Wham! Bam! Rocky times in the skies

Turbulence strikes while I'm in the lavatory, and I become a virtual Peter Pan.



Elliott Neal Hester
September 22, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

Imagine you are floating.

Released from the grip of gravity, you soar through recirculated airplane cabin air, high above those who were wise enough to heed the captain's P.A. announcement. You are still clutching a plastic cup in one hand, but the beverage is now dripping from your seatmate's face. The other hand has let go of the periodical you'd been reading, bringing a whole new meaning to the term "in-flight magazine." You see these images in the slow-motion, frame-by-frame vision of one who has been forcibly ejected from his seat.

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From this new and unusual vantage point, you look around and catch glimpses of insanity -- a walking cane minus its owner hurtling through the cabin, a laptop crashing against a bulkhead, an explosion of peanuts, a sea of twisting heads. No longer do you have to imagine how it would feel to fly. You are flying. You are a virtual Peter Pan -- an airborne tourist caught in the grip of severe turbulence.

This is what can happen when you fail to buckle your seat belt.

And don't forget that the seat belt sign had flashed on several minutes earlier. The flight attendants had roamed down the aisle, reminding everyone to buckle up, and the captain had warned of bumpy skies ahead. He told you to stay in your seat, to strap in tight, to be ready for a good jolt or two. However, as with most airplane announcements (except for those warning of delays or route diversions), you processed the captain's remarks as gibberish. Besides, you don't like wearing your seat belt; it's too restrictive. You were annoyed when a flight attendant interrupted your conversation to tell you to buckle up. In fact, you rolled your eyes and frowned at her.

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Now look at you -- folded like a pretzel between Rows 27 and 28, five rows from where your seat is.

In-flight turbulence is nothing to kid about. Airline industry sources say that, each year, an average of 58 passengers are injured in the United States while not wearing their seat belts during turbulence. This is the leading cause of injuries to passengers and crew in nonfatal accidents.

In the 10-month period between October 1999 and August 2000, 72 passengers were injured in four separate incidents involving Chinese, Japanese, U.S. and British airliners. Perhaps the most serious incident occurred when a China Southern Airlines flight from China to Hong Kong plunged 2,000 feet, injuring 45 passengers. Although several of the injured were treated at a hospital and discharged, 21 had longer hospital stays and seven were in serious condition.

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Chances are, none of the injured was wearing a seat belt.

I can't help being reminded of a video that is part of the New York City Department of Motor Vehicles license application process. After finishing the drivers test, applicants are required to attend a class, which includes a video showing in glaring detail a series of gruesome accident scenes. A state trooper then appears on-screen to address the group. When the other driver wannabes and I watched the video, we began to have second thoughts about steering the streets of New York. In an authoritative, "I've seen it all so you better listen" voice, Trooper Johnson left us with one comment about driver safety: "In all my years on the force, I've never had to pull a dead person from behind a buckled seat belt," he said.

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Trooper Johnson had a good point.

Since that day, I've never failed to wear a seat belt while driving or riding in a car. And because Trooper Johnson's advice can easily be applied to airplane passengers, I always wear my seat belt when traveling as a passenger. While on duty, however, I'm forced to throw caution to the wind. The nature of the job demands that flight attendants check for compliance when the seat belt sign winks on during turbulence. It's no surprise, then, that we're usually the first to be injured.

During one flight to the Caribbean, I stood before the toilet in the lavatory, eyes closed, pants gathered around my ankles, answering the urgent call of nature. But before my bladder could be purged, I found myself mashed against the ceiling, with my feet dangling precariously above the toilet.

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Over the years, colleagues have told me they've been slammed against the cabin ceiling or thrown into the laps of startled passengers. I've heard about the busted backs, fractured limbs and bloodied faces that resulted when passengers didn't buckle up, even after the seat belt sign flashed on, the crew completed a mandatory safety check and P.A. announcements warned of dangerous bumps ahead.

One fellow flight attendant was slammed against the ceiling so violently that his uniform shirt ended up completely covered with blood. Luckily, he sustained no permanent injuries. But when the plane landed, and the more severely injured passengers were removed, an airline supervisor walked up to him and asked him to change his shirt.

Can't have bloodied flight attendants limping through the airport terminal now, can we?

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Like most flight attendants, I've been forced to scramble to my jump seat during moments of rough turbulence. If I ever were launched toward the ceiling, I always imagined it would happen in the aisle or the galley, surrounded by humanity. I never thought that severe turbulence would strike when I was alone in the lavatory, with my Calvin Klein underwear at half-mast.

Without warning, I seemed to float in slow motion toward the ceiling. I was an astronaut in the middle of a weightlessness experiment. With my back pressed high against the lavatory wall and my neck smashed against the ceiling at an angle that only a contortionist could appreciate, I was at the mercy of God and aircraft dynamics.

That's when I peed all over the toilet and the walls. I even let loose on my own shoes. This embarrassing act was not the result of fear. It happened because the turbulence hit before I could finish my business.

The experience brought back childhood memories of an amusement park ride. Twenty or 30 people entered a round room without straps or any safety apparatus. A disembodied voice then instructed us to lean against the wall. The room spun slowly at first, then picked up speed, with the centrifugal force pinning us against the wall. Then the floor dropped, and we spun around and around, stuck to the wall like wet clothes in the final wash cycle.

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Everybody loved it. I did too.

But I did not love my experience in the airplane lavatory.

In the next split second, I watched in horror as a couple of gallons of d-germ came splashing up out of the toilet. (D-germ is the pungent blue chemical that swishes around the toilet bowl after every flush.) It was a surreal moment -- a Salvador Dali painting come to life. My trousers were soaked with d-germ, and my only consolation was that there were no chunks.

The plane suddenly regained its composure. Wobbly as an Olympic gymnast who has been out drinking all night, I came sprawling through the lavatory door.

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Nobody on the plane was hurt. Everyone, including my fellow crew members, had been wearing seat belts.

Startled and only slightly bruised, I strapped myself into my jump seat, smelling like a toilet.


Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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