Galley Gossip: Flight attendants, turbulence & scary flights

One of the scariest flights I ever worked also happens to be one of the first flights I ever worked for an airline called Sun Jet International Airlines. I lasted three months before moving on. Sun Jet is no longer in business. I’m going to guess this had a lot to do with gimmicky $69 flights to cities like Dallas, Fort Lauderdale, Newark, and Long Beach. While cheap tickets attract a lot of passengers interested in saving a buck, they don’t always cover the cost of maintenance and upkeep of aircraft for smaller airlines. At least that’s what I assumed based on the fact that I quickly became accustomed to the FAA meeting our flight in Long Beach, California every Tuesday afternoon and taking the equipment out of service. And this had nothing to do with all those duct taped armrests or the black plastic garbage bags some passengers had to sit on after they discovered their seat cushions were soaked with urine. Because that’s what happens when you mix cheap tickets, a quick aircraft turn-around on the ground, and seventeen unaccompanied minors on a previous flight! Hey, better a damp seat than no seat. Unfortunately that was the only alternative most of the time, because our flights were always full.

I should have known when I boarded it was going to be a strange flight based on the aircraft lighting alone. Throughout the all-economy class cabin the side wall lights were on the blink and flickering in the dark. This made the airplane feel less like a disco and more like a haunted house. But it wasn’t until we hit severe turbulence half an hour before landing in Dallas that the creepy mood lighting actually became a problem. It started to freak the passengers out. At one point even I began to feel like I was starring in my very own Stephen King horror movie at 30,000 feet.

“Flight attendants take your seats!” boomed the Captains voice over the PA.Strapped into my jump seat, I noticed passengers clutching the armrests while others held hands across the aisle. I didn’t see any praying, but I’m sure there was plenty of that going on because with each dip there were moans and groans and even a few full on screams, making a bad situation sound even worse.

Keep in mind most of our flights were filled with first time fliers with little-to-no interest in racking up frequent flier miles, so a lot of these people had never before experienced turbulence in their lives and here they were experiencing it at its worst for the very first time! While it was my job to keep the cabin calm, there was very little I could do from my jump seat except reassure those sitting nearby that everything was going to be okay. It’s a fact that most injuries occur only when passengers don’t have their seat belts on. But with each bump, the screams got louder and louder until someone yelled out the unthinkable:

“I don’t want to die!”

For a split second all was quiet. That’s when I got scared.

Unpredictable behavior makes me nervous. I tell you this because the flight was a non-smoking one, but from my jump seat I could see a few passengers were lighting up. Great, I thought, because here we were on a flight so bumpy there was no way I could possibly get up and run to the back in order to grab a bottle of halon to fight a fire if I had to. Fire in the cabin, by the way, is about the only thing that scares me in flight.

“You need to put that out!” I yelled from my jump seat, but as soon as the words had left my mouth I regretted saying them as I imagined a cigarette being squashed into the fabric of the seat back in front of them.

Instead of doing as they were told, they continued to puff harder and faster as the airplane jolted side to side and the lights blinked rapidly on and off. This is when others began to join in. Someone seated close to me said something about smoking one last cigarette before the airplane crashed. That’s when I heard a familiar voice scream out again.

“I don’t want to die!”

Of course, no one died that night. But later on I learned there was a Delta flight in front of us that aborted landing. That, however, didn’t deter our Captain from attempting his approach. When he did finally manage to get the airplane on the ground, we landed so hard I thought the aircraft might split in two. There was thunder and lightening all around as we taxied to the gate. Passengers began jumping up out of their seats and rushing toward the aircraft door.

“Sit down!” I cried. “We’re not at the gate yet!”

“Hold the passengers back when I open my door!” a coworker barked at me. But my colleague never did get that door open because half a second later the Captain announced over the PA that the airport was closed due to thunderstorms in the area. Because of this there weren’t any open gates available. Airport traffic had come to a halt. That meant we were going to have to sit on the tarmac until the weather cleared with an airplane full of passengers on the edge of revolt.

“Let us off!” passengers demanded. We would have, if we could have, but there was no where to go! We were stuck. All of us together in a flickering flying tube.

After the flight I spotted the Captain standing outside of the terminal leaning against a brick wall. An older guy, the quiet type, he stood there with his pilot hat in one hand, a cigarette in the other, while waiting for the employee bus. Immediately I noticed his face looked ashen. Quickly he inhaled and exhaled, eyes on the ground, shirt drenched with sweat under the arms. I couldn’t help but think he looked a lot like those crazy passengers smoking on the airplane, the very ones who thought they were going to die. That’s when it hit me. Right then and there I realized just how scary our flight had truly been.

Photos courtesy of Satanslaundromat and Caribb

Plane Answers: Have turbulence encounters become less common?

Welcome to Gadling’s feature, Plane Answers, where our resident airline pilot, Kent Wien, answers your questions about everything from takeoff to touchdown and beyond. Have a question of your own? Ask away!

Fellow Gadling writer Mike Barish (author of the hilarious Skymall Mondays asks:

I have a plane answers question of my own for you and thought others might be curious, too.

Not sure if it’s my perception, improvements in technology or changes in flight paths, but it truly seems like I experience less turbulence in general, and less aggressive turbulence when my flights do hit it, than I did back in the 1980s. What’s changed to make flights smoother?

You’re likely right, Mike.

In the past ten years, more of the airplanes flying today have advanced radar, with features such as ‘Predictive Windshear’ and better depiction of turbulence associated with precipitation.

The FAA has also installed weather monitors for Air Traffic Controllers that show the level of intensity for a given cumulonimbus build-up of clouds. It’s comforting to hear “we show a level three thunderstorm along your route of flight, deviations to the right or left are approved” from ATC before the weather even shows up on our radar.

Occasionally these advisories are for storms that are well below us, but the courtesy report is well appreciated, especially since they include the intensity of the weather, which saves us from having to pan and tilt our radar to determine if a cloud could cause significant bumps. Exceedingly wet clouds that climb above 25,000 feet are the best indicator of possible turbulence, and it takes some manipulating of the radar to find those.
Dispatch plays a role in forecasting where the weather may be during our flight and routing us on a different and possibly less direct path to get around the weather.

The other possible explanation for your experience may have to do with where you’ve been sitting lately. The difference between turbulence at the rear of the airplane versus over the wing or in the front is rather significant, especially on stretched versions of airliners like the A340-600, the 757-300 and the 737-900. On your next flight, if you’re sitting in the back, pay attention to how the flight attendants in the front are walking and continuing their service, while those in the back may have to sit down.

So, if turbulence gives you the willies, try getting a seat in the front.

Coincidentally, this post is being written in the business class section of a 757 while I’m on my crew rest break. It’s bumpy enough that the main cabin flight attendants are seated, but our purser is currently serving drinks up front without much difficulty.

In the future, the 787 will have a ‘gust suppression’ capability that is said to improve the rides by adjusting the rudder constantly to compensate for some types of turbulence. I can’t wait to experience that.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work. Twitter @veryjr

Turbulence hurts: leading cause of in-flight injury

If you aren’t splattered in a fatal crash, you’re most likely to be injured by severe turbulence. Don’t get shaken up by this, though, odds are the biggest risk you’ll face is a middle seat sandwiched by garlic-eater and a heavy talker (choose which way you want to read that one). While you can’t be saved from the people around you, you can protect our body from a bouncing plane: put on your seatbelt.

The discussion of people getting smacked around in flight on a plane has arisen (again) because of the 21 people injured on United Flight 967 because of severe turbulence. According to USA Today:

Some passengers were tossed around the plane like dolls, passenger Kaoma Bechaz, 19, told The Denver Post. One woman’s head struck the side of the cabin, leaving a crack above the window, and a girl was flung against the ceiling, Bechaz said.

Last year, according to data from the NTSB, 15 of the 22 people seriously injured on flights in 2009 (e.g., broken bones) had turbulence to blame.

Flight attendants, of course, are at greater risk, given that they are more mobile in flight than passengers. Sixty-two percent of serious injuries were experienced by flight attendants, according to an FAA study.

Are you feeling sufficiently alarmed? Yeah, it’s not worth getting upset about. But if you’re wearing a helmet on your next flight, we’ll know why.

[photo by mockstar via Flickr]

Dance to soothe turbulence fears – Airplane tip

One problem many fliers share is a fear of turbulence. If you fly, you’re bound to experience it at some point — but airplane turbulence doesn’t have to be scary! Bring an MP3 player aboard and, the moment the air gets bumpy, turn it to your favorite track and get groovy!

You’ll likely get some looks from the other passengers, but hey — you get to have fun and forget the fear.

When you dance in place — or “chair dance” — the dips and jolts all seem like part of the experience, and they become less noticeable. It’s tried and true advice. Don’t be skeptical; try it on your next flight!

Plane Answers: Announcements from the captain and Denver turbulence

Rich asks:

Hi Kent, I love your blog and it has really helped me to relax when flying. When I was a kid and used to fly it seemed as though the flight deck would regularly update passengers about what was going on with the trip, the plane, etc. Now it seems as though most of the time I hardly hear anything. It would be nice to know if there is some turbulence coming up or something like that. The best flight recently was an “Express” flight where the pilot told us on the ground that we would be having turbulence the first 30 minutes and then at about the hour and a half mark. It really helped us relax.

Hi Rich,

I once sat in the back of a United plane flying from Denver to Miami when the passenger next to me grabbed my arm during what I would consider light turbulence. As her fingernails dug into my skin, she explained to me how she’d feel so much more comfortable “if the pilot would just say something!”

It left an impression on me. At my airline those announcements are entirely up to the captain, although we’re highly encouraged to keep the passengers informed without being a nuisance. As a copilot, I’m limited to a subtle reminder every now and then about a possible PA, since it would be a bit out of line for me to start talking on behalf of the captain.

We’re given a flight plan before the flight that depicts the reported turbulence at each waypoint along the route of flight, and we could easily incorporate that into our pre-departure PA. Of course, we run the risk when getting specific about the ride to be completely wrong-I’ve run across many flights that were advertised as smooth, only to find light or moderate chop many times during the flight.

Based on the number of fear of flying questions we get, I’m convinced that at least 20% of the population is afraid to fly and I would love to make them more relaxed. A quick PA detailing the forecasted ride conditions along the route is a great idea and I may just do that when I upgrade to captain. It’s already part of our standard briefing to the flight attendants.

Recently we had a nervous passenger on board who really wasn’t interested in coming up to the cockpit. So, while still on the ground, I took the flight plan back to him and showed him the turbulence reports for our flight down to Aruba from Boston. His eyes immediately fixed on our first waypoint, Nantucket.

“Nantucket?” He said. “That’s near where JFK junior went down!”

So I’m not sure if I was able to help calm him much. But the advertised smooth ride proved accurate and he seemed happy upon deplaning in Aruba.

Rich goes on to ask another question:

Second, why does every landing and approach into Denver seem very sketchy? Every time I fly into that airport we seem to make a lot of turns and it feels as though we are either getting pushed out of the sky or the turbulence is so bad that it seems as though the plane would be hard to control. Is it the altitude or the mountains? Thanks again!

Good question. Since the wind typically goes from west to east across the country, when it hits the Rocky Mountains, it will create rough air on the east side of the range. Imagine a large rock in a river. The upstream portion of the water flowing over the rock is usually smooth, while downstream the flow of the water over the rock is disrupted.

Pilots and meteorologists call this turbulence wave action, and it can extend for hundreds of miles ‘downstream’ of a mountain range. In addition, closer toward the mountains, dangerous ‘rotors’ can form that are curving curls of airflow that pack a significant punch. Denver is far enough away to miss this kind of turbulence, but it still sees a good share of rough air.

On nearly every transcontinental flight, you’ll notice this same ‘wave action’ generated turbulence even up at the higher altitudes. It’s the most challenging area to find a smooth ride.

As far as the airplane being more difficult to control, it’s similar to driving on a gusty day. The hydraulically actuated flight controls make it easy to react to some of the gusts, but it’s still going to be bumpy. Next time you fly, notice how it usually gets smoother just before touchdown.

Do you have a question about something related to the pointy end of an airplane? Ask Kent and maybe he’ll use it for the next Plane Answer’s Plane Answers. Check out his other blog, Cockpit Chronicles and travel along with him at work.