Once or twice (twice really), I've experienced flying through heavy winds while sitting in a passenger airplane and was wondering if others have similar experiences.
Other than very brief moments, it is no different than any other passenger flight. What really makes the difference are those seconds between the moment that a strong wave of wind grips the plane and the moment the plane adapts to the change. That and landing, which in heavy winds is quite an experience.
As I fly a lot (couple times per month at the moment) I have gotten used to the typical flight and know what happens when, what sounds the machine makes at various stages, what the safety procedures are (Your lifevest is under your seat. In the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure... etc.) and how airports work. So when I am not working on a flight, or sleeping, or listening to music, I take the time to observe people. It's usually easy to tell the people who fly less often. They are surprised or amused by the safety demo, they are wary of the strange sounds coming out of the wings at takeoff when the landing gear is retracted or at landing when the plane starts descending towards the runway. People seem the most scared at landing. There is a strange spell of silence in the seconds before the wheels touch the ground, then slowly the cabin is filled with chatter again. Slowly, carefully, once everyone is sure all the wheels are on solid ground and the plane has the airbrakes fully open, decelerating rapidly. People start fumbling with seatbelts and cell phones though it is far too early, and against the repeated warnings of flight attendants. Ground. Safety. No need to worry about anything anymore. The unconditional trust they had to give to the flight crew feels unnecessary after touchdown.
That's a typical flight. However when flying through winds things change. I had the questionable pleasure of flying into Cologne-Bonn airport two days before the huge storm of January 2007 hit Germany. The winds were strong already at that point, and the plane started veering off in various directions as we approached the airport. A deep silence engulfed the cabin, with everyone looking at each other or out the window in inquisitive shock. People glanced towards the front of the plane as if looking for answers. Everyone stayed put. Seatbelts were pulled tighter. Vibrations passed along the length of the plane as it waded through currents of wind. Another vibration just before touchdown, some short yelps of fear and surprise, quickly silenced. Touchdown. Absolute and overwhelming silence. Then applause. I had balked at the idea of applause for a normal landing but things like this deserve more appreciation. Touchdown did not break the spell. People were much calmer and quieter than a typical flight. Anxious to step on solid ground but not annoyed, not digging for their carry on or blocking the way. The spell of trust and respect had been extended a few minutes beyond its typical range. This was a nearly full passenger jet on the day before all flights were canceled and two days before a terrible storm ravaged the country.
A completely different experience was flying in a turboprop plane through a storm. It was a 50-seater, nearly empty. Short flight, a bit over an hour. Takeoff in good weather, slightly overcast. Drunk Russians three rows behind me. A few couples in the rows in front. Tiny plane, no oxygen masks. No one sitting next to me. Plenty of space to look around and observe people. It was my second time ever on a turboprop (this was a return flight) so I was quite fascinated by the little machine. It looked so light and flimsy, like a gust of wind could tear it apart. Then we flew into a storm.
I never had such an interesting time observing people. For those of you who have never been in a Fokker 50 turboprop, it's a very tiny thing compared to a passenger jet. It gets tossed around at the slightest hint of heavy wind. When the wind gripped the plane the wings made ominous sounds, and the acceleration sent people's internal organs racing downwards. Then came the interesting bit. The Russian gentlemen's joyful chatter quieted down, and the couples in the front held each other close, beautifully. There was a fear that flowed through the cabin, but they were there for each other, holding each other close. I sat alone and observed, wondered. How could a fear of being killed in a flimsy plane disintegrating in midair bring people so close together. However, the Fokker 50 is a tough little plane, and can take a storm well. This time the spell of silence lasted the entire flight, and the couples held on really tight at landing as the plane bounced all over the air before touching down, safely, on its oversized wheels.
I quite enjoyed those flights, scary as they were, it's a pleasure to observe.