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Severe turbulence incident reinforces basic safety advice

Aboard SQ321 on the ground in Bangkok

Source: X/FL360aero

Travellers watched in horror as alarming details emerged about the deadly turbulence that struck a Singapore Airlines flight this week.

Now it appears the terrifying mid-air plunge – in which a 73-year-old man died and dozens of others were injured – might lend weight to a theory about why we’re seeing more incidents of this kind.

There were 56 Australians aboard flight SQ321 when it struck severe turbulence in the skies above Myanmar on Tuesday.

The Boeing 777-300ER plunged more than 1800 metres in minutes, after it hit an air pocket.

“I was thrown to the roof and then to the floor,” injured Melbourne woman Teandra Tukhunen told Sky News UK from Bangkok’s Samitivej Srinakarin hospital on Wednesday.

“When they put on the seatbelt sign, pretty much immediately… I was flung to the roof, before I even had time to put my seatbelt on, unfortunately.”

British man Geoffrey Kitchen died of a suspected heart attack while 30 other passengers, including at least eight Australians, were taken to hospital.

pictured is the flight path of the Singapore Airlines flight that suffered extreme turbulence.

The Singapore-bound flight was forced to make an emergency landing. Source: Getty

Rare incident

Turbulence is relatively common on flights, but severe cases that result in serious injury are not.

UNSW human factors and aviation safety professor Brett Molesworth said the level experienced by SQ321 was very uncommon.

His view was backed up by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, which said between 2014 and 2023, only one incident of serious injury due to severe turbulence was reported.

Having said that, even light turbulence can cause stress to an aircraft and its frame, Molesworth said. Thankfully, not only are they “exceptionally well designed”, but they also undergo regular maintenance.

“Part of that is proactive inspections to look for parts of the aircraft that have been stressed,” he said.

“It could be stressed from turbulence, it could be stressed from landing. But that rigorous maintenance process ensures there are no items that have fatigued or stressed and [are] likely to break .”

Turbulence on the increase?

Last year, British researchers published a study that found hazardous clear-air turbulence had leapt up to 55 per cent from 1979 to 2020.

Data from that period gave researchers at the University of Reading a detailed picture of how turbulence has evolved as the climate has changed.

This was especially true for the North Atlantic, where the biggest shifts were observed.

“Following a decade of research showing that climate change will increase clear-air turbulence in the future, we now have evidence suggesting that the increase has already begun,” said Atmospheric scientist and study co-author Paul Williams.

“We should be investing in improved turbulence forecasting and detection systems to prevent the rougher air from translating into bumpier flights in the coming decades.”

pictured is the seatbelt light on a plane

Wearing the seatbelt is the best way to stay safe during turbulence. Photo: Getty

Keep yourself safe

There is one very simple thing passengers can do to ensure they are safe if turbulence hits, which is reiterated by aviation experts across the board.

“The simplest way to remain safe from any turbulent event is to have your seatbelt on,” he said.

The misconception that the seatbelt sign being turned off is an invitation to unclick your belt is problematic, said Molesworth.

In fact, it only signals that passengers have permission to get up and go to the bathroom when needed. Otherwise, seatbelts should remain fastened throughout the flight.

Molesworth’s view was echoed by ATSB Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell.

“We acknowledge that passengers and crew are not always able to be in their seats,” he told TND.

“However, this tragic incident reinforces the importance of wearing a seatbelt during all phases of flight when seated, and having it fastened low and firm, as this significantly minimises the risk of injury in the unlikely event of an in-flight upset.”

Elsewhere, Qantas pilot and Australian and International Pilots’ Association safety and technical director Steve Cornell said turbulence was rare but unavoidable.

Turbulence-related injuries were the most common air injuries, he said.

“Unfortunately, while passengers won’t be seated with seatbelts fastened, we’ll continue to see more injuries than necessary when we have these encounters,” he told the ABC on Wednesday.

“Passengers can do a lot to minimise adverse outcomes from these events by keeping seatbelts fastened at all times.”

Other experts have suggested that there is less turbulence over the wing, closer to the plane’s centre of gravity, while the effects are felt more at the back of the plane.

In addition, unsecured objects can prove dangerous in instances of turbulence, so passengers are advised to keep items stored in overhead bins and securely under the seat in front, rather than on laps.

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