Australians return home after deadly plane turbulence

Singapore Airlines

Source: X/FL360aero

Australians have described the horror scenes on a fatal Singapore Airlines flight where passengers were thrown around the plane’s cabin during a severe bout of turbulence.

The flight from London to Singapore had 56 Australians on board when it was forced to make an emergency landing in Bangkok.

Relieved passengers returned to Sydney Airport on Wednesday night, with one woman describing the emotional toll of the ordeal.

Beverley Mayers, 81, told the ABC people’s faces were covered in blood.

“I just don’t know what you can think at that time … great pieces [of the plane’s interior] were falling off and dropping on the floor, people were getting hit on the head,” she said.

“I think we all thought the plane was going to fall apart, I thought it was going to go in halves here.

“When they got us off the plane, there were a few of the staff who’d been injured – there’d been broken crockery – their faces were really covered in blood. It was awful.”

The impact left the Port Macquarie woman feeling “pure shock and fear” as items such as glasses and shoes went flying across the cabin.

Mayer, who was returning from a trip to visit her daughter in Britain, said she had not been able to stop crying.

“I woke up crying on the plane, and I don’t normally cry,” she told Nine News.

“When it happened I was really calm. It wasn’t until I got off the plane and sat in that room, since then I can’t stop crying.

“My son has come to pick me up and I said to him ‘I have to stay with you tonight and see my other children, and just hold them close’.”

Photographs from the interior of the plane showed gashes in the overhead cabin panels, oxygen masks and panels hanging from the ceiling and luggage strewn around.

Eight Australians remain in hospital in Bangkok, Thailand – three of them in intensive care.

Speaking from Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital with her arm in a sling, Teandra Tukhumen said she was flung from her seat before she could comply with the crew’s seatbelt sign direction.

“I was asleep and then I was woken up because I was thrown to the roof and then the floor,” she told Sky News UK.

“It was just so quick. They had no warning whatsoever.

“The pilot saved our lives. We’re alive, so that’s all that matters in the end.”

Passengers of Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 are relieved to touch down. Photo: Getty

A 73-year-old British man died of a suspected heart attack and 30 other passengers were injured when the plane hit severe turbulence 10 hours into the flight, flinging people around the cabin as the plane plunged about 1800 metres within minutes.

At least eight Australians were taken to hospital.

Australian and International Pilots Association safety and technical director Steve Cornell, who has flown the same type of aircraft involved in the incident, said the level of turbulence experienced was uncommon.

“There are three categories of turbulence: light, medium and severe … severe turbulence is quite a rare occurrence,” he said.

“You frequently encounter light and moderate turbulence, but severe turbulence is very rare.

“There would be a lot less injuries if passengers did keep their seatbelts fastened at all times, regardless of if the seatbelt sign is off or on.”

singapore airlines

Aboard flight SQ321 in the aftermath of the turbulence. Photo: X

Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil said her thoughts were with those affected by the incident.

“This is a terrible experience that these people have gone through,” she told Seven’s Sunrise program.

“I know the embassy in Bangkok and the High Commission in Singapore are actively trying to contact those Australians … we will do everything we can to help.”

A Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman said officials were making further inquiries to determine if other Australians were affected.

The flight from London hit an air pocket and dropped suddenly while en route to Singapore, prompting the pilot to request an emergency landing in Bangkok.

Passengers’ heads slammed into the lights above seats, breaking some of the panels, Reuters reported.

Singapore Airlines’ chief executive Goh Choon Phong said the company had expressed condolences to the family of the passenger who had died.

“We also deeply apologise for the trauma experienced by all passengers and crew members on this flight,” he said in a statement.

Explosive thunderstorms

Weather forecasting service AccuWeather on Tuesday said rapidly developing, explosive thunderstorms near the path of flight SQ321 most likely contributed to violent turbulence.

“Developing thunderstorms often have strong updrafts, a zone of upward moving air, that rises very rapidly, sometimes at more than 100 miles (161 kilometres) per hour, and can leave pilots with little time to react if it occurs directly in front of the plane,” AccuWeather senior director of forecasting operations Dan DePodwin said.

The sudden turbulence occurred over the Irrawaddy Basin in Myanmar, about 10 hours into the flight, Singapore Airlines said.

“It is not a rare occurrence for big thunderstorms in the Bay of Bengal,” an airline pilot who regularly flies to Singapore and Southeast Asia said.

“There are always the chances of bumps.”

The pilot declined to be identified because he was not authorised to speak to the media.

“We were about 30 miles (48 kilometres) off track flying around the thunderstorms two days ago on the way to Singapore,” the pilot said.

Turbulence has many causes, most obviously the unstable weather patterns that trigger storms, but this flight could have been affected by clear air turbulence, which is difficult to detect.

Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, representing more than 50,000 workers at 20 airlines, said it was important for passengers to wear seatbelts whenever seated.

“It is a matter of life and death,” Nelson said.

Turbulence-related airline accidents are the most common type of accident, according to a 2021 NTSB study.

The Singapore Airlines plane had an emergency landing in Bangkok. Photo: Getty

From 2009 until 2018, the US agency found that turbulence accounted for more than a third of reported airline accidents and most resulted in one or more serious injuries, but no aircraft damage.

Singapore Airlines, which is widely recognised as one of the world’s leading airlines and a benchmark for much of the industry, has had no major incidents in recent years.

Its last accident resulting in casualties was a flight from Singapore to Los Angeles via Taipei. It crashed on October 31, 2000, at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, killing 83 of the 179 people on board.

-with AAP

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