Sit the ^%$* Down!
Air carriers encounter turbulence every day and I wouldnít be surprised if it causes minor injuries nearly as often that we just donít hear about. On Sunday, a U.S. Airways flight departing Philadelphia caught some nasty bumps over Delaware that bounced people off the overheads and injured a few passengers and at least one flight attendant. As these things go, it wasnít at all an exceptional example of how bad things can get. When the flight has to be met by a half dozen ambulances and paramedics, the encounter was serious. This one didnít require that. But check out these photos of a Singapore Airlines A380 that hit extreme turbulence on the way to London last summer. The coffee splat on the cabin ceiling was an especially dramatic touch.
The good thing is that the vast majority of passengers will never see this kind of turbulence. But the bad thing is not having seen how bad bad can be, they traipse around the cabin unsecured as if on the way from the couch to the refrigerator. Frankly, this makes me nervous as hell. When the flight attendants push the drink trolly up the aisle, that makes me nervous as hell, too. Iíve seen those things come off the deck even in mild bumps. And when I go to the lav, I use one hand for business and the other to maintain a death grip on the helper handle and I jam my head against the ceiling. Then I rush back to my seat and strap in, all the while nervous as hell. Iím not worried about crashing; Iím worried about a broken arm or a concussion.
Thatís because Iíve seen how bad bad can get and I secretly suspect it can be even worse than that. Iíve also seen how the bump from hell can be just a single jolt that comes out of nowhere, neither forecast nor indicated in any way. After Sundayís report appeared, I pulled up the prog chart and had an intense case of dťjŗ vu. The pressures and front features were almost identical to an encounter I had in the mid-1990s in a Mooney enroute from Connecticut to Norfolk, Virginia. Iím sure Iíve mentioned this before, but a quick search doesnít pull it up.
As with the Sunday flight, there was a low off the Atlantic coast and a high over the south. In my case, it was actually a March Noríeaster. I was cruising along in IMC on Victor 1 south of JFK with a 30-knot push and the next thing I knew, my headset was around my throat, the autopilot kicked off and a bag of Famous Amos chocolate-chip cookies I was munching was suddenly scattered across the glareshield. Flying an approach into anywhere would have been a challenge, seeing as how my Jepp binders had either landed in the backseat or down by the right-side rudder pedals. Iím not sure I ever figured it out. I could push the PTT, but I couldnít rotate the frequency selector to contact the next sector. Neither could anyone else on the frequency. It lasted about 10 or 15 minutes, I guess, then I broke out into the clear and the groundspeed dropped from 180 to about 90 knots.
That experience traumatized me toward turbulence and realizing now that it was almost 20 years ago, the effect was permanent. On the other hand, Iím among that handful of passengers on airliners that flight attendants never have to remind to strap in. The number of people who donít do this is alarming. On the last flight I was on, of four people in the row, two were unbelted just after top of climb. It was a smooth trip, but as that Mooney flight taught me, you can be lolling one minute and launched the next. I have considered reminding people to belt in, not because I care that much about them, but because I donít want to fend off a kneeóor worseóto the noggin (or worse). Iím thinking Iíll put those Singapore photos on my iPad and just show them. People tend to believe the Captain will warn them before the bumps come, but we all know the fallacy of that.
Hats off to the FAs who stand up and navigate the cabin in light chop. I wouldnít blame them or the Captain a bit if they kept everyone seated through any kind of turbulence event. In fact, I would prefer it. I can do just fine without my Diet Pepsi and pretzels.†
Some climatologists say that with climate change, extreme turbulence events may be more frequent or more extreme. Given the way data is collected and processed in the modern airline world, maybe weíll be able to draw colorful graphs and charts to show if this is true or just more unsubstantiated Cassandraism. I donít care, since Iím going to be belted in from gate to gate. I just wish other people would do the same. I wouldnít mind a bit if cabin crews got more aggressive in nudging people to stay strapped in. Iím a loud and proud turbulence chicken and not afraid to admit it.