Dr Varun

On 21 May 2024, a Singapore Airlines flight en route from Singapore to Bangkok encountered severe turbulence, resulting in one death and injuries to several passengers and crew members. This incident brings to light the often underestimated and misunderstood phenomenon of turbulence, a natural and ubiquitous aspect of air travel that continues to challenge even the most advanced aviation technology.  

In the case of the Singapore Airlines flight, the turbulence struck suddenly and without warning, underscoring the unpredictability of these atmospheric disturbances. While pilots are trained to navigate through and around turbulence, and modern aircraft are designed to withstand it, the experience can be quite unsettling for passengers. 

Dr. Varun Thangamani, an Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the University of Southampton Malaysia, commented on this recent incident with his insights and expertise on turbulence. He mentioned, “Contrary to what our eyes may perceive, the Earth’s atmosphere is mostly in a state of flux and agitation. Depending on various factors like geographical terrain, wind conditions, and weather phenomena, some regions of the atmosphere can experience agitation that ranges from mild to extremely severe.” 

To further understand the significance of air turbulence, he added, “Air turbulence is a disorganised motion of air that can best be visualised by the swirls and curls seen at the end of a smoke trail from a joss stick or cigarette. It is characterised by random and swirling motions called eddies, which eventually break down into smaller eddies. The size, pressure intensity, and air speeds caused by these eddies can vary greatly. For example, turbulence caused by small mountains along the wind direction may be milder compared to the violent vertical movement of air during the formation of a tropical thunderstorm.” 

“Aircraft flying into such turbulent regions of the atmosphere can encounter a slightly bumpy ride if the turbulence is mild to moderate. However, severe turbulence can even slam a large aircraft down. Such force can cause the aircraft to experience a dramatic loss in altitude, much like a sudden fall, causing passengers and objects inside to be hurled up if not restrained. This is why wearing seatbelts is crucial to minimise mishaps during turbulence. Unfortunately, unlike precipitation, there are no reasonably reliable methods to predict air turbulence. However, modern aircraft are built very robustly to handle some levels of turbulence, and by following the pilots’ instructions, accidents can largely be avoided,” he concluded. 

The incident on the Singapore Airlines flight resulted in injuries, highlighting the potential dangers of severe turbulence. For flight attendants, turbulence can be particularly hazardous as they are often moving about the cabin, performing their duties. Airlines have protocols in place to minimise risks, such as instructing cabin crew to be seated and secured during periods of expected turbulence. 

For passengers, understanding the nature of turbulence and the reasons for safety protocols can help alleviate anxiety. It is important to remember that while turbulence can be uncomfortable, modern aircraft are designed to handle it, and pilots are trained to manage it effectively.  

The recent incident with Singapore Airlines serves as a reminder of the hidden forces in our skies and the importance of vigilance and preparedness in air travel. As our understanding and technology continue to evolve, so too will our ability to navigate these invisible, yet powerful, atmospheric forces safely.