Turbulence on U.S. flight sent some flying into aircraft ceiling, passengers say

A flight from Phoenix to Honolulu carrying many people travelling for the holidays encountered severe turbulence shortly before landing, sending some unrestrained people and objects flying about the cabin and seriously injuring 11, officials and passengers said.

U.S. civil transportation agency will investigate incident that left 11 with serious injuries

An indentation is seen in the ceiling of an airplane.
This photo taken by passenger Jazmin Bitanga shows the interior of a Hawaiian Airlines plane that encountered turbulence on its flight from Phoenix to Honolulu, with an indentation visible on the ceiling. (Jazmin Bitanga/The Associated Press)

Tiffany Reyes had just gotten back to her seat from the bathroom and was about to buckle her safety belt when Hawaiian Airlines Flight 35 dipped.

In an instant, Reyes found herself on the aisle floor, staring up at caved-in ceiling panels and a cracked bathroom sign.

"I asked everyone around me, 'Was that me?' " Reyes said. "They said I had apparently flown into the ceiling and slammed into the ground."

Reyes, 40, was among 20 people on the flight — passengers and crew — taken to hospitals after sudden turbulence struck their flight that was nearing the end of the trip from Phoenix to Honolulu Sunday.

Eleven people were in serious condition. In all, 36 people received medical treatment for bumps, bruises, cuts and nausea, said Jim Ireland, director of Honolulu Emergency Medical Services.

'The most terrifying experience'

Reyes was heading home after picking up her daughter, Kaylee, from college. She initially thought something had hit the plane and that it was crashing. She briefly thought they were going to die because she had never encountered anything so violent on a flight before.

"That's the most terrifying experience I've been through in my whole 40 years of life," Reyes said.

The adrenaline surging through her dulled the pain that would eventually come, and Reyes wasn't bleeding, so she crawled back into her seat. And her daughter, who was buckled up and escaped injury, "just held me the whole time."

Others had it much worse, Reyes said. She saw a woman walk off the plane with gashes in her head and blood on her face and clothes.

Two first responders are visible through the open back door of an ambulance parked outside a report.
In this image taken from a video provided by Hawaii News Now, an ambulance is shown outside the international airport in Honolulu after multiple people were seriously injured during the flight from Phoenix. (Hawaii News Now/The Associated Press)

An ambulance took Reyes to an emergency room where she received X-rays, had her blood taken and had various other screenings. After five hours there, she and her family went home to decompress.

She had a headache which began to fade Sunday night, but the left side of her body started to ache.

"I can't even move around in bed," Reyes said Monday. "So I have to sleep right on my back without even moving."

Transportation safety board investigating

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Monday it will investigate the turbulence incident.

The full flight had nearly 300 people aboard and carried many passengers travelling to Hawaii for the holidays, like Jacie Hayata Ano, who was heading home.

"It was just rocky," she told KHON-TV. "And then, it quickly just escalated to the point where we're shaking so much that we were pretty much like floating off of our chairs."

Hawaiian Airlines CEO Jon Snook said such turbulence is isolated and unusual, noting that the airline hadn't experienced anything like it in recent history. Three flight attendants were among the injured, he said.

Jazmin Bitanga, who was also travelling home for the holidays, said there were two drops in altitude, including one that was so strong it sent her boyfriend's water bottle into the plane's ceiling.

"I turned around and there were a couple of people bleeding and just bracing themselves," she told Hawaii News Now. "Just all around me, there were people crying."

There was some internal damage to the aircraft during the turbulence, Snook said. The fasten-seatbelts sign was on at the time, though some of those injured weren't wearing them, he said.

The airline was aware of the weather forecast and the unstable air and weather conditions, but had no warning that the particular patch of air where the turbulence occurred "was in any way dangerous," Snook said.

He didn't know how much altitude the plane lost during the turbulence, saying that would be part of an investigation involving the NTSB. The plane's flight data recorder would provide those details, he said.

The investigation would also address precisely what the passengers and crew were doing at the time, he said. As well, it will examine what other measures were taken, aside from turning on the fasten seat belt sign, to ensure passengers were buckled in, Snook said.

Flight given landing priority

The Airbus A330-200 began its descent to the island of Oahu immediately after the turbulence, Snook said. The crew declared an emergency because of the number of injuries on board and air traffic controllers gave the flight priority to land.

The aircraft will undergo a thorough inspection and maintenance, mostly to fix components in the cabin, Snook said.

A high wind warning and flood watch were in effect Monday for Hawaii as a strong front moves across the islands, according to the National Weather Service.

On Monday, severe turbulence hit a United Airlines flight travelling from Rio de Janeiro to Houston. The airline said two passengers and three crew members suffered "minor injuries" and were taken to a hospital shortly after the flight landed at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. The airline did not describe the nature of the injuries.

WATCH | 2019 report on turbulence, injuries on Air Canada flight: 

35 injured in severe turbulence on Air Canada flight

4 years ago
Duration 4:39
An Air Canada flight experienced severe turbulence en route to Sydney, Australia, leaving 35 passengers injured.

In 2019, 37 passengers and flight crew members were injured when an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Sydney, Australia hit intense turbulence about two hours past Hawaii.

The Boeing 777-200 was diverted to Honolulu, where the injured received treatment. Thirty people were taken to hospitals and nine had serious injuries.

Seat belts protect against severe outcomes: NTSB

Most people associate turbulence with heavy storms, but there is another type called clear-air turbulence. The wind-shear phenomenon can occur in wispy cirrus clouds or even clear air near thunderstorms, as differences in temperature and pressure create powerful currents of fast-moving air.

Planes can sail into clear-air turbulence without warning.

The NTSB, while announcing the probe, tweeted a link to its 2021 report on turbulence incidents, which detailed a list of recommendations including several enhanced and focused communication procedures involving crews and air traffic controllers with respect to meteorological advisories.

Wearing a seatbelt protects against the most severe outcomes, the report said.

"Of the 123 passengers and flight attendants who were seriously injured in turbulence-related accidents occurring from 2009 through 2018, only one passenger was documented as having used a seatbelt during the turbulence event," the report said.

With files from CBC News

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