“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.