Gravity changes and a 58-meter fall caused injuries to Singapore Airlines plane that encountered turbulence

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The interior of Singapore Airlines Flight SQ321 is pictured after an emergency landing at Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand on May 21, 2024 in this handout image. | Photo credit: Award via Reuters

Rapid changes in gravity led to a 54-meter drop in altitude on a Singapore Airlines flight last week, killing one passenger and injuring many others who were not strapped in during extreme turbulence last week, according to a preliminary investigation by Singapore’s Transport The ministry said this on May 29.

A 73-year-old British man died of a suspected heart attack and dozens were injured after the Boeing 777 flying from London’s Heathrow Airport to Singapore on May 21 encountered turbulence, throwing people and belongings throughout the cabin. The plane, with 211 passengers and 18 crew members, made an emergency landing in Bangkok.

Also read: Why was Singapore’s flight turbulence severe? | Explained

Singapore’s Ministry of Transport said investigators, including those from the US National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, had compiled a chronology of events based on preliminary analysis of flight data and cockpit voice recorders.

Initial findings showed the plane was flying over southern Myanmar at an altitude of 37,000 feet (11,277 meters) when it began experiencing vibrations due to changes in gravity, the ministry said. The plane then climbed to an altitude of up to 37,362 feet (11,387 meters) and increased speed possibly due to an updraft, the report said. The aircraft’s autopilot then attempted to point the aircraft downward to the previous altitude.

“The aircraft experienced a rapid change in G (gravity) … this likely resulted in the occupants not being seated to become airborne” before later falling back down as the plane took off and descended, the ministry said . “The rapid changes in G over a period of 4.6 seconds resulted in a height difference of 58 meters… this sequence of events likely caused the injuries to the crew and passengers.”

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During the turbulence, a pilot was heard saying that the “fasten seat belt” sign had been turned on. According to the recorded data, the pilots manually flew the plane for 21 seconds to stabilize it before switching the autopilot back on.

The plane made a normal, controlled descent and experienced no further turbulence until landing in Bangkok almost an hour later, the ministry said, adding that investigations were ongoing.

Passengers have described the “sheer terror” of the plane shaking, loose objects flying and injured people lying paralyzed on the floor of the plane.

Twenty-six people remained in hospital in Bangkok on Wednesday. Hospital authorities previously said the injuries included damage to the spinal cord or spinal cord, skull or brain injuries and damage to bones or internal organs.

It was unclear what caused the turbulence. Most people associate turbulence with heavy storms, but the most dangerous type is so-called clear air turbulence. Wind shear can occur in wispy cirrus clouds or even in clear air near thunderstorms because differences in temperature and pressure create powerful currents of fast-moving air.

According to a 2021 report from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, turbulence was responsible for 37.6% of all accidents at larger commercial airlines between 2009 and 2018. The Federal Aviation Administration has said that 146 people were seriously injured from 2009 to 2021 turbulence.

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