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Bumpy ride? Everything you need to know about clear-air turbulence after British Airways’ emergency landing

A British Airways flight from Singapore to London Heathrow experienced such severe turbulence over the Bay of Bengal that the aircraft had to return to its starting point to inspect for possible damage. Several BA crew members were injured in the incident, in the early hours of June 16.

One article was titled: “We Freefall at 1,000 ft.” But how dangerous is turbulence – and is it getting worse? These are the key questions and answers.

What happened in this incident?

British Airways flight BA12 was flying normally from Singapore to London Heathrow on Friday 16 June via the Bay of Bengal, between Sri Lanka and Thailand, and was about two hours into the scheduled 13 hour flight.

The Boeing 777-300ER was flying at a ground speed of 598 mph at 30,000 ft when it encountered severe fresh air turbulence (CAT). While the seat belt signs were on, meaning all passengers should have worn their seat belts, the crew remained active.

Several members of the crew were injured. The captain decided to return to Singapore, which she did at 29,000 ft; this could account for some reports that the plane had “fallen” at 1,000 feet, although it would have made a controlled descent.

The plane landed safely at 3 a.m. local time and was examined for structural damage, while medical attention was arranged for the injured.

What does British Airways say?

“Safety is always our top priority and we are taking care of our crew after one of our flights experienced a rare severe turbulence. Our highly trained team on board reassured customers and the plane returned to Singapore as a precaution.

“We apologized to customers for the flight delay and provided them with hotel accommodation and information about their consumer rights. We are rebooking customers on the next available flights with us and other airlines.”

There and back: The route of British Airways flight BA12 from Singapore, turned around after a severe turbulence


What is apparent air turbulence?

“The turbulence is caused by the sudden, irregular movement of the air creating rapid and sharp up/down winds,” said the US National Weather Service. These up and down winds happen to combine and move the plane unexpectedly.”

The Federal Aviation Administration defines fresh air turbulence as “suddenly severe turbulence in cloudless areas that causes an aircraft to shake violently… CAT is particularly troublesome because it often occurs unexpectedly suspiciously and often without visual cues to warn pilots of danger.”

How dangerous is the plane?

The experience is certainly alarming and frustrating for passengers, but high-altitude turbulence can’t bring down a modern commercial jet.

Airplanes are designed and tested to withstand strong impacts, and weather radar is very good at avoiding the worst visible turbulence. But injuries on planes are alarming – with cabin crew particularly vulnerable.

Writing for the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), former pilot and flight safety expert Steve Landells said: “The injuries we see tend to occur when people are not wearing seat belts. This could have been due to unexpected turbulence but we also saw quite a few people getting injured for not following the ‘fasten seat belt’ instructions.

How often does this kind of problem occur?

One study found that airplanes experience severe apparent turbulence at least 790 times a year, once every 11 hours. But Climatologists say the incidence of disease at a typical point in the North Atlantic has increased by 55% between 1979 and 2020.

According to Paul Williams, professor of Atmospheric Science in the Department of Meteorology at the University of Reading, a doubling of carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere would increase the average amount of severe fresh air turbulence at 36,000 altitudes. feet above the North Atlantic by 149 percent.

As a result, dangerous turbulence on commercial flights can increase by an average of 5 severe cases per day.

Environmentalists will say that airline passengers are causing the very problems they fear – because aviation contributes to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Should passengers be worried if they are planning a flight?

Are not. You would be extremely unlucky if you were one of those 790 cases every year; Severe disturbance affects only one departure out of 50,000.

If the science is right, the numbers will increase – but only slowly. Passengers should watch out for the risk of hitting a turbulence zone – the most basic thing is to keep your seat belt at least loosely tied whenever seated. (In any case, it’s good practice because it means the crew doesn’t have to wake you up if the seat belt sign comes on.)

Balpa’s Steve Landells says: “Don’t try to get up when the captain tells you to fasten your seat belt; we always talk to the pilots of the plane ahead, and even when it’s calm when we turn on the sign, we can know it’s going to be bumpy soon.”

In my experience, if the pilot instructs the crew to fasten their seat belts, you know you’re on a particularly hectic ride.

What’s the worst chaos you’ve encountered?

Both fly over Southeast Europe: a small Airbus flying from Vienna to Cairo and a very large Airbus flying from London Heathrow to Singapore. In either case, it’s very annoying. I liken it to an amusement park ride where you keep walking around without a chance to get off.

What confused people the most was that the pilots didn’t fully explain what was going on and why, and – if so – what they were doing with it. (Neither flights are part of British Airways – the carriers are Austria Airlines and Singapore Airlines, respectively.)

There have been a lot of storms lately – what if the plane is struck by lightning?

The plane will not be in danger. “When an aircraft is struck by lightning, the energy in the lightning is kept either outside the metal fuselage that makes up the plane or, in the case of modern composites, by a mesh,” says Steve Landells of Balpa. metal is incorporated into the skin.

“This allows the lightning to travel around the aircraft to a point where it can be launched into the atmosphere. Sometimes some of the energy from a lightning strike won’t be outside so all the electrical components inside the plane are protected against lightning and it’s been many years since lightning caused an airplane to crash.”

What other types of weather changes could affect future flying?

Storm: just this summer they’ve caused a huge number of cancellations, with easyJet grounding around 100 flights to and from London Gatwick on Sunday 18 June alone – blaming “conditions”. adverse weather”.

Strong wind: These causes mainly cause problems during take-off or landing. Especially for downwind landings, the kind that happened in February 2022 with Storm Eunice produced some spectacular scenes at Heathrow – but also caused diversion, which involved passengers and Airlines.

Flood: as we saw in Gatwick on Christmas 2013, when hundreds of flights were canceled on 24 December. Also, some airports are very close to the sea and rising sea levels can cause many problems – as well as storms that can bring waves onto the runway.


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