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After fatal turbulence incident, expert offers tips on how to survive extremely turbulent flights

1 person died and dozens were injured after extreme turbulence struck a Singapore-bound flight.
Thailand Singapore Flight
Posted at 9:26 AM, May 22, 2024

Turbulence happens frequently on flights but rarely causes serious issues for passengers and crew. A recent flight from London to Singapore marked a rare exception.

One person died and dozens were injured following an extreme turbulence incident on a Singapore Airlines flight on Monday. Witnesses said people on the flight were thrown into the ceiling of the airplane, hitting some of the cabin storage areas.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, turbulence caused 163 serious injuries on U.S. flights between 2009 and 2022. Crew members were far more likely to be injured than passengers, the FAA's data showed.

What happens when planes hit turbulence

Shawn Pruchnicki is an aviation professor at the Ohio State University. He says pilots will do their best to communicate with passengers before encountering turbulence as pilots are given weather reports before taking off. 

"When you hit this type of turbulence, there's really two things that most commonly happen," he said. "One is the aircraft's level is greatly disturbed. So the airplane itself, the nose goes down, the nose comes up. So the airplane kind of teeter-totters. And then, the other problem is the aircraft typically will lose altitude quickly. So you have both of these problems going on at the same time."

Pruchnicki said there is no true comparison of what extreme turbulence feels like.

"The entire airplane is shaking so violently in two directions, both up and down and side to side," he said. "So it's just so unique."

How to prevent getting injured

The FAA says following instructions from flight attendants and pilots, along with adhering to an airline's policy on carry-ons, can help avoid injuries. 

But Pruchnicki said there are additional ways to remain safe. He says seat belts should be worn at all times. 

"If you're in your seat, have your seat belt on," he said. "Don't wait for the seat belt sign to come on. If you're seated, have your belt on."

He also said he understands why passengers want to get up during flights, especially on long-duration trips, but he said those should be limited to a few minutes. 

"Especially on long-haul flights, do not spend a lot of time just walking around, gathering at the back of the airplane," Pruchnicki said. "I notice a lot of people do this. I understand. And, it is a good idea to get up and stretch your legs for medical reasons. You want to do that. But I'm always surprised that people gather in the back or the front of the airplane. You see 10 people back there talking."

Pruchnicki said the front and rear are the most dangerous parts of the plane due to airplane design. 

"It's fine to get up and use the lavatory and walk up and down the aisle once or twice.  And then you need to get back in your seat and put your seat belt on," he said.