Ask the Captain: How is severe turbulence defined and who flies the plane in those conditions?

When an airplane encounters severe turbulence, does the pilot manually take over the plane, or is it left on autopilot?

– TRL, New Mexico

Usually, the pilots will leave the autopilot engaged. In small airplanes with limited autopilots it is better to fly manually, but with more sophisticated airplanes the autopilot is a valid option in turbulence.

Severe turbulence is actually very rare. What most passengers think is severe is moderate-to-heavy turbulence. You know it’s severe when unsecured items in the cabin are flying around and maintaining control of the flight path is momentarily disrupted.

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