SIOUX FALLS, S.D. - People were "thrown around like little rag dolls" when turbulence rocked a JetBlue flight from Massachusetts to California, a passenger said Friday, in an incident that left more than 20 people injured and forced an unscheduled landing in South Dakota.
The New York-based airline said Flight 429 was traveling from Boston to Sacramento with 146 passengers and five crew members on board Thursday evening, when it hit major turbulence and chaos ensued.
Passenger Rhonda Lynam said the plane began to rock as it went "right through a black cloud."
"It was like a movie. It was just crazy," Lynam said Friday morning from a hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota, where the plane was diverted to the night before. "We started hopping all over the air, and then all of a sudden, it, like an elevator, just dropped. And when that happened, even people who had their seatbelts on flew out of their seats. I did, my mom did."
Lynam, of Pacific, Grove, California, said overhead compartments flew open and luggage tumbled out. She described seeing wallets, sunglasses, sugar packets and other items on the floor when the aircraft landed.
She said the seatbelt sign was on when turbulence rocked the plane.
"We are really sore, we got pretty banged up, thrown around like little rag dolls," she said. "We are still kind of in shock."
Seven customers and two crew members were taken to a Rapid City hospital by ambulance, and an additional 15 customers were taken by bus for further evaluation. All 24 patients had been released by Friday morning. JetBlue said 122 of the passengers completed their trip Friday morning, landing in Sacramento more than seven hours after their scheduled arrival.
National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said the agency is investigating the incident and has requested that flight recorders be sent to its headquarters.
Pilots get detailed reports from various metrological services about wide areas with the potential for turbulence. While in flight, they also monitor shared radio frequencies for reports from other planes about the conditions ahead. Pilots will often warn other aircraft about moderate or severe "chop" at around 35,000 feet. A jet flying behind can ask air traffic controllers for permission to drop to 31,000 feet to try to avoid the worst turbulence.
When planes hit extreme turbulence, they usually drop about 40 or 50 feet, although it can feel like more because it happens so quickly and our bodies aren't used to the force, said former US Airways pilot John M. Cox, now CEO of the consulting firm Safety Operating Systems. In rare cases, planes have fallen 200 feet or more.
Cox said the "very best thing" that passengers can do to enhance their safety is to keep their seat belts fastened during flight. If the pilots go one step further and ask the flight attendants to also take their seats, Cox added, "take that as a significant event and make sure your seatbelt is low, across your hips and secure."
Overhead bins are supposed to resist opening in such conditions, but sometimes aren't latched closed properly or an item bumps against them, causing them to open, Cox said.