“Jax Center, King Air three niner six delta mike would like to deviate ten right for a buildup,” I asked. “That’s approved, and when able, direct Charleston executive,” came the immediate reply. 

Descending through 12,000 feet, in the clear, I noticed a small buildup to my left, only a few hundred feet above me. I thought about pushing through it, but with Patty on board, a more comfortable ride was in order. I nudged the airplane slightly to the right to miss the benign, puffy cumulus.

Then I lost consciousness.

I woke up less than a second later. My head had slammed to the left against the sidewall of the King Air. It was the most violent turbulence encounter of my 50-year flying career. My headset was ejected from my body. As I regained my composure, my vision was blurred. I looked for my headset which was on the cockpit floor. Next to it was my spare set of glasses tossed from my pocket, a black metal screw and a small piece of broken plastic.

I glanced to the right and realized that Patty’s headset had departed as well.

“You okay?” I yelled.

“I think so,” she replied. As usual, we both had on our full, four-point seat belts. If Patty had been in the cabin and unbelted, she likely would have been injured.

Incredibly, the Garmin autopilot remained engaged. I glanced up toward the ceiling and noticed several black scuffs on the vinyl where my head had landed (see photo). 

We continued on to our destination and landed uneventfully. I laid awake that night wondering how bad things could have been if we had not been secured in our seats.

We were in Charleston for a Citation Jet Pilots regional meeting. While there, I had an opportunity to ask others if they had ever had a similar event. Very few had. 

“How many of you have ever had your headset thrown off in turbulence,” I asked.

Almost no one raised their hand. 

It wasn’t my first such event. Years ago, in my Citation Mustang, I lost my headset twice in one flight, in clear, low-level wind shear as I approached Dallas after a frontal passage. 

“How many of you fly in cruise flight with the inertia reel belts released,” I asked. The answer was quite a few.

Each year, numerous flight attendants and passengers are injured in airline operations from unexpected encounters with turbulence. In late September 1999, a Falcon 900B with a crew of three and seven passengers incurred a violent flight control issue. Only the three crew members were wearing seat belts. The seven unsecured passengers died during the event.

Seat belts are installed in our airplanes for a reason. It’s simply not okay for us to discontinue their use because we feel more comfortable without them.

Especially flying single pilot.

Fly safe.

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  • Avatar
    Stephen Songer September 5, 2020 at 9:29 pm

    May 1968 Braniff Flight 352was en route from Houston to Dallas crashed during a severe thunderstorm.
    We were flying a 720 Aero Commander at this time and East of Dallas when we hit severe clear air turbulence. The down drafts caused us to hit the plane’s ceiling extremely hard and mashed in the seats while in the updrafts.A 40# flight bag was being thrown around like a basketball.

  • Avatar
    David Miller September 12, 2020 at 11:02 am

    Upon reflection, and a comment from a reader, my use of the words “ lost consciousness “ was not technically correct. I was not unconscious for less than one second but rather my eyes closed as my headset was tossed off my head. Hope this clears up the readers concern. Bottom line though, wearing belts at all times in the cockpit is a good practice. Thanks for reading.

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