AFTERMATH: Twenty people were injured on board a South African Airways flight from Johannesburg to Hong Kong after the aircraft was hit by severe turbulence. Picture: Supplied

Kimberley - Former Kimberley schoolboy, Neil Papenfus, has nothing but praise for the South African Airways (SAA) staff for their handling of the situation when his Hong Kong-bound flight hit severe turbulence, flinging passengers and crew into the air.

Papenfus had just stood up to change seats when suddenly it felt like Flight SA286 was in free-fall. The pilot had just turned on the fasten seat belts lights, but before he could give a warning about turbulence, chaos erupted on the plane.

Papenfus, whose parents still live in Kimberley, was among the 20 people injured when the flight from Johannesburg to Hong Kong ran into severe turbulence over Kuala Lumpur earlier this week.

His mother, Ethne Papenfus, said she received an SMS from Neil, who had come to South Africa to attend the funeral of a family member in Durban.

His SMS simply said: “Turbulence. I hit the roof with my head. Then a fire scare. About five medevaced. I’m OK. Just a little sore. Good fun.”

The family, however, could not believe it.

“I couldn’t believe it when he sent me a picture of the hole in the roof of the plane where he hit his head. I phoned him back and asked whether he was serious – I couldn’t believe one could cause so much damage to a plane.”

According to Papenfus, Neil, who always kept his seat belt on in a plane, had just stood up to change seats as the aircraft was fairly empty.

“There was absolutely no warning that they were hitting turbulence. Even the co-pilot had left his seat and gone to the toilet.”

She added that, according to her son, the cabin crew – three of whom suffered injuries themselves – were magnificent. “He was extremely impressed with the way the SAA staff handled and calmed the panicked and injured passengers and the pilot’s handling of the plane, as well as the professionalism of the Hong Kong airport staff.”

“Obviously the passengers were panicking but the on-board crew managed to calm everyone down. They were reassuring and immediately took control of the situation, telling everyone what to do and restored order and peace in the aircraft.”

As soon as the plane landed in Hong Kong, emergency services were on standby to assist the injured, who were taken to North Lantau Hospital, Princess Margaret Hospital and Yan Chai Hospital. Some of the passengers were taken off the plane on stretchers.

“Although Neil hurt his neck, he elected not to go to hospital in Hong Kong because he wanted to catch his connecting flight to Papa New Guinea, where he is working in shipping.”

Papenfus added, however, that her son’s neck was still sore on Thursday and “he realises that he will have to go for X-rays just to check that everything is fine”.

According to airline spokesman, Tlali Tlali, two passengers who sustained serious injuries remained in hospital for observation, while the other 18 were discharged.

Despite the drama, the four-engine Airbus A340-300, which took off from OR Tambo International Airport on Tuesday evening, landed safely in Hong Kong at about 6.30am South African time.

According to reports, many of the 165 passengers on board were lifted out of their seats during the turbulence and hit the cabin ceiling, resulting in head and neck injuries. Many were sleeping at the time.

Aviation expert and managing director of PR firm Plane Talking, Linden Birns, said severe turbulence was quite rare. “The problem is you can’t see it until you fly into it; it’s invisible to radar,” he said.

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