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Buckle up! There might be turbulence ahead

Buckle up! There might be turbulence ahead
CNN
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Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 9:59am

(CNN) -- Isn't it about time you fastened your seat belt?

Recent United Airlines and Cathay Pacific flights have been hit by unexpected turbulence that resulted in crew and passenger injuries.

Although flight attendants have to stand up to do much of their jobs during flight, we passengers have no such excuse.

Take the "fasten seat belt" signs seriously. Buckle up when you're seated, and read these five things we learned about turbulence.

What is turbulence?

"Clear air turbulence is air movement created by atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts or thunderstorms," the Federal Aviation Administration says on its website.

Sometimes it's unexpected and can happen during clear skies. Other times, pilots are alerted to reports of turbulence ahead by the FAA, their airline meteorology teams and pilots flying ahead of them.

You're not likely to get hurt

Despite the recent headlines, the actual rate of injury due to turbulence is quite low. U.S. mainline and regional carriers flew an estimated 731 million paying passengers on domestic flights in 2011. During that same year, there were 33 turbulence-related injuries -- five passengers and 28 crew -- in U.S. airspace.

Turbulence doesn't scare pilots

He's been flying commercial aircraft for 20 years, and AskthePilot.com's Patrick Smith says he experiences garden-variety turbulence every time he flies. But it's usually pretty slight. He can't ever recall experiencing truly severe turbulence in flight. And he knows that aircraft are built with rough air in mind.

"Pilots usually look at it as a comfort and convenience issue rather than a safety issue, annoying but not dangerous," Smith said. "It's rarely ever dangerous, but it could be dangerous to your well-being if you're not buckled when you should be. People who are injured are almost always flight attendants and people who are not buckled up."

Don't fight the bumps

During episodes of turbulence, your pilots might be looking for smoother air to give you a more comfortable flight. But in the moment, they aren't fighting the turbulence to keep their aircraft flying smoothly, Smith said.

Some autopilot systems have a turbulence mode, which stops the aircraft from trying to correct the bumpy ride. "You'll see the wings bend and move, and it's perfectly natural," he said.

It feels worse than it is

Moments of turbulence can feel scary and quite dramatic, and passengers will swear their plane has dropped thousands of feet. Smith calls it the "passenger embellishment factor." And it's almost always not true.

"Even in strong turbulence, often the aircraft never moves more than 20 to 50 feet up or down," Smith said.

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