[ELI5] Do planes actually ‘fall’ thousands of feet during severe turbulence? Why and how does this happen?


In December of 2022, Flight UA1722 from Maui to San Francisco was reported by media to have plunged half of its altitude in a matter of seconds due to severe turbulence. Just last week, a Lufthansa flight from Austin, TX to Germany reportedly fell thousands of feet, sending seven people to the hospital for injuries after an emergency landing.

Is this just sensationalized reporting by the media, or do commercial jets actually plummet from the sky and recover just before crashing? Why and how does this happen?

In: 12

>Is this just sensationalized reporting by the media

You can always count on the media to sensationalize things

>do commercial jets actually plummet from the sky and recover just before crashing?

Incredibly rarely, and don’t confuse simply “hitting turbulence” or dropping a couple thousand feet with “recover just before crashing”. For the vast majority of the flight planes have a lot of distance between themselves and the ground.

>Why and how does this happen?

The speed of the air travelling over the wings of the plane is *incredibly* important as that gives lift to the plane to keep it in the air. Sufficiently strong or turbulent winds can disrupt this airflow causing the wings to not generate enough lift and causing the plane to lose altitude.

This is fairly rare but does happen from time to time. Especially with tens of thousands of flights each day these things does happen once or twice a year. The airplanes of course have to be constructed to handle this and even more. So it is just a danger of people falling over and getting hurt by lose items.

This happens because airplanes fly in the air and will therefore follow the winds. And there are some atmospheric conditions that can create huge vertical winds up and down. At the altitudes the airplanes fly, up in the jet stream, these can be quite big and powerful. And of course since it is just the wind they are invisible. That means that there is a chance that an airplane will basically fly into this invisible vertical jet stream and fall down with it. It is not exactly a fall, but it would feel more like an extreme elevator ride. Fortunately these vertical winds do not go all the way down to the ground, because the ground is in the way. So at some point the vertical winds turn into horizontal winds and the airplane is able to maintain its altitude. Since airplanes are designed to handle these forces there is little chance of crashing from these events, but injuries in the cabin can be expected. This is why you are told to keep the seatbelt on in flight, even if the fasten seatbelt light is off, and to always keep your luggage safely stowed.

When planes encounter turbulence they can hit pockets of air that are significantly colder and thus more dense. They can also be hit by extreme gusts of wind that can push it in any direction. Both of these cause the speed of air relative to the plane do drop. The pilots will compenstate by putting the plane into a dive to maintain the airflow over the wings and attempt to move away from the disturbed air. This sudden change causes the sensation that the plane is dropping.

Sorry if my comment isn’t actually an answer to your question, but for a while I had a little anxiety of flying and the media is to blame.

They take every little incident involving planes and make REALLY big.

Everytime that you hear about an aviation incident, try to look on YouTube for some quality information, like reports ou Captains interviews. Most of the time you realize news channel blow those occurrences way out of proportion just for visibility.

It took me some time but now I follow some really nice aviation channels on YT, traveled some intercontinental flights without any anxiety thanks for them.

Yes, it can happen. My father worked for an airline when I was very young, back in the early 90s. I remember jumping on a flight with him to go to a meeting. I was asleep when the plane hit some turbulence, and woke up to people screaming, oxygen masks dropped, and luggage all over the cabin. I did what any 4 year old would do, and went back to my nap. Apparently we dropped something close to 1000 feet.