According to my experience, anyone who is afraid of a flight is very much afraid of what is called turbulence or an air pockets. Even ones who are not ‘officially’ challenged by FoF, may feel uncomfortable during high-intensity bumps.
There is no need to elaborate on the phenomenon that shakes the plane. The professional term is turbulence.
I must admit, I totally understand your fear. Not only that you are closed in this metallic flying tube, it shakes and moves in a way that makes you doubt if this flight is going to end in peaceful landing.
In the “Flight without Fear” workshop we elaborate on the causes of the phenomenon, the different types of turbulence and their effect on flight.
Here is a summary, but first of all, I emphasize: the safety of the flight in all passenger planes is completely unaffected by all types of turbulence. The main effect of an air pocket is on passenger comfort, and if a passenger or object is not secured, there is a risk of injury. The structure of the plane is designed, constructed and tested for much greater effort than any turbulence we may meet.
In aviation we categorize the intensity of turbulence:
Light: means no real effect on the flight. In heavy aircraft, the impact on the passengers may be negligible.
Moderate: the movement of passengers in the cabin may be dangerous, sometimes the captain will instruct the cabin crew to stop the service, sit down and buckle up.
Severe and Extreme: are two rare levels, in which the pilots will inform the air traffic control that the aircraft may not be able to accurately maintain the assigned altitude. Encountering turbulence at these levels will always require changing altitude on the aircraft, in order to allow it to continue the planned route.
Note: in my forty years of flying I have never experienced turbulence above Moderate level.
Turbulence and flight safety
Before each flight, a licensed dispatcher carefully plans the route, taking into consideration many parameters, and the weather is one of the most important of them. As described below, in most cases the turbulence have no effect on the safety of the flight, but if severe or extreme turbulence is forecasted, the flight will bypass these areas.
Turbulence at severe and extreme intensity can interfere with the plane’s ability to maintain flight altitude, but in most of the times this very rare turbulence can be predicted and bypassed, and identified in real time, so pilots can avoid entry.
Anyone who fears that the wings of the plane may break and especially disturbed by the swaying during a flight in such turbulence may look at the video here that shows how the aircraft is designed and tested.
Can I do something to avoid it?
The turbulence can originate from different sources, and can, therefore, appear at different stages of flight.
Windy weather: Near clouds, when there are winds, we are expected to encounter such turbulence, especially when flying near clouds. At these stages, we can also see rain or snow. The radar system installed in the nose of the plane can normally identify the clouds where there are unusual winds and precipitation and the pilots know how to avoid entering areas where the turbulence are predicted to be particularly strong.
Terrain: Near high mountains, winds that hit the mountain turn into rising currents that cause turbulence. These are not problematic at all and occur near the ground, with passengers secured with their seat belts.
Warm air: On hot days, the lower air mass gets warmer. This air flow is a kind of pothole for the plane, causing unstable flight. This type of turbulence is characteristic of hot days and starts mostly from at noon time. These turbulences are generally not intense and, except for the discomfort of the passengers, pose no problem for the aircraft.
Clear air turbulence usually occurs at high altitudes. Their intensity can also reach a high level of severity, which will prevent the plane from maintaining the desired height accurately. These types of turbulences are very rare and almost always predictable and circumvented. In cases where passenger aircraft encountered such turbulence, the only damage was from wounded passengers who were not buckled up or hit by unsecured objects.
Wake turbulence, of aircraft in the vicinity: each plane leaves behind a trail of turbulence. The heavier the plane, the more powerful is their intensity. Flight controllers and pilots are aware of this phenomenon. Since all aircraft in each area are under the same control, there is a strict definition of required distance and avoidance of flight in the trails of a previous aircraft.
There may still be cases where the plane crosses the trajectory of another plane and causes a sudden bump. Beyond a momentary discomfort and the feeling that we might have fallen into an air pocket, such a turbulence is not dangerous to anyone who remains in his seat.
We have seen, therefore, that turbulence is never dangerous to the structure of the aircraft!
The only danger is the injury of passengers who are not buckled up or are injured by objects that are not well secured.
The pilots have information on some of the turbulence, according to radar data, weather maps, or aircraft reports in the area.
Therefore, I strongly recommend that you fasten your seatbelts whenever you sit in your chairs and be more careful about the belts when the signs indicating this are lit.