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Buckle Up!

The Griffon floorless roller coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a beast. It debuted at third place in the best new ride category when it opened in 2007 and has been consistently rated among the top 50 roller coasters worldwide. When you ride the Griffon, be prepared for a 204-foot near vertical drop with a top speed of 71 MPH.

You can't get on a roller coaster without being securely locked in with a heavy-duty restraint system. Yet people fly on airplanes that travel over 500 MPH without wearing a seat belt all the time. On Monday, passengers aboard Singapore Airlines Flight 321 were reminded just how important it is to stay in your seat with your seat belt securely fastened. Even when the fasten seat belt light is off.

About 10 hours into a flight from London to Singapore, Flight 321 encountered unexpectedly severe turbulence. Up to that point the flight had been smooth. The fasten seat belt sign was off and breakfast service was underway. Many passengers had unbuckled their seat belts, some were out of their seats moving about the cabin. It was very much a normal international flight. And then all hell broke loose.

The plane encountered the severe turbulence as storms were forming over a region in Myanmar known for bad weather. The pilot managed to turn the fasten seat belt sign back on just seconds before encountering the severe turbulence, but it was too late for passengers not already buckled up. They were taken on a roller coaster ride worse than Busch Gardens’ Griffon, with many passengers unrestrained.

Turbulence is a fact of life when flying, but the severe turbulence Flight 321 experienced is rare. In the space of just 84 seconds the plane went through three cycles of rapid and extreme dips and climbs, each worse than the previous. The incident culminated with the plane accelerating through a final rapid drop of 400 feet of altitude before finally leveling off.

Unrestrained passengers were thrown from their seats, first slamming into the ceiling and then smashing onto the floor with each cycle of turbulence. Overhead storage bins popped open, luggage flew out, ceiling panels fell into the cabin, and passenger emergency oxygen masks popped out. Anything loose was thrown about the cabin and collided with passengers, adding to the injuries. Then...just as quickly as it started, it was over. Flight 321 regained its stable flight path and was diverted to Bangkok where it landed safely.

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, of the 229 passengers and crew aboard the plane, 104 were injured and there was one death. The death is believed to have resulted from cardiac arrest in a passenger with a pre-existing heart condition, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic. Among those injured, 60 were still in the hospital two days later, and 20 were in the ICU. At last count, 22 passengers suffered serious spinal injuries and six suffered skull and brain injuries. Nobody wants to think of something like that happening to them when they board an airplane, and the chances of encountering turbulance that severe and unexpected are extremely slim. But turbulence is a fact of life when flying.

You put your safety into the hands of others every time you board an airplane, and this latest incident, with all the press coverage it is getting, will only stoke the anxieties of fearful flyers. The best thing you can do to protect yourself from turbulence the next time you fly, and anytime you fly, is buckle your seat belt and keep it buckled. You wouldn’t get on  a roller coaster like the Griffon without the restraint system being securely fastened, checked, and double checked. So why would you fly on an airplane without buckling up and staying buckled up? Most turbulence is predictable...but when it isn't, you won't have time to buckle your seat belt. Don't risk it. Buckle up!

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