Ten passengers and four crew members were injured on an American Airlines flight yesterday when the airplane encountered severe air turbulence. Although there were no life-threatening injuries, four passengers and one crew member were hospitalized.
The Boeing 777-200 jet was carrying a load of 240 passengers and fifteen crew members from Seoul, South Korea, to Dallas, Texas, when it hit turbulent air over Japan. This was around 8 p.m. Japanese time, and about 75 minutes into the flight. Passengers said the turbulence lasted for nearly an hour before the pilots were able to land the airplane safely at Narita International Airport near Tokyo.
The American Airlines flight from Seoul coincided with a massive blizzard developing over Japan. Meteorological stations in the area registered 200- to 240-mph winds at an altitude of 35,000 feet above sea level, which translated to 90-mph winds on the ground in Japanese cities and snowfall rates of up to five inches per hour. As soon as the airplane entered this storm’s jet stream, it was rocked by extreme turbulence.
All of the passengers on the American Airline flight, including those that were not injured when the plane hit unexpected turbulence, were given complementary hotel rooms last night in Tokyo. American Airlines told passengers that they would try again when weather conditions in Japan subsided and many passengers were expected to arrive at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport sometime today.
Turbulence occurs when air currents moving at drastically different speeds meet. When an airplane is caught in the middle of this meeting, it is pushed up, down and side-to-side by what pilots refer to as “rough air.” A lot of the time, this rough air can be predicted by the presence of clouds or storm cells, but in clear skies it can be all but impossible to foresee.
Rough air is something that most travelers have experienced and it is much more frightening for them than it is for professional pilots. The pilots are confident in their airplane’s ability to withstand rough air and are trained to not panic and to ride it out. Pilots report approximately 65,000 accounts of moderate turbulence and 5,500 accounts of severe turbulence annually. For them, it is just part of another day at the office.
Ron Baker, a commercial pilot, suggested in an email that the American Airlines passengers who were injured when the airplane hit unexpected turbulence might have been just fine if they would have been buckled up in their seats. People moving about the cabin are most at risk if a plane happens to hit rough air. That explains why approximately 25% of the American Airlines crew was injured compared to 4% of the passengers. Factor in the danger of unsecured food and beverage carts and it is easy to see how unexpected air turbulence can cause so much damage. While turbulence almost never causes serious damage to airplanes, it can do serious harm to unbuckled passengers as they are tossed around the cabin like rag dolls.
By Dac Collins
Photo by m01229 – Flickr License