OUT OF THE BLUE
Despite everything, flight attendants will keep on flying
By Elliott Hester
As is the case with more than 160,000 airline crew members working
in the United States, I am particularly appalled by the events of
Sept. 11. I'm a flight attendant, after all. Airplanes are my workplace.
My office in the sky.
Once each year, in order to practice "office" safety procedures,
flight attendants attend FAA-mandated emergency preparation training.
Led by a group of airline safety instructors, we congregate at company
headquarters to perform evacuation drills. We study detailed accounts
of the previous year's airline accidents. We perform mouth-to-mouth
resuscitation on truncated mannequins. We watch video interviews of
surviving crew members who tell how they evacuated passengers after
an emergency landing, or climbed from the wreckage after a crash.
During one of these annual training sessions, a flight attendant for
now-defunct Eastern Airlines gave video testimony about how she survived
a late-night plane crash in the Florida Everglades.
Sometime after impact, she found herself still strapped in her jump
seat. Disoriented and probably in shock, the flight attendant could
focus only on the pain caused by the jump seat harness - apparently,
it was digging into her ribs. She fumbled with the latch in complete
darkness, extricated herself from the harness, then fell more than
20 feet to the soggy ground. That's when she realized her jump seat
had been hanging in a tree.
Miraculously, the attendant wasn't severely injured. She stumbled
through the wreckage, drawn by the cries of a baby. I don't remember
where the baby was when the flight attendant found it. Don't remember
if the parents survived, or if the child was injured, or whether the
child was male or female. All I remember is that a flight attendant
fell from the sky, reached into the carnage and rescued the tiniest
Like many of the flight attendants watching this training video, I
was shaken. Through sodden eyes, I looked around the classroom; there
wasn't a dry eye in the place. Not simply due to the tragic circumstances
of the incident, but because the same thing could have happened to
any of us.
In 16 years as a flight attendant, I've worked nearly 6,000 flights.
Despite all the takeoffs and landings, despite all the emergencies
both human and mechanical, I've never had to evacuate an aircraft.
Unfortunately, several of my friends have. I've never suffered the
trauma of impact. Unfortunately, a few of my co-workers have. I've
never been faced with the grim task of identifying a loved one. But
I know people who have.
In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I continue to fly without
fear. Why? Experts will tell you that flying is the safest mode of
transportation. Contrary to the mind-set of the moment, the experts
are still right. In fact, after the events of Sept. 11 the experts
are more right than ever. Airline security is at an all-time high.
Passengers and crew are more aware of their surroundings. But because
the world watched airplanes crash into two buildings, because we continue
to watch the recovery efforts, because so many people lost their lives
in a unimaginable quadrangle of terrorism, we're still suffering from
a massive mental trauma.
Time and meticulousness will help to ease our worries. But let us
remain forever diligent. In my own effort at doing so - an effort
begun 16 years ago, when a plane crashed near airline headquarters
during my third week of flight attendant training - I engage in a
private game of "what if?" before every flight.
What if the plane skids off the runway? How quickly will I be able
to open my primary and secondary emergency exits?
What if a passenger is too scared to jump down the slide? How much
force should I use to push him?
What if the airplane is hijacked by terrorists?
I've long known the answer to the first two questions. Now I know
the answer to the third.
Before Sept. 11, we were trained to comply with terrorists. "Don't
be a hero," the instructors said - especially to able-bodied
men. But like many of my colleagues, I realize that the cockpit, and
the pilots who reside within, are to be protected at all costs. Even
at the cost of my life.
The "what-if?" scenarios keep me calm. Keep me sharp. Keep
me ready. It's a healthy dose of awareness that my colleagues would
be wise to adopt. If disaster strikes and we're lucky enough to survive
intact, emergency training gives us the best available chance to help
others survive. Emergency training, after all, is an organized adaptation
of, "what if?"
A few months from now, I will fly to company headquarters and attend
FAA-mandated emergency preparation training once again. This time,
the classroom portion will be decidedly different. There will be no
video testimonials from crew members who fell from the sky on Sept.
11. We will not hear tales from those who leapt from burning airplanes,
evacuated passengers, or carried babies from the smoldering wreckage.
But as we breathe into the mouths of mannequins and perform evacuation
drills, we will hear the whispers of our departed comrades. They'll
tell us to be careful. They'll tell us to be safe. And they'll tell
us to keep flying.
Because flying is the best job in the world.