Passengers describe chaos when Singapore Airlines flight hits turbulence

“Some people hit their heads on the luggage cabins and dented them,” passenger Dzafran Azmir told ABC News.

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A Singapore Airlines flight experienced severe turbulence over the Indian Ocean and descended 6,000 feet (about 1,800 meters) in about three minutes, the airline said Tuesday. One Briton was killed and authorities said dozens of passengers were injured, some seriously.

An airport official said the 73-year-old man may have suffered a heart attack, although that has not been confirmed. His name was not immediately released.

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The Boeing 777 flight from London Heathrow Airport to Singapore, with 211 passengers and 18 crew members on board, was diverted and landed in a storm in Bangkok.

British passenger Andrew Davies told Sky News that the seat belt sign was illuminated but crew members did not have time to take their seats.

“All the cabin crew I saw were injured in one way or another, maybe with a cut to the head,” Davies said. “One had back problems and was in obvious pain.”

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Dzafran Azmir, a 28-year-old student who was on the flight, told ABC News: “Some people hit their heads on the luggage cabins and dented them. “They hit the places where the lights and masks are and went through them.”

Kittipong Kittikachorn, general manager of Suvarnabhumi airport, said at a news conference that the sudden drop occurred while food was being served to passengers.

Seven passengers were seriously injured and 23 passengers and nine crew members suffered moderate injuries, it said. Sixteen with less serious injuries received hospital treatment and 14 were treated at the airport. He said the Briton appeared to have suffered a heart attack, but medical authorities would have to confirm this.

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A later statement from Samitivej Srinakarin Hospital said 71 people had been treated there, including six who were seriously injured. No explanation was available for the discrepancy.

Tracking data captured by FlightRadar24 and analyzed by The Associated Press shows that Singapore Airlines Flight SQ321 is cruising at an altitude of 37,000 feet (11,300 meters).

At one point, the Boeing 777-300ER suddenly and abruptly descended to 31,000 feet (9,400 meters) in about three minutes, according to the data. The plane then remained at 31,000 feet (9,400 meters) for less than 10 minutes before diverting and landing in Bangkok less than half an hour later.

The sharp descent occurred when the flight was flying over the Andaman Sea, near Myanmar. The aircraft then sent a “squawk code” of 7700, an international emergency signal.

Weather details were not immediately available.

London-Singapore flight
Ambulances are seen at the airport where a London-Singapore flight that encountered severe turbulence was diverted to, in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, May 21, 2024. The plane apparently crashed for several minutes before being diverted to Bangkok, where the Emergency service crews rushed to help injured passengers in the middle of a storm, Singapore Airlines said on Tuesday. Photo by Sakchai Lalit /THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Most people associate turbulence with strong storms, but the most dangerous type is so-called clear air turbulence. Wind shear can occur in faint cirrus clouds or even in clear air near thunderstorms, as differences in temperature and pressure create powerful currents of fast-moving air.

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The problem of turbulence was highlighted in December, when a total of 41 people on two separate flights affected by turbulence in the United States were injured or received medical treatment over two consecutive days.

According to a 2021 report from the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, turbulence accounted for 37.6% of all accidents on the largest commercial airlines between 2009 and 2018. The Federal Aviation Administration, another agency of the US government, said after the December incidents that there were 146 serious accidents. Turbulence injuries from 2009 to 2021.

Boeing expressed its condolences to the family of the deceased and said it was in contact with Singapore Airlines “and was ready to support them.” The wide-body Boeing 777 is a workhorse of the aviation industry, used primarily for long-haul flights by airlines around the world. The 777-300ER variant of the twin-engine, twin-aisle aircraft is larger and can carry more passengers than previous models.

Singapore Airlines, the city-state’s flag carrier, operates 22 of these aircraft as part of its fleet of more than 140 aircraft. The airline’s parent company is majority owned by Singapore government investment conglomerate Temasek and also operates budget airline Scoot.

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Thailand’s Transport Minister Suriya Jungrungruangkit said Singapore was sending another plane to transport those who could travel. He arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday night.

Singapore Transport Minister Chee Hong Tat in a Facebook post said his ministry and Singapore’s Foreign Ministry, as well as the country’s Civil Aviation Authority and officials at Changi Airport along with staff from the airline, “are providing support to affected passengers and their families.”

The ministry’s Transportation Safety Investigation Bureau said it was in contact with its Thai counterpart and would send investigators to Bangkok.

Singapore Airlines
Suvarnabhumi Airport Director Kittipong Kittikachorn speaks during a press conference at Bangkok Airport on May 21, 2024 regarding the emergency landing of Singapore Airlines flight SQ321 from London to Singapore. Photo by LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA /AFP via Getty Images

Singapore Airlines said the nationalities of the passengers were 56 Australians, two Canadians, one German, three Indians, two Indonesians, one from Iceland, four from Ireland, one Israeli, 16 Malaysians, two from Myanmar, 23 from New Zealand, five Filipinos . 41 from Singapore, one South Korean, two Spaniards, 47 from the United Kingdom and four from the United States.

— Associated Press writers Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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