NTSB: Clouds formed under flight hit by turbulence

August 14, 2009 4:23:33 AM PDT
Rapidly growing clouds typical of towering thunderstorms were forming under a Continental Airlines flight as it was rocked by severe turbulence last week while passing north of the Dominican Republic, the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday. More than two dozen people were hurt as the Boeing 767, carrying 179 people from Rio de Janeiro to Houston, passed through the turbulence at 36,000 feet at about 3:55 a.m. EDT. The weather tossed passengers and flight attendants around the cabin, leading the flight crew to declare an emergency and divert to Miami.

The NTSB said in a preliminary report that its review of satellite weather imagery from Aug. 3 shows "isolated, rapidly developing" clouds known as cumulus congestus forming under Continental Flight 128. The clouds are characterized by strong updrafts and are named for tower-like projections that can reach as high as 50,000 feet.

Passengers said the turbulence lasted only a few seconds. But it was powerful enough to throw Continental flight attendants against the ceiling and slam passengers who weren't belted into the overhead compartments. Oxygen masks dropped. A child smacked his chest on a tray table and started bleeding.

A photo taken by a passenger showed overhead lighting compartments cracked by the impact of passengers' heads. Another photo showed panels hanging down, exposing normally hidden oxygen tanks.

A doctor aboard the flight as a passenger helped the injured as the plane headed to Miami, where it landed about 90 minutes after flying through the turbulence. Five flight attendants were among the 33 people injured, including 14 who were treated at Miami hospitals. None of the injuries were serious and only one person required an overnight hospital stay.

The NTSB said it had classified the "turbulence event" as an incident rather than an accident, because the injuries were not serious and there was no serious damage to the plane.

Aviation officials say air turbulence is rarely more than a nuisance, although unexpected turbulence is why pilots often tell passengers to keep their seat belts fastened even if they have turned off the "seat belt" sign and the skies are clear. Turbulence was responsible for 22 percent of all U.S. airline accidents and 49 percent of serious-injury accidents between 1996 and 2005, the NTSB said in an annual safety review released in March.

The preliminary findings in Thursday's report are "subject to change and may contain errors" that would be resolved when a final report is complete, Peter Knudson, an agency spokesman in Washington, said in a statement. Those final reports can take months to complete.

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