Can Turbulence Cause a Plane to Crash?

Can turbulence cause a plane to crash

When you experience turbulence on an airplane, your mind quickly wanders. What’s going on, and how long will it last? Will it get worse? Am I safe? Can turbulence cause a plane to crash? Whatever questions we may have, we can agree on one thing: turbulence puts our nerves on edge.

The Federal Aviation Administration (more commonly known as the FAA) keeps a record of turbulence-related injuries. In 2016, 44 people were injured because of turbulence on a plane, 11 of whom were crew members. In 2015, the numbers were much lower: 21 people were injured,14 of whom were airline staff. If injuries related to turbulence are on the rise, should I be worried?

In 2017 alone, two planes reported injuries as a result of turbulence. On August 5, 2017, American Airlines flight 759 encountered severe turbulence, which sent 10 people to the hospital, according to the New York Post. Although victims did sustain injuries, including a dislocated shoulder, the pilots were able to keep the plane in the air, so thankfully, a crash did not occur. In May, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Bangkok ran into a “pocket of clear air,” resulting in injuries to more than 24 passengers. Again, turbulence did not cause the plane to crash.

If you have ever wondered if turbulence can cause a plane crash, the short answer is yes. A more accurate response is that although the disruption in wind patterns can be a contributing factor in an accident, airplanes are complicated machines, so there is often more than one explanation for a crash. To better answer this question, we’ll explore the science behind flight and air flow, the role turbulence plays in plane crashes, myths about turbulence and statistics that will help you better understand this common but relatively misunderstood phenomenon.

What is Turbulence?

We all know that feeling in the pit of our stomach when we hit rough skies when flying. What is turbulence, exactly, and what conditions can make it worse? Passengers feel turbulence when a plane moves through an area where air and wind flows have been disrupted. These “rough patches” can be caused by atmospheric pressure, jet streams, the air that circulates around mountains, weather fronts and storms.

There are five common types of turbulence:

Mechanical Turbulence

Sometimes, mechanical turbulence occurs close to the Earth’s surface when horizontal wind flow is disrupted as air flows over buildings, mountains, hills and other physical features. These unusual air movements can manifest as squalls, which can result in severe turbulence if your plane travels through these eddies.

Mountain wave Turbulence

Found downwind from mountain ridges, mountain waves occur when air currents fluctuate between different altitudes. This type of turbulence can be quite severe and can occur hundreds of miles from a range.

Thermal Turbulence

As the name suggests, thermal turbulence is caused by a temperature imbalance. When a column of warm air rises, a corresponding, slower moving and larger body of air flows downward, which causes irregular air flows.

Frontal Turbulence

Associated with cold fronts and, to a lesser degree, warm fronts, frontal turbulence is caused by the friction between two opposing air masses when weather changes. Fast-moving cold air masses are usually the culprit for the most severe cases of this type of turbulence.

Clear Air Turbulence

Clear air turbulence (CAT) is caused by strong changes in air flows within the jet stream. Wind shear is the technical term for the change in wind direction or speed over a specific horizontal or vertical distance. This type of turbulence can be caused by temperature inversions and along troughs and lows. Clear air turbulence usually occurs above 15,000 feet and is most frequent during winter.

There are various intensities of turbulence, from level 1, which is considered light, to level 4, which is extreme. Passengers on a flight with level 1 turbulence may feel a strain against their seat belts, and items may shift on the plane. Unsecured objects may move within the cabin and passengers won’t be able to walk down the aisle during level 3 turbulence. In rare cases, extreme turbulence can result in the entire aircraft being impossible to control. Planes which have experienced severe turbulence may sustain structural damage and can crash.

How Many Planes Have Gone Down Because of Turbulence?

Turbulence can cause plane crashes, either as the primary reason for an accident or a contributing factor.

According to the FAA, 234 turbulence accidents occurred from 1980 to 2008 resulting in 298 serious injuries and three fatalities. Of those serious injuries, 184 victims were flight attendants and 114 were passengers. Of the three fatalities, two were passengers who were not wearing their seat belts while the fasten seatbelt sign was on. Most turbulence-related accidents occur at or above 30,000 feet and many are linked to passengers not being securely fastened in their seats.

In 1966, a British Overseas Airways plane crashed and the tail fin tore apart after experiencing winds in excess of 140 miles per hour. In 1968, turbulence tore a wing off a Wien Consolidated Airlines flight in Alaska. More recently, in 2009 an Air France flight flew into a storm. In an attempt to steer away from inclement weather, the pilot sent the plane into an aerodynamic stall, which caused the plane to crash. In that tragedy, a combination of turbulence, airspeed sensor malfunction and most likely pilot error all contributed to the crash.

Turbulence Myths

When it comes to turbulence, it can be hard to separate what is fact from what could be simply an urban myth. Let’s explore the most common misconceptions about turbulence and reveal the truth about this unsettling feeling you can experience while in the air.

Myth: You Can always Predict Turbulence

There is no system to predict turbulence 100 percent of the time. However, in many cases, pilots will warn passengers over the public address system that rough skies are ahead. Measures to prevent turbulence start before the plane even leaves the ground.

First, meteorologists and dispatchers plan each flight’s route to avoid any possible air disturbances. Once the plane is in the air, displays in the cockpit indicate any changes in weather that could cause the pilot to alter the flight plan. For example, precipitation can cause shifts in air flows, which can result in turbulence. Pilots can use radar data to avoid developing storms and other weather events. In some cases, readings may show multiple storms ahead and the flight crew may choose an alternate route with the least severe weather. In these cases, flight attendants may ask passengers to return to their seats and put on their seat belts until the plane emerges from the impacted area.

Mountain turbulence can also be predicted in some cases, but clear air turbulence is harder to foresee. Sometimes, pilots who have recently flown through problem areas can warn other planes of potential problems. In other cases, air traffic controllers can relay this information directly to flight crews. Pilots may be able to alter their course or adjust their altitude to avoid the worst of the turbulence.

As we all know, despite all of these sophisticated tools, turbulence still occurs relatively frequently on commercial flights.

Myth: Severe Turbulence Can Tear Apart a Plane

The last major air disaster blamed on turbulence was near Mount Fuji in Japan in 1966. Airplanes are now designed to withstand significantly more turbulence. That explains why, in many cases, although turbulence can cause injuries, these incidents don’t usually result in a plane crash, unless there are other contributing factors.

Although turbulence is often not severe enough to cause a crash on a major airline, smaller aircraft can be more vulnerable to these types of disturbances. Private planes are usually flown by less experienced pilots operating aircraft which are not subject to the same rigorous testing and maintenance requirements as commercial airlines. Helicopter passengers can also face similar risks in bad weather.

MYTH: There’s No Way to Avoid Turbulence

Turbulence is so common that you could easily think there is no way to avoid it. If you want to avoid this unsettling experience during the summer, when passengers typically experience more turbulence, you can choose a flight in the morning when it’s less likely to occur. You can also choose to sit near the wings of a plane where turbulence tends to be less noticeable.

What Really Causes Crashes?

Plane crashes are usually caused by a number of factors. According to a DailyMail article, the top reasons planes crash are pilot error, mechanical failure, weather, sabotage and other forms of human error.

Pilot Error

Pilot error accounts for around 50 percent of all crashes. A recent example in the United States was in 2015 when a Delta plane skidded off the runway at LaGuardia Airport. Thankfully, the incident resulted in no serious injuries, but the pilot used too much reverse thrust on the snowy runway, which caused him to lose control of the plane.

In 2009, an Air France plane crashed after flying through a thunderstorm because of instrument failure. Afterwards, the pilot mistakenly put the aircraft into a rapid climb, which caused the plane to stall. Instead of following normal protocol and lowering the nose, the pilot continued to attempt to ascend. Sadly, all 228 people on the flight perished.

Although there are cases where commercial airline pilots cause a plane to crash, most flight fatalities caused by pilot error occur on private planes.

Mechanical Failure

Mechanical failure accounts for about 20 percent of aircraft losses. As you might expect, the older a plane is, the more likely its parts will fail. On September 30, 2017, an Air France flight made an emergency landing after one of its engines disintegrated. In August of the same year, an AirAsia flight lost power in its left engine. A few months earlier, actress Jennifer Lawrence’s private jet suffered double engine failure. In that same month, a United Airlines flight had to return to O’Hare after its engine caught fire when it struck a bird. Thankfully, in each of these instances, no one was seriously injured.

Obviously, there are many different parts and components that make up a plane. Even during routine maintenance, human error can play a role in the plane’s safety. For example, a technician may install parts incorrectly, parts may be missing or necessary checks may go undone if the aviation maintenance technician’s physical state is compromised. This line of work requires attention to detail and any one of these factors can be an issue, as well as the technician’s capabilities and limitations or even the environmental conditions he or she is working in. When it comes to mechanical failure, many factors can play a role in the safety of an aircraft.

Weather

Weather can cause delayed or canceled flights and accounts for 10 percent of aircraft losses. Pilots go through extensive training to deal with a variety of weather-related situations. Fog reduces visibility, and if it becomes too dense, it can close runways. Some airports, like the one in San Francisco, deal with this issue more than others.

High winds can also cause issues during takeoff and landings. Planes need to maintain a certain speed and an unexpected gust of strong wind can alter optimal flying conditions. New York City’s John F. Kennedy airport is one location in particular that tends to see problems due to inclement weather. Accuweather reported that JFK averages 43,124 weather-related delays each year.

Snow not only reduces visibility, but also it makes runways slippery and impacts the functionality of the plane. How many times have you flown from a snowy region and had to sit at the gate while the plane is de-iced? Chicago’s O’Hare airport experiences 160,000 weather-related delays.

Severe thunderstorms can also bring with them lightning, strong winds and heavy rains, as well as ice. Thanks to these storms, the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport experiences the most weather-related delays, which contribute to its abysmal 72 percent on-time departure rate.

Sabotage

Although this occurs less frequently than we might imagine, hijacking represents 10 percent of aircraft losses. Sabotage rarely results in fatalities, but there are documented cases leading back to 1948. In recent US history, 9/11 is the event that most people remember, when an American Airlines plane and a United flight were flown into the Twin Towers. On that same day, an American flight hit the Pentagon and a United flight crashed to the ground in Pennsylvania. Today’s increased security measures are meant to reduce the opportunity for these occurrences.

How You Can Protect Yourself and Your Family From Turbulence-Related Injuries

Once you learn that turbulence can play a role in airline accidents, your next question is probably how to prevent yourself or someone you love from being involved in a crash or incident. The biggest risk passengers face is falling inside of an aircraft when a plane experiences turbulence, so the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to:

  1. Keep your seatbelt securely fastened when you are in your seat.
  2. Follow the safety guidelines as instructed by the flight crew.
  3. Secure infants in an airline-approved infant carrier in his/her own seat.

Slack Davis Sanger Applies Extensive Aviation Expertise To Represent Victims of Airline Accidents and Crashes

Thankfully, airline safety has improved dramatically over the years. When tragedy does strike, however, you want an someone on your side who understands both how airplanes operate and the complicated set of rules that govern airline travel. The nationally recognized attorneys at Slack Davis Sanger have worked for decades to apply their extensive technical aviation knowledge to successfully represent hundreds of passengers in complex aviation crashes. With a winning track record and compassion for victims and their families, our attorneys have become a leader in this area of law.

Are Helicopters Safer Than Airplanes?

Are helicopters safer than airplanes

If you’ve ever taken (or considered taking) a helicopter ride, you might be wondering: Are helicopters safer than airplanes? How safe are helicopters, in general? Helicopter vs. airplane safety statistics published by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) paint a complicated picture, especially since helicopters and airplanes are often operated for different reasons and under different conditions.

Many other factors also come into play when you are comparing statistics. Since the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not oversee the safety of tourist helicopter companies, for example, there can be a wide range of training and experience levels among helicopter pilots. Read on to learn more about helicopter vs. airplane safety.

How Safe Are Helicopters?

Statistics show that smaller aircraft, including private planes and air taxis (a category that includes helicopters), are more accident-prone than larger commercial flights. According to the NTSB, in 2015, there were zero fatal plane accidents involving commercial airlines in the United States. Of the 415 aviation fatalities in the U.S. that year, 100 percent involved general aviation aircraft, air taxis, commuter planes and foreign or unregistered planes.

Of the three air taxi helicopter accidents in the U.S. which occurred in 2010, two resulted in serious injuries and significant damage to the helicopters. – Review of U.S. Civil Aviation Accidents, 2010  

Why is there such a difference in fatal accidents between commercial airlines and smaller aircraft, including helicopters? There are several factors that can help explain this discrepancy. First, in any category of aircraft, the majority of accidents occur during takeoffs and landings. Second, regarding helicopters specifically, the biggest factors affecting flight safety are weather conditions along with pilot training, experience and skill. Since helicopters typically land and take off far more often than larger aircraft, and since general aviation pilots aren’t required to have as much training or experience as commercial pilots, helicopter flights are more prone to accidents, including fatal ones.

Other Factors Affecting the Risk of Helicopter Flights

Unlike airplanes, helicopters do not require a runway for landing, so they are able to land almost anywhere; this is one reason why they are often used in high-risk military or medical rescue missions. Helicopters also fly at much lower altitudes than most other aircraft, which brings hazards like the sudden, unexpected appearance of buildings, landforms or other aircraft into play.

More than half of air tour helicopter accidents between 2007 and 2009 involved system or component failures.  – Review of U.S. Civil Aviation Accidents, 2007-2009

Furthermore, since helicopters have far more controls than airplanes for pilots to learn in navigation, the accident rate during training sessions is twice as high for helicopters as for airplanes. The overall rate of helicopter crashes, however, is only slightly higher than that of airplane crashes, and the fatality rate is actually slightly lower for helicopters.

There are also different risk factors among the various types of helicopters themselves. Personal helicopters, which are often operated by less experienced pilots, have a higher crash rate than professionally operated commercial helicopter taxis. Lower-quality helicopters also crash more often than higher-end models, likely due to differences in mechanical quality along with pilot experience and training. Helicopters certainly have more moving parts than airplanes, which means more parts that might fail mechanically, causing an accident.

Most helicopter accidents involved a loss of pilot control, collisions during takeoff or in flight or system failures.  – Review of U.S. Civil Aviation Accidents, 2007-2009

Weather and other conditions of the flight also make a difference. Emergency flights, such as military or medical rescue flights, have a higher crash rate than flights for business or pleasure, since they often fly regardless of weather and other conditions.

How Safe Are Helicopter Tours?

Discovering a new area from the unique vantage point of a helicopter is an enticing opportunity. Gaining that aerial view of the terrain below, perhaps to observe or admire animals or landforms you might never have spotted from the ground—it’s no wonder many people love exploring by helicopter. Even helicopter flights close to home are exciting for the new perspective and information they can provide. But how safe are helicopter tours?

Let’s look at the facts and statistics:

  • Helicopter tours operated by a more experienced and highly trained pilot are safer than those piloted by someone with less experience and training.
  • If you are considering taking a tourist helicopter ride, check the company’s safety ratings and customer reviews before you book your flight.
  • It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on weather reports on the days leading up to your flight, so you’ll know if it’s best to cancel or postpone. (Of course, reputable pilots won’t fly in adverse conditions like rain or wind.)
  • Finally, helicopter tours are one area in which the old rule of “You get what you pay for” certainly applies.

Companies charging lower rates for a tour are likely making up costs by hiring less-experienced helicopter pilots who require less pay than a more experienced, highly trained pilot. While you can never receive 100% assurance of a safe flight, it may be a good idea to spring for a more expensive helicopter tour with an established company that has high safety ratings and excellent customer reviews.

The Aviation Attorneys At Slack Davis Sanger Can Pursue Your Case

Unfortunately, sometimes accidents happen when you least expect it. If you or someone you know is involved in an aviation accident, whether it’s a commercial flight, air ambulance, helicopter or other aircraft, our attorneys at Slack Davis Sanger have deep experience in aviation law and can advise you on the best course of legal action. Contact us today for a free consultation.

Passenger Bill of Rights: What You Need to Know About Passenger Air Protections

Passenger Bill of Rights

In recent weeks, certain unfortunate and disturbing incidents on major airline flights have made international news, leading many people to wonder about passengers’ rights on domestic and international flights. Is there such a thing as an airline passenger bill of rights?

Perhaps the most infamous recent incident involved a man who was involuntarily “bumped” and then physically dragged from an overbooked United Airlines flight in April 2017. Several other passengers on the flight took cell phone videos of the altercation between the Chicago aviation authorities and the passenger, a 69-year-old doctor from Kentucky. These videos revealed a high level of force used to remove the man from the flight—force that ultimately resulted in injuries to him, including a concussion, broken teeth and a broken nose.

Since that incident came to light in news outlets around the world, discussion of airline passenger rights has understandably taken center stage. What are passengers’ rights aboard an aircraft? Which entities determine and enforce those rights? To understand this issue, we need to take a closer look at the history of airline consumer protection laws.

General Laws Protecting Airline Consumers

Since the U.S. airline industry was deregulated in 1978, the federal government no longer has control over some of the business practices followed by many airlines. Still, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) does determine and enforce certain protections for airline customers (i.e., passengers), and further, those airline passenger protections have been expanded in recent years to outline passengers’ rights in cases of lost luggage, hidden ticket fees, extended tarmac delays and more. Meanwhile, international agreements like the Montreal Convention address passenger problems occurring on international flights.

The main DOT airline consumer protection law in effect states that passengers have the right to expect “safe and adequate service in airline transportation” and to be protected “from unfair or deceptive practices” by airline carriers. If airline carriers are determined to have violated these or other consumer protection laws, the DOT is authorized to enforce the law.

Laws Regarding Overbooked Flights

The common practice of an airline selling more tickets than there are seats on the plane, commonly known as overbooking or overselling flights, is an issue that has taken center stage due to recent incidents like the one aboard the United Airlines flight. The DOT has outlined airline passenger protections relating to overbooked flights along with several other issues in its Consumer Guide to Air Travel and Airline Consumers’ Rights FAQ.

These sources state what anyone moderately familiar with air travel already knows from experience: In the case of both domestic and international flights, it is common practice for airlines to overbook flights in order to compensate for “no-show” passengers. And while arguably inconvenient and annoying for those passengers who are involuntarily “bumped,” this practice is not illegal.

DOT Rules Regarding Involuntarily Bumping Passengers

In the case of passengers being bumped involuntarily from overbooked flights, airlines are legally required to do the following:

  1. Ask for volunteers first to give up their seats, before bumping anyone involuntarily from an oversold flight.
  2. Disclose to passengers the airline’s criteria for determining which passengers may be bumped involuntarily.
  3. Provide the bumped passenger with substitute transportation and compensation (if required according to a set of tiered dollar amounts based on projected arrival time delays).

The above rules apply to both domestic and international flights with larger commercial airline carriers but not to charter flights or flights on smaller planes that hold fewer than 30 passengers. Also, airlines are permitted to determine their own criteria—such as a passenger’s frequent-flyer status, the fare they paid or how late they checked in for the flight—for involuntarily bumping a passenger.

When Federal Consumer Protection Laws Fail Airline Passengers

Fortunately, involuntarily bumping passengers is rare. Unfortunately, none of the above rules adequately covers situations like the one that occurred on the United flight, in which the doctor, who had already boarded the plane and taken his seat, was then de-boarded by force. While most cases of passengers being involuntarily bumped from flights occur in the gate or ticketing area, rather than after the passenger has already boarded the plane, this isn’t always the case, as the United Airlines incident made clear.

That incident called to light the fact that the DOT’s oversales rules do not specify limitations on when or where airlines are permitted to involuntarily bump a passenger. Furthermore, the DOT’s rules do not address the manner, including acceptable level of force, in which airlines may enforce involuntary de-boarding of passengers. Until future legislation addresses these gaps in regulations, other passengers may still be at risk of suffering personal injury due to similar incidents.

Since the April 2017 United Airlines incident, Congress has been actively looking into ways to overhaul airline policies to prevent such incidents in the future. Consumer advocacy groups hope that passenger protections will be further expanded and clearer rules will be imposed regarding overbooked flights and involuntarily bumped passengers. Specifically, many lawmakers are determined to pass legislation banning airlines from forcibly removing passengers already aboard the aircraft (in the case of an overbooked flight). Still, any aviation bill that comes to a vote is sure to be the subject of much debate.

What to Do if You or a Loved One Experiences Injury Aboard a Flight

Unfortunately, seeking legal action against an airline can be an intimidating, costly and sometimes disappointing venture for a passenger, even in seemingly clear cases of personal injury or wrongful death due to an airline’s negligence or unfair practices.

Fortunately, at Slack Davis Sanger, our attorneys are experts in aviation laws, regulations and related consumer protections. If you or someone you know has suffered injury or wrongful death while aboard a commercial flight, air ambulance, private plane or other aircraft, Slack Davis Sanger can help. We have a track record spanning two decades and are committed to giving our clients personal, caring attention as we handle their personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit with dignity and respect.

Patients Pay a High Price for Air Ambulance Rides

It is estimated that approximately 400,000 people each year are transported by air ambulance. For some people experiencing a medical emergency, being airlifted to a hospital can mean the difference between life and death. However, for many, emergency transport by air is unnecessary, especially when the astronomical price of the often short ride is taken into account. In many instances, a ground ambulance could do the job just as quickly and at a fraction of the cost. Continue reading

Medical Helicopter Crashes Near Oklahoma Hospital

On September 29th, a medical helicopter carrying four people crash-landed on a street near Comanche County Memorial Hospital in Lawton, Oklahoma. The helicopter, which was returning to the hospital at around 6 a.m. after taking a patient to Oklahoma City, reportedly lost power. During the crash landing, one of the helicopter’s rotors hit a car and a brick fence; however, the pilot and three crew members escaped with only minor injuries. There were no patients aboard the helicopter when the crash occurred. Continue reading