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I’ve found a simple way to cure my fear of turbulence

It’s all in one website… this is how weather data and squiggly graphs have made me feel better about things that go bump in the flight

The Sunday Times

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Narrated by Cathy Adams

I was pretty nervous about a transatlantic flight home from the Caribbean in November — so skittish that it ruined the last few days of my holiday. My hands would shake in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with the all-inclusive rum punches I kept ordering. Let me explain.

This exact time last year, right at the end of the Atlantic hurricane season, I travelled from Florida to London on a flight that was battered with severe turbulence — which was just as bad as it sounds. Passengers were screaming, crying and praying; there were loud bangs as lightning hit the wing, accompanied by deathly silence from the strapped-in plane crew. Since engaging my trembling legs and disembarking BA2036 at Gatwick, I’ve become… if not nervous, then an extremely unenthusiastic flyer. I’ve called a pilot and spoken to turbulence scientists without finding much reassurance, but now I think I’ve finally found the solution.

A friend recommended the website Turbli (turbli.com), which analyses weather forecasts used by flight crew, to tell you how much turbulence your flight will experience. It’s not new (it was set up in 2021), but it’s new to me; and chances are you’ll be using it a lot more as bumpier flights are predicted to become more common.

On the day of my recent departure from the Turks & Caicos, I typed in my flight details and — voila! Up came a serious-looking graph with lots of squiggles in the “light turbulence” category, with a few bigger bumps maybe six hours into the ten-hour flight. It was, unbelievably for this cynic, correct almost to the minute. I’d sunk two mini bottles of merlot by this point in preparation, softening the edges enough for me to feel nothing but overjoyed at such a smooth ride home after last year’s horror show.

Turbli uses the same weather forecasts that pilots do
Turbli uses the same weather forecasts that pilots do

Turbli takes into account aircraft loading, cruising speed and the flight route filed by the pilot; you can only use it 36 hours ahead of your flight so the weather report is accurate. There are also interactive global turbulence maps and live flight trackers, as well as a terrifying list of the most turbulent routes in the world. (Santiago in Chile to Santa Cruz in Bolivia ranks as the bumpiest, while in Europe, five of the ten most turbulent routes involve Zurich, as the jet stream is stronger over mountain ranges.)


I also used the app Flying Calmly, which as well as bump-forecasting, makes snazzy use of phone sensors to show how much the aircraft is rolling and pitching, as well as how much G-force — the force created by turbulence — the aircraft is under. On take-off for a flight to Dubai last month — I’d been warned by Turbli that “there would be a bumpy climb”, which was true — I held my phone dead centre and could see the plane’s roll, pitch, air pressure and turbulence. Even if I couldn’t tell you what the numbers meant exactly, focusing on something else seemed to help. Information is power, after all. I suspect part of the reason that people like me are scared of flying is the loss of control — and these apps help give you back some of that.

There are limits, though. Recently, a colleague checked in at Miami for a flight back to London, only to be told the turbulence would be so severe there would be no food or drink served onboard — everyone would be strapped in for the whole eight hours. (Happily, nervous fliers were told they could take the next service for free.) She boarded anyway — and in the bathroom when the plane hit a patch of turbulence, found herself “airborne”. She said people were screaming. “It was horrendous,” she said. That’s an “absolutely not, thank you very much” from me.

The plane tech that could make turbulence a thing of the past

I asked Paul Williams, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading and the co-author of a turbulence study published this summer in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, what he thought about these apps. “Turbulence apps typically assume that flight paths are straight lines,” he says. “In reality, flight routes follow the winds and are modified in real time to avoid bumpy air. There is no app that has access to this live information.

“These apps are fun for most air travellers but could increase anxiety for nervous flyers. It reminds me of a hypochondriac searching online for their symptoms instead of seeing a doctor. My advice is to focus on something else and trust the pilots to find the smoothest route.”

I’m yet to log a flight that shows anything but “episodes of moderate turbulence”. A friend asked unhelpfully: what would have happened had Turbli predicted severe turbulence? The answer to that would have been to slurp an entire bottle of Caribbean rum before boarding and sleep through the next ten hours. Better to be slumbering than shrieking, right?

How do you feel about turbulence? Would apps like this help you? Let us know in the comments below

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