How Turbulence Can Turn Deadly

The emergency landing of a Houston-bound flight today due to turbulence that put four passengers in serious condition highlights a hidden threat of flying, writes Daily Beast aviation expert Clive Irving.

08.03.09 11:50 AM ET

It’s the hidden hand in the sky that won’t go away. Today’s white-knuckle experience on Continental Flight 128 from Rio to Houston is a timely reminder to all passengers: Buckle up. Always. All modern jets have radar that picks up severe turbulence ahead and enables pilots to evade it. Then there is mild turbulence of the kind that is common, and causes the seat belt warning to be switched on, and nothing worse than a slightly bumpy ride. But there is turbulence that neither radar nor pilots can see—clear air turbulence. This is dangerous. There just isn’t a technological answer to it. Every year, a few flights are going to get hit by it. It’s too early to know if this is what happened to Flight 128, but it was flying over the Caribbean at the time, and current weather reports show no severe storms in that region.

One of the worst places in the world for turbulence is the Pacific. In 1997, a United Airlines 747 with 390 people on board flying from Tokyo to Honolulu was cruising at 33,000 feet when it hit severe turbulence and dropped a 1,000 feet. One Japanese woman died, 10 passengers were injured seriously and an additional 100 suffered minor injuries. In February 2009, there was a similar episode involving a Northwest 747 flying between Manila and Tokyo. Forty-five of the 422 people on board were injured, including six crew members.

The good news is that airplanes can take a lot of punishment and still land safely, as happened today when the Continental Boeing 767 diverted to Miami. It’s when passengers and crew, particularly flight attendants serving meals, get caught without seat belts that injuries occur. Inevitably, there are always a few people in the aisles or in toilets who don’t have a chance to put on the seat belts. For the rest of us, there is no excuse—the belt will keep you in the seat when the airplane is plunging, rather than your becoming a flying object.

The other caution is against incorrectly stowed overhead luggage. Here the curse of the carry-on stuffer is a real danger. You’ve seen them, the last-minute boarders who ram their bags into the bin even though it won’t fit properly. Flight attendants try to police this, but not always successfully. In turbulence, those bags become deadly missiles.

There is no connection between what happened to the Continental flight today and the disappearance of Air France Flight 447 over the Atlantic on June 1. That flight was headed into the tropical convergence zone, where giant storms are common. On the night that Flight 447 vanished, other pilots on the same route made diversions around threatening turbulence that showed up on their radar. Whether the crew of Flight 447 did the same we don’t know—and may never know.