Sit the ^%$* Down!

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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.

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Comments (29)

I'm right there with you, Paul. Unless I must get up for a lav break my belt is always latched. Not real tight, but latched for the same reasons you mentioned. There is usually no warning when it hits. Can you believe some people actually try to shave their face in the lav?

What's funny is that when we swing out onto the runway for takeoff, I instinctively cinch my belt up tight for that 150 mph trundle down the runway and look out the side window for "traffic". Invariably, I get this worried stare from the passenger next to me as if saying "Do you know something I don't know? (and should I be doing it too?)" The answer is empathically YES!

Posted by: A Richie | May 6, 2014 9:02 AM    Report this comment

Having experienced rivet-popping forms of turbulence and since it is fairly acceptable that the FAA will not fix the phenomenon, on my next flight, I just might wear a helmet a chest protector and knee pads - all that and a tightly fastened seat belt.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 6, 2014 9:55 AM    Report this comment

I guess I'm fortunate that I've never experienced more than occasional moderate turbulence on an airliner. Even so, I always keep my seatbelt fastened (though I do loosen it a bit when the seatbelt sign comes off), and tighten it for takeoff and landing. But I will occasionally unbuckle and walk around a bit on flights longer than 2 hours or so. I get uncomfortable sitting for long periods of time, particularly in the cramped seats of an airliner, and need to move around a bit to stave off a muscle-tension-induced headache.

As for my own GA flying, this year so far has met with more turbulence than I recall in years past. I've also had my first experience with what could actually be called "severe" turbulence (though short-lived it was), so it very well may be that climate change is leading toward more turbulence. However, I'm not willing to say this with any certainty, since it could also be that I'm simply flying in more degraded weather conditions than I used to, having gained quite a bit of experience (and ratings) since I first started flying in 2006.

Rivet-popping turbulence. Yikes. Hope I never experience turbulence that bad.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 6, 2014 10:23 AM    Report this comment

It is a Cassadraism Gary.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 6, 2014 10:32 AM    Report this comment

And in the spirit of Cinco de Mayo, here I was planning to send a suggestion to Southwest that, during mild to moderate turbulence, hanging a few pinatas from overhead bin hinges for blindfolded passengers to whack at with their iPhones or tablets could be very entertaining. Now I have second thoughts.

Posted by: David Miller | May 6, 2014 3:01 PM    Report this comment

You know, on second thought maybe I should keep the belt cinched tight at all times. An EMT once told me that the only broken bone you can bleed to death from is your pelvis (no kidding). That, and maybe it will keep my pants size in check so the FAA won't be chasing after me for my belly apnea.

Posted by: A Richie | May 6, 2014 3:04 PM    Report this comment

I agree with belts on at all times. One 20 minute bashing in an airliner while in a holding pattern was
most convincing, The huge plastic bag of loaded sick sacks the FA dragged down the aisle was very
impressive. A drink cart hovering above seat back height was also impressive but not as spectacular
as it's landing, those floors are really tough. Three people were hurt by no belts on, coming out of their
seats and hitting seat backs on the way down.
Paul, you mentioned a "jolt." I had a strange one, was flying a Hawk XP into ORL from the FL west
coast. Had three of my kids with me, all belted in and so was I. Beautiful day for flying, severe clear
and no hint of anything in the wx brief. About 25 miles out, at 2,500 feet, it felt as if the XP had run into a brick wall.Although I was belted in snugly and had a shoulder harness I pitched forward and up
violently. Without the belt I may well have hit the headliner, had a face full of instrument panel or who knows what. The scariest thought was possibly getting knocked out with my children in the airplane.
If they had not been belted in I would have been picking them off the headliner or far worse.
The jolt was so hard I heard the wing joints at the fuselage actually creak. I had never heard that
before in turbulence when flying IFR and I never want to hear it again. After that one huge jolt things
got right back to normal weather-wise. Looking around the airplane I saw three sets of saucer shaped eyes and got questions like what was that, Daddy? To which I could only mumble I dunno.

Posted by: Joe Sikora | May 6, 2014 4:07 PM    Report this comment

From 1962 to date the NTSB has investigated 3404 accidents and incidents where some form of turbulence was a factor. The accident or incident reports were mainly from US aircraft within US territory and some foreign entries. They ranged from Non-fatal to Fatal. The Singapore Airlines A380 and other events I recall were not included. I think that the true number, including incidents not reported, would increase the total making this problem a lot more significant, therefore writing that this type of occurrence amounts to more than just "...a tiny handful of incidents..." as Mail-Online article writes - is not accurate. They need CNN Breaking News to get this corrected.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 6, 2014 10:47 PM    Report this comment not more than just

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 6, 2014 10:51 PM    Report this comment

At the risk of putting a wet kiss on Cassandra, looking at such risk numbers may be enlightening.

In 2012, ICAO reported 19 accidents in which turbulence was cited as causal. None involved fatalities. On a rate basis, that's 0.01/100,000 hours. That's a pretty tiny risk. On a per flight basis, based on 18 million flights a year, it's 0.1/100,000 flights. Higher, obviously, because the exposure is telescoped over the entire flight. But still low, even if the events are underreported. The overall airline accident rate (U.S.) is 0.29/100,000 with the fatal rate near zero.

It's easy to extrapolate the 3404 incidents into something like one a day if you use a reasonable multiplier like five. But that's one a day in 50,000 flights a day. Double it again and it's still a smaller risk than driving to work. I'm not sure if that qualifies as a "tiny handful," but it's not a huge risk. I guess I'm proving that my own fear is misplaced, alarmist and shrill, but it's my fear, I love it, I cherish it and sleep with it, so I'm keepin' it.

Just as interesting and something I never thought much about is the falling baggage risk. The Flight Safety Foundation did a study that estimated that worldwide, there are 10,000 injuries a year from baggage tumbling out of the overheads, probably some of that turbulence related. Wouldn't surprise me if this has gone up sharply since baggage fees went into effect and people are stuffing their Snap-On tool carts, anvils and lead balloon collections into the overheads.

Window seat anyone?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 7, 2014 5:13 AM    Report this comment

Well Paul, keep your fear and please no wet kissing and thanks for disagreeing and agreeing. On my next flight, Rafael will wear a football helmet and carry a hockey stick for the pinatas. Thank you Dave.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 7, 2014 6:49 AM    Report this comment

From the title, I thought you were going to recommend that Gents should always be seated when using the lav. Many years ago, I was waiting on a little boy to finish using one. When I entered, the kid had sprayed all over the place. As I exited to use another, I told the FA about the condition of the lav I refused. She wasn't a happy camper.

Posted by: Jim Thomas | May 7, 2014 8:03 AM    Report this comment

I've never experienced more than light turbulence in an airliner--but then, if I ride in airliners more than once every 3 or 4 years, that's a lot. But I have had some pretty fair bumps in light singles, where stuff flies around the cabin. I recall one memorable night in ultra-smooth air, when a sudden bump like hitting a wall catapulted me upward so that my head touched the headliner although I was belted in, and similarly catapulted my dog into the headliner, knocking her silly for a few seconds. And then it was back to ultra-smooth.

So yeah, I don't understand why people don't buckle in. I'm always nervous walking the aisle to the airliner's restroom, remembering that night when ultra-smooth air wasn't. Once was enough.


Posted by: Cary Alburn | May 7, 2014 8:16 AM    Report this comment

Paul, I agree the risk is infinitesimally small as you calculated for us (1 out of 10 million hours and none of those were fatal), but then when you know someone that experienced it, it's either has to be a case of uncanny statistical (un)luck or the stats are just wrong.
A few years ago, I had a good friend that was cruising up the east coast at 7500 feet on a clear blue VFR day with his son just fine as could be and then suddenly hit extreme turbulence. Suffice to say they did not survive. It' s hard to imagine they were flying the 1 hour in 10 million (but then those weren't fatalities so it's even more rare).

Posted by: A Richie | May 7, 2014 10:10 AM    Report this comment

"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 we'll be able to draw colorful graphs and charts to show if this is true or just more unsubstantiated Cassandraism."

I'd be curious as to how these climatologists predict increased turbulence. Are high pressures going to be higher and low pressure system lower? Will cold fronts be colder AND warm fronts warmer?

Posted by: jim hanson | May 7, 2014 11:36 AM    Report this comment

What it means is that Taxes Will Be Higher AND your Pockets Will Be Emptied!

Posted by: A Richie | May 7, 2014 1:50 PM    Report this comment

'From the title, I thought you were going to recommend that Gents should always be seated when using the lav.' Ha! Good one.

Now that Paul has allowed the counterpoint to the infinitesimal stats, I feel vindicated that I didn't take any water survival items when I flew over the Colorado River last month to view the Blythe Intaglios. :)

The comparison of small aircraft to airliner is very different, too. At those high flight levels on an airliner, above the weather for the most part, people tend to relax a bit and maybe want to stretch their legs from the pretzel shape they were in and walk slowly, pause, to and from the lav, etc. Buckle up when seated, but if we walk too fast, we might overlook and trip over the candy someone missed, eh, Rafael?

And who knows, looking at the rise in extreme sports and stupid bodily risks some dolts go for, maybe some passengers are hoping for extreme turbulence. They may welcome climate change. After all, long flights can be boring.

Posted by: David Miller | May 7, 2014 2:19 PM    Report this comment

What is not infinitesimal is the number of fatalities in accidents where turbulence was a factor. A quick count on the NTSB database exceeded 1,000 (one thousand+) deaths since 1962. Including AA587.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 7, 2014 5:14 PM    Report this comment

A more detailed count on the NTSB database totaled 2,721 fatalities since 1962. The infinitesimal is getting fat.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 7, 2014 11:07 PM    Report this comment

Not sure what you're getting at, Rafael. If this is such a concern, maybe all the nervous Nellies on this thread who think they should tell others how to behave on an airliner should sit down with a FA and find out how they do it - just where do they get such discrimination, bravery and courage to handle such aviation risks on their job? All the while dealing with the flying public... Superhumans?

Maybe that would put some minds at ease, whether the risk is infinitesimal or nano super-infinitesimal, just approaching infinitesimal, or not quite infinitesimal.

Posted by: David Miller | May 8, 2014 1:56 AM    Report this comment

Dave, A Richie is correct, read his post. An occurrence becomes significant the closer one is to it. I instruct in mountanous terrain where low level windshear and mechanical turbulence is common and not fun. The older I get the older it gets. It can be an even more dangerous environment by pilot ignorance or contempt. Turbulence at high or low altitudes, in small or heavy aircraft is not an insignificant or infinitesimal phenomenon to ignore. It needs recognition and respect as it can bend or break aircraft and hurt or kill souls on board.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 8, 2014 3:04 AM    Report this comment

I read his/her post, Rafael. And he/she is neither correct nor incorrect, but is simply questioning the odds vs. the event. That's the challenge we all face, isn't it, even in the face of witnessing that very rare event?

I had a kid lose his skateboard the other day and it flew up and then under my car, tearing off a ball joint boot. Hundreds of cars pass by that skatepark every day, but I caught the extremely rare event. However, I will never think it will happen again to me, or that it happens often to others, because it won't and it doesn't.

We're not talking about how significant an event is or is seen to be. We're talking about injuries on airliners from turbulence that are measured by millions of flights and hundreds of millions of passengers over your 52 years quoted where an extreme fraction of people were injured or died. I'm more concerned about choking on the pretzels from a bump.....but even that is ridiculous.

Posted by: David Miller | May 8, 2014 4:05 AM    Report this comment

Thank you for the advisory, I won't eat pretzels while flying in bumpy wx - never thought about that one before. I think we all agree to a greater or lesser extend with the topic. Turbulence is negative. My takeaway from this is to seat down and hang on with one hand while in the lav and when done then hurry back to my seat and buckle-up. Good night Dave.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 8, 2014 4:42 AM    Report this comment

I always say I want to get through my career without hurting a flight attendant. NTSB 830 calls the injury of a flight attendant due to turbulence, "an accident". The seat belt switch and the call to seat the flight attendants is a constant analysis (read persistent worry) and one that requires the balance of many factors. On international flights if the flight attendants cannot get their first service done, they cannot go to rest breaks, then you are arriving with a worn out (and aggravated) crew. Equally so, you want the seat belt light to have true meaning. You don't want to cry wolf, and yet when you turn it off you are saying it is safe for that 90 year old lady to walk to the lav.

Large air carriers have very good meteorology departments that for the most part are good at spotting conditions conducive to turbulence. Virtually every airliner is equipped with some sort of accelerometers in their nav systems as well as GPS. Those sensors coupled with ACARS could create a real time automated PIREPS of ride conditions worldwide that would report on an objective and concise basis. It would be a huge safety improvement if the industry could come together and create such a system of shared information that could both spot and track turbulence.

Posted by: Gregory West | May 8, 2014 5:26 AM    Report this comment

Thanks, Gregory. That might tie in naturally with the ICAO push for better real-time position reporting following MH370.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 8, 2014 6:32 AM    Report this comment

Gee Paul, you literally tossed your cookies. Good reminder to read up on the pressure gradients.

Posted by: Matthew Lee | May 8, 2014 7:49 PM    Report this comment

You're nothing if not persistent, Rafael. And by using turbulence and burrito in the same sentence, it got me thinking...

As long as we're venting (oops, I'm getting ahead of myself) about behavior modifications for John and Jane Q on airliners to ensure a trouble-free flight for ourselves during turbulence, maybe someone should begin a program similar to being asked if you packed your own suitcase, did you eat any Mexican food in the last two hours? What's worse, the thought of a possible threat from someone not wearing their belt in sudden bumps, or the actual... well, let's leave it at that, shall we?

Also, for the stubborn or too casual of passengers concerning seat belt use, instead of forcing them to sit the #%$&! down and buckle up, the airline could comp anyone who, say, helped a 90 year old to the lav or walked up and down the isle, holding and singing to a baby suffering from air pressure changes with some frequent flier miles, or at least a free Diet Coke. Turbulence is gonna happen, let's get creative!

As you can deduce, my needle hasn't moved at all about this subject. I'm just having a bit of fun, I know you and some others are very serious about this - not that I enjoy turbulence at all either - and I respect that. I suppose the only real concern to me might be if a healthy fear of something - real or imagined - takes over and becomes a phobia, thus ruining quality of life. And something infinitesimal couldn't possibly do that, right? Cheers

Posted by: David Miller | May 8, 2014 7:52 PM    Report this comment

"Gee Paul, you literally tossed your cookies."

Yeah, but I got 'em back and ate 'em. (EYEEEW). I think one or two were found during the next annual.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | May 8, 2014 7:55 PM    Report this comment

Dave, I am interested in learning. The topics are provocative and educational. Thanks for your humorous remarks.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 8, 2014 9:27 PM    Report this comment

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