After the recent United Airlines turbulence incident and subsequent news coverage, those with a fear of flying (plus those not afraid to fly!) have been wondering about the wisdom of flying. Especially when flying can lead to turbulence that injured 21 people.  A lot of people hate turbulence or fear it, so the email below from Toni is typical of those we received. Capt. Ron’s response follows.
Email Question from Toni
So, I was just reading this CNN article….(dumb, I know).   Someone described: ”The plane kept falling out of the sky suddenly and would pitch left and right at sharp angles….”

Is it possible that it would just continue to fall?  Can a plane crash from turbulence?


Unfortunately this is the truth about turbulence:  you must not take it for granted that just because you have never experienced this kind of sudden and unexpected turbulence, that it cannot happen.  ALWAYS keep you seat belt fastened.  Note that while some people were severely injured, the majority of those on the flight (approximately 270)  came through it unscathed.  Contemplate that…

The aircraft will not keep “falling” because it never did fall—the lift changed suddenly over various parts of the wings due to the turbulent air flow that they encountered causing it to be “thrust” upward and downward at a rate greater than what gravity could generate if it was simply “falling.”

“Falling” is a term that unknowledgeable passengers and reporters use to describe something foreign to them in an attempt to explain what they perceived happened.

When something so dramatic like this happens, it traumatizes both the people on board and those who have experienced similar events or been in lesser turbulence and imagined themselves in the position like those on the United plane.

It certainly would be traumatizing to experience what these people experienced.  But, if EVERYONE had been strapped in securely, we would have been reading only about the otherwise frightening turbulence.  And the airplane is designed and built to withstand this dramatic turbulent episode—witness the fact that the airplane came through unscathed except for where the passengers flying through the cabin came in contact with the interior and damaged it.

One of the comments on the article referred to an injured passenger pictured wearing a neck collar. “He’s an idiot. He should have had his seatbelt fastened,” the commenter said.

While that’s true that he should have been belted in, the fact that he was flying along without his seat belt  is similar to the problem we pilots have in remaining vigilant. When you fly frequently—either as a pilot or passenger—and everything remains so routine, one can become complacent about such mundane tasks as keeping one’s seat belt fastened. Then incidents like this due to turbulence can catch one by surprise causing harm and/or serious injury.

To chide someone after-the-fact seems to come from the same school of thought as telling a fearful flyer that “it’s all in his/her head.” I’m probably being overly sensitive because of my awareness of the problem of being afraid to fly and knowing that it IS all in our heads, but a fearful flyer acknowledging this doesn’t mean they are able to automatically get over fear of flying.

Jack Canfield taught me a parenting strategy once.  He said that often when our children misbehave we send them to their rooms instructing them to “think about what they did.” A better parenting choice would be to tell children to think about “what they could have done.”  The latter not only creates a consciousness that alerts them to the fact that their behavior is a choice but also provides them with help in making different choices (assuming we include that as part of the corrective action.)

I choose to believe that reminding someone who went through an experience like this (injured or not) that choosing to remain in their seat with their seat belt fastened as much of the time as possible is a better choice than shaming them for not doing so and will likely produce a positive change in behavior.

So take the lesson offered here so that you don’t become injured.  Know that discomfort due to turbulence will end eventually, and both you and the airplane will land together safely.  If no one had been hurt, in all probability the crew could likely have continued on to their destination.  FYI, the area along the front range of the Rockies where this plane encountered the turbulence can produce some of the most the most troublesome turbulence in the world.

Toni, try to put the CNN coverage in perspective and know that you will neither crash nor experience the kinds of injuries that these people experienced because you will be the SMART flyer who keeps her seat belt on!

Be Well,

Capt Ron

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