There is no doubt that the movement and feelings inside a plane can be unnerving for anyone with a fear of flying. The movements of a plane are unlike those of a car because they are at a much higher speed and they involve vertical and inclined movements. That is to say they go up and down and lean over. Before we can fully understand why the movements make us feel disorientated it will be useful to understand how our bodies sense and measure movements.


Movements of people

Human beings are designed to travel at about 4 miles an hour while facing forward. This is one of the reasons that our eyes are at the front of our heads and not at the sides.  Sometimes, if we’re feeling energetic we can travel a little faster but one thing is for certain and that is when running or walking we’ll be facing the direction in which we’re moving. Contrast this with an aircraft where we travel at up to 600 an hour while we are often looking sideways.


  1. Your body is designed to travel at low speed
  2. Your eyes tell you when you are level
  3. Your balance is upset in a plane

Our balancing system relies on the fact that we normally point our head with the direction of the movement of our body.  If you don’t believe this try running while looking sideways, or try running sideways while looking directly ahead. You will also realize that we rely heavily on our eyesight to assist our balancing system. The balancing system is in our middle ear.

If you are sitting in a stationary train at a station and another train alongside begins to move, it takes a few seconds to work out whether it’s our train or the other which is moving, this is because our eyes process information before our other senses do.

You will also have noticed that our eyes can pick up the slightest variation in level or uprightness. When we hang a picture on a wall, from a distance we are able to see if it is level or not with our eyes we don’t usually need a spirit level to tell us.

In an aircraft our balancing system and our eyes are not given information that we normally use. If we’re flying in cloud, or at night, or sitting away from the window our eyes can’t tell us whether we are level or not even worse our balancing system is upset by the movement of the aircraft so that we can’t tell us which way is up either.

We could take a guess but more than likely we would be wrong.

Inside the plane

When an aircraft is in cloud and completing a long steady turn all the passengers (and the pilots) will feel as if they are level and upright. The only reason that the pilots will know otherwise is by looking at their instruments. When the aircraft is turning it has an exact angle of bank in the same way that a motorcyclist leans a bike as it takes a corner at a particular speed. This means that the forces on your body are roughly the same as they are on the ground even though you are turning at 600 mph. (In fact you will weigh a little more)

The aircraft makes its own gravity. For the technically minded in a commercial aircraft, you won’t feel more than about 1.14 g doing this, because of restrictions on the angles of banking that we can use.

Incidentally, why don’t the wing walkers on the planes in the picture slip off down the wing? (No…the bracing wires are there to stop them being blown off the wing by the airflow.)

The problem is that when the wings go back to the level position you won’t feel level. You’ll think you’re turning the other way! So much for turning, what about up and down? When the aircraft levels out after takeoff you’ll get a distinct feeling of losing height, this is for several reasons but mainly because the sound of the engines reduce considerably just after takeoff and we sense this as a change from climbing to falling.

If this happens at the same time that the plane really does change its rate of climb, you will be convinced that the plane is descending. The fact is that the aircraft will NOT be descending despite what you feel.

Try this!

One way to test this is when you’re next in a car as a passenger and the car has cruise control, get the driver to set the speed and then as it’s about to go up a hill close your eyes. It’s almost certain that you’ll think the car is gathering speed. Feeling is believing, but it’s not always the truth. Of course the opposite will happen as the car goes down a hill, you’ll get the impression of slowing down. The reason is that as you go down the hill your body will lean forward very slightly and we associate leaning forward in the car with braking (slowing down). You’ll need your eyes closed to appreciate this fully, so don’t do it when you’re driving. We explain all these things in more detail on our ground courses because it’s important for you to know that there are very good reasons for the sensations you get when you’re flying, especially the feeling of falling that you get just after taking off.

Best wishes,

Captain Keith


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