How Turbulence Killed a Man – The Tragic London – Singapore -By Alex T and Emre B

23 May 2024

On the 21st of May, Singapore Airlines flight SQ 321 hit frighteningly large turbulence, killing a 71-year old man and injuring dozens of civilians. Passengers onboard the London-Singapore flight recounted scenes of “absolute terror”, with one passenger saying he saw a woman with an “awful gash on her head” and heard another “screaming in agony”. (BBC)

The Singapore-bound Boeing 777-300ER diverted to Bangkok following the mid-air incident over the Irrawaddy Basin, making an emergency landing at 15:45 local time (08:45 GMT) with 211 passengers and 18 crew aboard. Smitivej Hospital, in Bangkok, said 104 people were treated and 58 remain in hospital, 20 of whom are in the intensive care unit. There are 15 British civilians still being treated in hospital, with 6 in intensive care, the hospital said.

Geoff Kitchen died from a suspected heart attack on board, which is believed to have caused by turbulence. He was on his way to Singapore to start a six-week holiday along with his wife, who was also on board.

Anyone who has flown often will be familiar with turbulence. This sudden jolting usually happens when in clouds where gusts of wind can move the airplane up and down and is the most likely reason for the disaster. This effect can be amplified with stronger winds, which is most likely what happened with the flight while it was over Myanmar. Other ideas, such as high-speed jet streams and changes in air temperatures, may be the cause, but it is too early to know just now.

While whatever caused the turbulence may not be known now, its effect is. Altitude data from FlightRadar24 shows that, over the course of one minute, the plane fluctuated 400 feet above and 100 feet below cruising altitude. One particularly nasty section had a change of movement over 1000m/minute in just three seconds. This fast change made many passengers who didn’t put on their seatbelts fly upwards into the ceiling, tearing holes in both the plane’s interior and the passengers’ heads. 


The sad thing is that, in many cases, turbulence cannot be avoided. Many of the worst, most turbulent areas are fluid in movement, so it is impossible to predict where these patches will be. As result of climate change, incidents like this may be on the rise as there has been a 55% increase in turbulence accidents between 1979 and 2020. While this is true, some experts believe that this may not be a result of climate change, but instead the increase of longer distance flights.

Another thought is to simply keep seatbelts fastened for the entire journey, but that would make travellers more likely to no put them on, as they would seem restrictive rather than protective.

Many airlines may unfortunately not change anything in the wake of this incident, as it is a massive outlier. While over 1 out of every 3 airline incidents with a serious injury involve turbulence, there has not been a single fatality in 25 years because of it. Flying has always carried risks, and always will. Despite how serious and sad this depressing case is, this is a rare occurrence, and something like this may not happen for decades. Flying is always the safest and fastest way to travel, so, unfortunately, we have to deal with these deaths, knowing the amount of lives planes have saved.