Tremors in the Sky: Sudden Turbulence

"I can still remember how scary that turbulence was," the veteran flight attendant said about a disturbing experience early on in her long career with American Airlines.

She and other cabin crew members were stowing food and beverage carts as the plane began to buck. Then what happened? "I hit my head on a shelf and got knocked unconscious."

This flight attendant, who still flies for American, doesn't want her real name used, so we'll just call her "Jane Doe." She does, however, want it known that her main concern is always the safety of her passengers. Especially in times of turbulence.

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Buckle up, Jane said. Get in the habit of buckling up anytime you're in your seat, even when there is no turbulence. And it should go without saying to buckle up any time the seat belt sign lights up -- even if you feel nothing.

That's because turbulence can occur with no warning; and as Jane tells her passengers: "You don't want to end up on the ceiling like pancake batter, do you?"

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What exactly is turbulence? The Federal Aviation Administration describes it this way:

"Turbulence is air movement that normally cannot be seen and often occurs unexpectedly," according to the FAA. "It can be created by many different conditions, including atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts or thunderstorms."

You know the expression, "It came out of the clear blue sky?" Well, turbulence can be like that; it can occur even when the sky looks clear and calm.

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Before we go further, though, let me make this very important point: Commercial aviation remains the safest mode of transportation. However, turbulence does injure nearly 60 people in the United States each year; in fact, it's the leading cause of in-flight injuries to passengers and crew members (in non-fatal accidents).

So even though flying is safe, turbulence can be dangerous, if -- and this is important -- you are not belted in. Some recent examples:

March 2010: Three flight attendants received minor injuries when a Delta plane hit turbulence as it approached Palm Beach International Airport.

February 2010: About 20 people were injured by turbulence aboard a United Airlines plane midway between Washington, D.C., and Tokyo.

August 2009: Twenty-six people were injured by turbulence on a Continental flight from Brazil to Houston.

April 2009: Three passengers and a flight attendant were injured during a Continental flight over Texas; one passenger was paralyzed.

Even Air Force One can be affected by turbulence, as President Clinton found out back in June 1996, when his 747 was 33,000 feet over the general area of Lubbock, Texas, and the plane ran into severe turbulence. The then-president was OK, but another passenger was injured.

By the way, paying passengers aren't the most common victims of turbulence: flight attendants are. According to the FAA, of the 298 serious turbulence injuries from 1980 to 2008, 114 involved passengers, while 184 involved flight attendants.

That's not so surprising; flight attendants are the ones who are up and about for long periods during a flight.

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