Area residents were relieved to be back home after a grueling JetBlue flight Thursday night from Boston to Sacramento experienced harsh turbulence, causing the plane to conduct an emergency landing in South Dakota and leaving two dozen injured.
“All of a sudden, the plane just dropped,” said Christopher De Vries, a software developer from Sacramento who was on the flight. “It dropped fast enough so that things just flew up in the air. I just saw laptops, candy and soda splashing onto the ceiling.”
Derek Lindahl, a software engineer from Elk Grove, was also aboard the plane, returning from a trip to Newark. He wrote in a message to The Sacramento Bee that the turbulence’s impact left a woman sitting in front of him hovering 2 feet off her seat.
“I reached over and grabbed her shoulders to help hold her down,” he wrote. “(I’m) pretty sure she wasn’t buckled in.”
Flight 429 departed from Boston just before 6 p.m. for Sacramento, according to flight activity logs. During the flight, the airplane hit turbulence that forced an emergency landing in Rapid City, S.D., Philip Stewart, a spokesman for JetBlue, wrote in an email.
Twenty-two passengers and two crew members were taken to a local hospital to be treated for their injuries following the landing. A replacement aircraft was sent to the Rapid City airport to transport the remaining passengers. It arrived in Sacramento at 4:15 a.m. Friday, Stewart wrote.
Tony Molinaro, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman for the Great Lakes Region Airport Division, said the agency has begun an investigation into the incident by conducting interviews with passengers and crew members. The investigation, which could take several weeks to complete, hopes to discover “exactly what happened.”
The FAA describes turbulence as air movement created by a variety of factors, including atmospheric pressure, jet streams, and cold or warm weather fronts, among other things. It is usually unexpected and not visible.
Turbulence is the leading cause of injuries in nonfatal accidents for both passengers and flight attendants, according to the FAA. From 1980 through 2008, U.S. air carriers had 234 turbulence accidents, resulting in 298 serious injuries and three fatalities, the FAA reports.
Mike Bettwy, a warning coordination meteorologist for the Aviation Weather Center, said the plane was traveling in an area close to where thunderstorm warnings had been issued for pilots. Though he could not say whether the thunderstorms, which were in the southern portion of South Dakota that night, were the reason the Flight 429 experienced turbulence, he did say they create difficult conditions for pilots due to changing wind speeds and direction.
“Ultimately, it’s the pilot’s decision, and there are different factors that come to play that might put them closer to turbulence areas than they want to be,” Bettwy said.
De Vries, who was traveling back to Sacramento with his wife and two young daughters after visiting family on the East Coast, described the turbulence as happening at once.
“It was weird because it was just that loud bump and then it was over,” he said. “It happened so fast, so there wasn’t too much time to be scared.”
Three flight attendants were standing at the back of the plane when the turbulence hit, said Dr. Alan Lee, an orthopedic surgeon who was traveling on the flight to start a new job Monday in Folsom.
“There was actually a big hole in the ceiling panel where the flight attendant hit the ceiling,” he said.
While Lee aided the flight attendant who had hit her head on the ceiling and who suffered the most severe injury, a nurse from Vacaville attended to the other two crew members who were injured, he said.
Shortly after the turbulence hit, the airplane’s captain told passengers that they would be making an emergency landing at a nearby airport, De Vries said. Once the plane landed, Rapid City airport staff and paramedics helped take care of those who were injured.
“Paramedics came on board to remove a couple people who were injured,” De Vries said. “At that point it was clear that some passengers were hurt.”
De Vries and Lindahl commended the crew’s calm demeanor and ability to help passengers, despite dealing with their own injuries. De Vries said staff at the airport provided blankets and opened up a restaurant to provide food for the passengers as they waited for a new flight from Long Beach to arrive and take them to Sacramento.
“For a while there just wasn’t much information because they were trying to take care of the people that were injured,” he said. “But after a while, they were really trying to make us comfortable.”
Though De Vries was not hurt and was able to return to Sacramento early Friday, he said the experience would be a reminder to be extra cautious while aboard a plane.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to sit in an airplane ever again without having that seat belt tightly fastened,” De Vries said.
According to Lee, passengers on the plane had been instructed to put on their seat belts before the turbulence hit.
“More likely that not, if everyone had their seat belts fastened appropriately, not as many people would have gone to the hospital.”