

I’m often asked if it can damage an aircraft. There is little or no chance of this happening. An aircraft is actually quite flexible. I once visited the Boeing plant and saw the wing of a 747 bent upwards several metres in a test structure, only to be released again with a snap. This was repeated again and again, day after day, year after year, and everything remains perfectly intact. So if you’re ever at a window seat and you see the wing moving up and down, don’t worry, it’s made to do just that.

Curious to know more about thrilling topics around the airplane? Have you read our blog on lightning and planes yet? 

Posted by:   Menno Kroon  | 
Join the conversation Show comments


Thanks for this information , I will share it on my


Menno Kroon

Dear Rene, I’m glad you enjoyed it

Janell S

Thank you for this! I will be sharing it with my 10-year old son who will be taking his first flight ever this fall. It is a 12-hour flight and he is very worried about flying. I think this will help him understand it better and be able to relax more.


Here’s a wing test video. A Boeing 787’s wings are bent and flexed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meEG7VwjTew

Menno Kroon

Isn’t that reassuring great video

Menno Kroon

Hi Janell,
I really hope your son will enjoy his first flight. Turbulence or not, if you ask me, flying is a fantastic experience. Tell him not to worry


Thank you for this well written comprehensive article. Educating your travelers can do volumes of difference.

Menno Kroon

Hi Laurence, I’m glad you enjoyed it


Interesting post – thank you. One thing I have noticed – it usually gets “bumpy” when flying over the north eastern US and Canada. Over the ocean is fine but the minute you get to the US, it gets noticeably bumpy for a while. I don’t mind too much and information like the above helps a lot. However I still don’t like landing in high wind though – that really can be unpleasant on smaller aircraft…!

Steven Papadimitriou

Yes this is true especially when flying over Nova Scotia. The air becomes turbulent because of the land mass that “redirects ” the mild oceanic air towards the upper atmosphere.

Menno Kroon

Hi Racheal,
The reason might be that a jet streams is changing direction just over Newfoundland. Landing in high winds can be indeed be uncomfortable, but not unsafe for that reason.


Hi Menno, goed en duidelijk uitgelegd. Passagiers zijn vaak bang dat er iets met het vliegtuig gebeurt, en zoals je al schrijft is dit bijna uitgesloten, helaas hoor je na de start het klikken van de stoelriemen die meteen worden losgedaan, bij onverwachte turbulentie kunnen zij dan zelf ongelukkig terecht komen. Als je zit, altijd riemen vast!

Menno Kroon

Beste Mirjam,
Ik ben het helemaal met je eens. Iets minder strak mag best, maar “altijd vast houden zolang u in uw stoel zit” blijft het advies.

David wellard

Very informative. I think it’s better be informed about this sort of thing as knowledge of why something behaves in a certain way alays our fears whereas ignorance only compounds them!

Menno Kroon

Hi David,
I couldn’t agree more.


I’m a frequent flyer, I have been in some terrible turbulence but this def helped understanding it. Is an “airpocket” turbulence as well? Because that’s a thing about flying I don’t like :-).

Menno Kroon

Hi Robbert,
We, pilots, never use the word ‘airpocket’.
Indeed sometimes turbulence can be quite severe. It may seem as if we are actually ‘falling’ quite a bit, but I can assure you: This is never the case. Seldom does severe turbulence come completely as a surprise, so hopefully everyone is seated well in advance with the seatbelts fastened.


Still not comfy. Especially not when having a hangover :-). But great article.

Menno Kroon

Hi Francois,
Alcohol seldomly helps :-)


Im terrified of flying so this reasures me a little would a plane crash with very bad turbulance ?


Only when close to the ground usually, but each time it happens and the cause is found it makes flying a little safer. The plane can drop quite a way and injure passages, hence the seat belt sign going on. Only last week around 30 people were jnjured when a plane hit turbulence. If people are not belted in they van be flung from their seats injuring themselves and or other passages. The same goes for the trollies and carry on baggage, another reason service may be stopped and why there are limits to carry on baggage.

A pilot

Dear Patricia,

Very bad turbulance or what we call severe turbulance does not crash an airplane.
However, it could be quite uncomfortable for the passengers so make sure if you ever encounter this you keep your seatbelts fastened.
Pilots are trained to deal with turbulance, severe turbulance is avoided by using weather radar since it is often accompanied by bad weather and reported so other airplanes can avoid it.
Also when turbulance is discovered or expected it is plotted in weather charts which pilots study before their flight.
If, however, pilots would encounter severe turbulance, the first thing they would do is to make sure everyone gets seated by putting on the fasten seatbelt sign. Then the airplanes speed is adjusted to the best speed to penetrate this turbulance. Quick shifts in wind direction and speed (called windshear) can be tricky, especially near the ground, therefore there are procedures in place to escape this windshear. The technology to detect these windshears are getting more advanced every day, and therefore safer. To comfort you, the airplane can take a lot more than you think and the pilots are well trained and know what to do, the airplane won’t crash but passengers might bump their heads if their seatbelts aren’t fastened, so make sure you do that and you don’t have to worry about the airplane. Personally I use turbulance to rock me to sleep, in my mind I know we are in good hands and the airpane can take it, so I relax! :) I hope this helps you!

A pilot

I am sorry for the spelling mistakes, ofcourse it should be ‘turbulence’ not turbulance. :)


Planes do not crash because or turbulence. Bad weather may occur a crash, but not because of the weather, mostly lost of visibility and possible bad information from the pitot tube.

Menno Kroon

Hi Patricia,
Andre is quite right, planes do not crash because of turbulence. Crashes are indeed very remote and always the result of a combination of factors.

Walter Edgar Brendle

Ich habe niemals Angst,dass irgend etwas schief gehen könnte,wenn ich mit KLM fliege.Bei dieser Airline ist man in den besten Händen von der Buchung bis zur Landung!Gegen die Turbulenzen können die Piloten nichts machen, ausser den vorher beschriebenen Vorkehrungen.Dass diese Airline aber einer der pünktlichsten aller Airlines ist,ist allen,vom Bodenpersonal bis zu den Piloten zu verdanken.Vielen Dank, Walter

Md. Sabik Rahim Siddiqui

Awesome information KLM!

Menno Kroon

Thank you Mr Siddiqui, I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Richard Jagerman

Thank you; very informative; I was aware of most of the article’s content. It will, I am afraid, never take away my fear during moderate to heavy turbulence. I will always hate truly bumpy flights.

Ad van Wijngaarden

Goed verhaal Menno. Ook wake turbulence niet vergeten. Zorgt soms ook in de daling (gebouwen) voor een kleine hobbel.
Top. Draagt bij aan een ontspannen vlucht .

Menno Kroon

Beste Ad,
Dat is precies wat we hopen te bereiken. Dat iedereen ontspannen in het vliegtuig zit en kan genieten. Niet alleen van de service, maar ook van het vliegen zelf.

Marjolein Straten

Thanks for this information. It is very helpfull as i have followed the training at Stichting Valk to coop with my fear of flying. Turbulence is one of my problemzones during a flight. Although the people at stichting Valk explained everything very well all extra information is nice to understand flying and to learn that turbulence is nothing more than discomfert. I am glad that I get on a plane again (although with some rituals now) and enjoy the beauty of the World. I prefer flights with KLM because the crew is great for people like me. They are very understanding and helpful.

Menno Kroon

Hi Marjolein,
It’s good to hear that after your training you did start flying again. I sincerely hope that we are able to help you and people like you. Hope to see you on board some time

Leon de Groot

Flying as a KLM DC-8 cabin attendant in the early seventies above Africa. I asked the pilots if they liked some coffee to drink. We look well after our flightdeck. We were flying approx. 11 km high and I never saw such big clouds at that altitude. The captain was in contact with flight controle and asked for permission to change direction a bit to avoid that enormous clouds.
The captain said, I have great respect for those clouds and do whatever I can to avoid them. So we did.

Menno Kroon

Hi Leon,
Although the quality of our weather radar has increased quite a bit throughout the years, avoiding these clouds has essentially remained the same

Adri van den Ouden

Very good information. Flying is more comfortable of you know what happens.

Menno Kroon

Thank you Adri


What an interesting article. I tend to be very scared on flights when turbulence occurs. Not knowing what’s “behind the scene” makes my head jump into “unreasonable” conclusions.. Very helpful info, It’ll make my next flights less stressful . Thanks!

Menno Kroon

Hi Carol,
I really hope that flying will actually be relaxing for you i.s.o. stressful

Bernadette Dumont

Thanks for such an informative article. Just curious about one thing does the size of the aircraft dictate how much more severe the turbulence may feel. Eg. if a Boeing 747 and a 737 flies through the same area of turbulence is it felt more in the 737

Menno Kroon

Dear Bernadette,
Indeed, if you fly in a smaller plane, you will probably feel more when compared to flying in a much bigger plane. That does not mean that flying in a ‘smaller’ plane is less safe though.

Sven Håheim

Wery good and interesting!!

Sven Håheim

Wery interesting !

Menno Kroon

Thank you Sven, I’m glad you enjoyed it

Sônia Mota

Thank you for the information. It gives me more self cofidence do fly.

Menno Kroon

Hello Sõnia,
We want you to feel totally confident while flying. Hope to see you on board .


I feel very nervous during turbulences, so it´s my favorite time to take a couple of shots of whisky and ……… everythings ok!!!

Menno Kroon

Hi Nelson,
Not to many I hope (-:
I hope that after reading this, you’ll not be nervous anymore.
Even without having a couple of whisky’s that is

Lavoie Pierre E

Merci pour cette information…bien vulgarisée même si il m’arrive de l’expérimenter sur avions légers :)

Menno Kroon

Je vous en prie !


Let me add my appreciation to this post as well. It was very interesting and I’ve always wanted to know more about this phenomenom. You did a great job of explaining it in easy to understand terms. I have had some white-knuckle experiences with turbulence in my many years of flying, but glad to know of the limited risks and safety issues. Thanks again.

Menno Kroon

Hello Mathieu,
I’m glad to hear that it helps to make you feel more comfortable.

Russell Cruickshank

This is great information. Dank u well.

Now, how do I get to fly on one of Captain Kroon’s flying boat trips!?

Menno Kroon

Hi Russell,
You’re welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I’m afraid I’m not allowed to advertise for flying with the Catalina.
I’m quite sure however, that you will be able to find some info on the internet (-:

Keith peers

A great read

Menno Kroon

Thank you Keith

Rozanne Mackie

This information helps me a great deal because I am scared – I fly every year to Thailand so maybe I will enjoy the flight this year – hopefully !

Menno Kroon

Hello Rozanne,
I really hope you will enjoy your flight to Thailand this year


Thanks so much KLM for this information. Moments of turbulence can be very unsettling particularly the ones that happen suddenly. it takes so much effort to relax and remind myself that I’m in the hands of God, my maker.
I’ll definitely share this information.

Menno Kroon

Thank you Doren,
I hope reading this article will help


Thank you. So informative.

Menno Kroon

Hello Tk,
You’re more than welcome

Félix Maltchinski

The turbulence can be caused when the wind directions are sudenly changed or also overflying the forest after the desert. 5 years ago we flew over the freezing rain and hit the turbulence.

Menno Kroon

Hi Félix,
I hope this article made you understand more of what happened

Martina Bugs

I am very afraid of flying and always try to read as much as I can about safety in aircrafts and specially about turbulence. Nothing helps to calm me down when I am in a airplane and turbulence starts.
Last year I flu KLM for the first time and I felt in love with experience onboard.
Thank you for this article I will remember it when I fly next week.

Menno Kroon

Hello Martina,
I,m happy to read that flying with KLM was a lovely experience for you. I hope you will be able to enjoy your future flights with us.


Good article to read

Menno Kroon

Thank you Flora

Luis Avila-Costa

Thank you very much for this info. I love to fly, but some times I’m very concerned about metal fatigue.
Best regards!

Menno Kroon

Hello Luis,
Let me assure you that all aircraft have been designed for a certain ‘lifetime’, which both includes cycles (take off & landings) and flying hours. There is obviously also a big margin. So metal fatigue is normally not a factor to worry about

Fola A

Quite informative KLM. I will forward this information to my husband and some of friends. This detailed information will help a lot of people who are afraid of flying. I have a question about the funny feeling you get in your ears when the aircraft is about to land or take off?

Menno Kroon

Hello Fola,
I hope that many people will benefit from reading this article. There really shouldn’t be a reason to be afraid of flying.
Regarding your ‘funny feeling’ during landing and take off. That has to do with the cabin pressurization system. Aircraft fly at 10 to 11 km’s of height, while the pressure inside the cabin is equivalent to a height of approximately 1800 meters
(depending on the type of aircraft). During take off we start to build up this differential pressure, by closing the so called ‘outflow valves’. Just after landing, when the aircraft is still slightly pressurised, the system automatically opens these valves. That probably gives you the ‘funny feeling’.
Nothing to worry about, it is absolutely normal.

Peter ward

Been flying for 20 years (mostly KLM or Delta) and do about 50 flights a year. Still scared stiff of turbulence. My heart races. But still get on that plane because a) for my work and b) it gets me to wonderfull places around the world. The cabin crew on the KLM fights also are just great. Makes me always wonder why the same level of customer service just seems to be impossible on other airlines, particular US based. So well done and great article!!

Menno Kroon

Dear Peter,
Thank you very much. Good to hear that you appreciate our service so much. I really hope that you’ll feel more comfortable now. You shouldn’t have to be afraid 50 times a year.

Rita van Hees

Thanks for the information. I am a bad sleeper on long flights, but with turbulence , I can :-) so I dont mind it at all……………

Menno Kroon

Hello Rita,
You are one of the few than that seems to enjoy turbulence (-:


Happy to hear from you Captain Menno Kroon

Menno Kroon

Hi Cristina. How is Danut?


Qué maravilla! Lo tendré muy en cuenta y me dará menos temor a la hora de viajar.Qué buen artículo! Gracias!

Menno Kroon

De Nada (-:


Thank you! I always get quite nervous during turbulence. Knowledge helps me overcome my fear.

Menno Kroon

Thank you Mariana,
I’m glad you enjoyed it

Bonnie J. Laferriere, CTC, DS, SCDWS

This is a great article and helps travelers understand some if the safety issues the flight crew have to deal with during the course of the flight. I am sharing this article with my clients (I’m a Travel Consultant.)

Menno Kroon

Hello Bonnie,
I’m glad to hear that you will share this info with our future guests (-:

Luis Gomez

Absolutely AMAZING report…..great for people like me turbulence is more than annoying situation. This make me feel a little more comfortable what turbulence is.
Thank you

Menno Kroon

Hello Luis,
I hope that it will eventually make you feel absolutely comfortable.

Margaret Greyvensteyn

How amazing for once in my life after flying KLM I was not afraid of flying. Reading all about flying and possible dangers I prefer and will always if it is my choice fly KLM. Thanx for this explanatory information……you are the best!

Menno Kroon

Thank you very much Margaret,
It makes me feel proud that flying KLM gives you this feeling. We hope to see you on board.

Mary Thomas

Thank you so much for this detailed information. I’m a frequent flyer that does not particularly enjoy the turbulence but this article is fantastic. Thank you KLM. You are one of the best airlines out there. Keep up the good work! I will be sharing this with my friends.

Menno Kroon

Thank you very much Mary. One doesn’t have to like turbulence, but I certainly hope it makes you feel more comfortable

Jean Tam

Thank you for the informations.

Menno Kroon

Hello Jean,
You’re more than welcome


THANKS SOOOOO MUCH I posted it on Fb for my friends too.


How long do the longest incidents of turbulence tend to last?


Ik ga met mijn gezin in juli naar San Francisco met een 747 en ben benieuwd als er veel turbulentie is op die route. Ik ben ook.altijd heel erg nerveus tijdens turbulentie en neem het liefst een slaappil in. Ik kan me dan mentaal voorbereiden als er veel turbulentie is.


I’m so scare to travel because of the turbelances..but I put God first..thx for the information and GBU.

Adelina Richardson

Thx for the information and I shared it on FB.. You know I’m so scared of turbulences..but I put my trust in God..GBU.

Khalid Qureshi

Though working in the airline industry sin 1975 but was not aware of these hidden facts. Thank you KLM Blog

Lee Young Gil

Thanks for so much for very useful infor. Which much helpful to understand turbulence and will share with my collegues.;


Look what happened last saturday (May 21): flying the Catalina aircraft (PH-PBY) for 30 minutes over the IJsselmeer with three splashes on the water and you, Menno Kroon, at the controls! Thanks, it was a fantastic flight in fine weather and only a little bit of so called light chop while passing the IJsselmeerdyke. Good to meet afterwards during the debriefing. I read your blog with interest and concluded, as a retired aviation met: nice blog explaining quit easy and under-standable to pax how you, pilots, deal with turbulence at the flight deck.

Pratik Chheda

That is good Knowledg to learn about it
Thank you KLM


Hi, very interesting article and a good read. Just one question, why does the CAT always happen at the bay of Bengal airspace?

Wilhelmina Paauw Hiemstra

That was helpful. I fly a lot and was very afraid of flying during an turbulence period.
It helps me reading about it and makes je less afraid.

marion mebius- de vries

Hi, Marion here, this is a great article on turbulence. I have a website on the Fear of Flying and I would like to tell you that I share your link on my website and I hope that’s ok with you. I do have a question, I would like to make my website bilingual, could you tell me what you used for the Dutch-English version? That would be a great help.My website is howtogetoverflyingfear.com. Thank you, Marion

deepak sable

Thank you for the useful information. I am always scared of turbulence. Am sure this will give me some courage now :)


KLM by far the best company! I will never ever fly with Air France again!


Very informative. Thank you!


Thank you I feel a lot better for reading your article. I am a nervous flyer.

Adima Williams Junio

Oh what a wonderful explanation. Standing ovation to KLM.

Antigone Oreopoulou

Hello Captain Kroon

Thank you for the detailed article and also about your other articles, which found very informative too.
But this post is of great help for me. I fly a lot, but turbulence always gives me white knuckles experience! Along with unstable takeoffs and landings.
My last landing was a nightmare with the plane sliding sideways on the landing corridor, probably due to side winds and rain.
I would like to ask you, if a sudden, unexpected, not seen turbulence during takeoff and landing can create a plane crash. how the pilots cope with that And how planes during take off and landing are protected from black ice.
Once more thank you for all this information. At least I will feel more secure during turbulences on air.

Ingrid A

Thanks for this article. We have chosen to book KLM for our trip to South Africa next year. These will be the longest consecutive flights I have ever taken: Boston, USA-Amsterdam and then Amsterdam-Johannesburg. Crossing six time zones and the equator – 16 hours altogether! Although I know all the usual calming tips (choose a seat near the balance post, breathe, watch the flight attendants, etc.), I always become worried when turbulence hits. This article helps me understand more what is happening. I hope I can relax and enjoy the trip.


Great info, really appreciated. Always wondered about the causes of turbulence.

Paul Henison

Very nicely explained. Thank you guys and all at KLM.




This is one of the best KLM blogs – and I seriously mean that since I read them all and am often disappointed by the quality and content of many of them.
However this one is interesting, and not only gives lots of useful information but is really well explained in simple terms for the average person.

A big ‘Thank you’ to the writer; I look forward to more blogs from you.

Ali Qureshi

Awesome Article and very well explained

Frits Kleinen Hammans

Highly informative post, thanks so much. I have been flying quite a lot the last 20 years, and I have the impression that both amount and severity of turbulence has increased in time. Do others share this observation? Is there an explanation? Ie global warming, increased traffic. As always, KLM stands out because they give so much information en route, both from the flight deck as the cabbin crew.

Félix Maltchinski

Is there a risk off turbulence over equator?

Sam Kenny.

Really ? , sometimes saving upto two hours on JFK/AMS flight with good tail winds, I have never heard of that. Would that not throw the whole aircraft schedule out ?

Retd. NATL Flight Dispatcher. Canada.

Brogan Hale

Very interesting

Sasikumar Swaminathan

After reading this, I see no reason to worry about turbulence anymore. Nice post KLM


Very helpful. I enjoyed learning this. I hop,e you would consider publishing how an aircraft flies. Mechanics and air details.
Thank you


I found this very helpful as i have a phobia for flying

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