Taking the Mystery Out of Air Travel Terms – What is an Air Pocket

If you’ve ever traveled by air, you’ve probably felt something that feels like a quick drop that’s commonly called an “air pocket”.

Air pocket

Photo by IStock

The term was coined in the early days of aviation as a way to explain the effect of air currents on slow moving planes. Technically there is no such thing as an air “pocket” but the expression stuck and continues to be used to the present day.

In reality “air pocket” is simply a nice euphemism for turbulence. It might feel like you’re about to fall out of the sky but the truth is on a commercial airline it’s rare for you to lose or gain more than twenty feet or so, especially in a plane on autopilot.

So what’s really happening when your flight gets bumpy enough to rattle the glasses?

First let’s agree on some basic science of flight: our earth’s surface temperature fluctuates and that affects aircraft passing through in flight. Different air temperatures have different weights; warm air is lighter so it rises while cool air is heavier and sinks. This airflow when encountered by a plane creates that feeling of what we call an “air pocket”

The problem is, to many this phrase sounds like an area devoid of air and without air, what’s holding up the plane? If this misunderstanding persists it can lead to fears that a large enough air pocket could allow a plane to drop from the sky or spiral out of control. But such a thing doesn’t exist.

A helpful analogy is to picture the sky as a large Jello filled bowl with a plastic airplane suspended in its middle. You can pick up the bowl and give it a shake but the toy airplane isn’t going to fall out of the bowl. At the most, hitting an “air pocket” in the sky is the air equivalent of hitting a pothole with your car or a wave with your boat. Bumpy yes, but dangerous… Not really as long as you’re wearing a seat belt.

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