What magnitude of displacement of air in turbulence conditions is large enough to affect (i.e. be noticeable in) an airliner?

Are there any minimum limits, so that even fiercely turbulent air below a certain displacement is not noticeable?

  • $\begingroup$ Noticeable is a wide range. Also wing loading plays a role, as it tends to reduce the effect on the aircraft to vertical displacements. Also there are many classifications of turbulence. Finally, there is a spectral component, where lower frequency turbulence (larger area up and down drafts, for example) and higher frequency (chop, for example) have different effects on passengers and crew. Yet wake turbulence, may create roll moments, which can be more upsetting to a flight. So displacement is a factor, but frequency, direction and other attributes impact flight comfort and safety. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ This seems very similar to this question $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Aug 1, 2017 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ @mongo I realise that displacement is only one factor, but it is the one I'm asking about... However, could you expand on your mention of spectral components and their effect on passengers and crew as (part of) an answer to aviation.stackexchange.com/questions/42527/…, as that is exactly what that question is about? $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 2, 2017 at 12:41

1 Answer 1



There are in effect no minimum levels of displacement that will not have noticeable effects. Even very small displacements, of an appropriate period and spectrum, can affect a large aircraft. Scale alone is not a limiting factor.

In more detail

Question 2: Are there any minimum limits, so that even fiercely turbulent air below a certain displacement is not noticeable?

The title addresses "large passenger planes" and not passengers, or passengers with vestibular anomalies, etc.

Generally mountain wave is considered "fiercely turbulent" as the updrafts and downdrafts can exceed the climb and descent capability of an aircraft. However, the "frequency component" of the mountain wave can be very low, at times creating no human perception of motion. Yet the turbulence causes loss of control by virtue of exceeding the aircraft's capabilities of counteracting an upsetting force.

So in this instance, it is possible to have an extreme situation, and actually loss of control, by turbulence which is imperceptible by a human without instrumentation.

Question #1: What magnitude of displacement of air in turbulence conditions is large enough to affect (i.e. be noticeable in) an airliner?

The aircraft, and it's contents (including people) act as a system. The system can dampen the effects of some forces and cause amplification of other forces.

A tiny, repeated push to a child on a swing, can result in very large displacements of the swing, and is a good example of a form of resonance or amplification of the effects of a small push. The pushes have to have the right periodicity, matching the resonance of the swing to be effective.

The above is an example of a resonant system, but we also have around us systems which dampen energy, such as the suspension on a car. Driving a car over a bump in the road might create a very mild sensation in the car, but if we were riding on a solid wheel hitting the same bump at the same speed the resulting bump could be injurious.

So to only ask about displacement is akin to only asking about sound pressure of music. The frequency (notes) help create the music, and the periodic occurrence of the frequency energy also helps create the music (like beat). A drum strike can be very loud or a triangle very soft, but they are both noticeable in music, in part due to our perceptual training, but also due to the human auditory system.

So for an aircraft, a displacement at one frequency may have essentially no impact on the flight path, due to the systemic response of the aircraft. Furthermore that displacement may or may not be detectable by a human riding in that aircraft.
To answer your broad, but limited to displacement question, becomes impossible to do so accurately if you choose to limit the dimensionality of the system you are seeking analysis of. (reference your comment)

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, this is the kind of answer I was looking for. I added a summary at the top, just to make it a bit clearer - please feel free to amend it further. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 3:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The"tiny push at resonant frequency" trick doesn't work if the child is activity trying not to swing, though; and planes have control surfaces. $\endgroup$
    – yshavit
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 4:21
  • $\begingroup$ If the child is actively trying not to swing, then they are changing the "system" and the tiny push does not work. Not sure what you intended to mean about control surfaces. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:53
  • $\begingroup$ On the summary added, period and spectrum are the same. They are both temporal domain. $\endgroup$
    – mongo
    Commented Aug 3, 2017 at 13:55

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