Monday, August 03, 2009

Turbulence Injures Dozens on Flight from Brazil to Houston

This doesn't surprise me at all. I've flown that Brazil-Houston leg on Continental, and it's terrifying. On my first trip ever to Brazil in 2005, I flew that flight. On the way down, I remained in my seat, blissfully ignorant, until about 3AM, when I finally got up to go to the bathroom. I wasn't out of my seat two minutes; yet the second I was in the aisle heading back to the seat, I suddenly went weightless as the jet just dropped. Two seconds later, I hit the floor, unable to stand up, as the plane suddenly and dramatically went up very fast. Of course, with my stupid historians' brain, I immediately remembered this incident from 8 years before, and clung to the arms of the seats on either side of the aisle for dear life. At that moment, the seat belt sign came back on, and the captain informed us, "ladies and gentlemen, we will be experiencing some turbulence here," to which I, still unable to stand up and hoping I wasn't about to die one of the dumber deaths, thought "fuck you; we ARE experiencing turbulence."

It passed pretty quickly, but when I flew back to the states (again through Houston), it was even worse. Although I didn't have to enjoy the otherwise-pleasant sensation of being weightless, we went through what remains to this day the worst turbulence I have ever experienced in my life. And while the turbulence on the trip to Brazil only lasted about 3 minutes (though it felt longer), the severe turbulence on the way back lasted 25 minutes, long enough to leave me white-knuckled and wondering if things like planes breaking apart mid-air were likely. We made it safely, but the Houston-Brazil flight is, in a word, terrifying. Newark, Atlanta, DC...all are way better.

The only thing that does surprise me in this is that it happened just north of the Dominican Republic, and not over the South American continent. On my flight, the severe turbulence we encountered in both directions happened as we went over the geographical shift from the Amazonian basin in Brazil to the Andes in Colombia. While I'm not a scientist by any means, it seems to make sense that a sudden shift from high mountains to flat basins (or vice versa) can cause some rather dramatic shifts in the jetstream, and a colleague of mine at the University of Texas in Austin who has had to make that flight numerous times always has the same experience - terror-inducing turbulence between Colombia and Brazil. So while the injury-inducing turbulence does not surprise me here, the location does.

This isn't to talk anybody out of flying to Brazil. As Erik can attest, the trip is more than worth it. Still, if anybody does plan on traveling, now or down the road, I would suggest perhaps finding an arrival/departure location other than Houston. Plus, by avoiding Houston, you don't ever have to set foot in George H.W. Bush Intercontinental Airport, an airport so pleasant, it could only be named "Bush."