As you sit buckled into a present-day airliner, you know the pilots are secured up front and beyond a locked, bullet-proof, metal door. This setup adds to the responsibilities of flight attendants, but it’s hard to remember or imagine a time when pilots were separated from passengers by nothing more than a thin, decorative curtain.
There is little food service now, it’s true; but in addition to scooping ice and pouring drinks, flight attendants often have a real leadership role to perform in assessing and responding to emergencies. Fortunately for the passengers, many flight attendants have handled their role impressively in the past year. Here’s a salute to some recent work by flight attendants:
US Airways Flight 1549, Exits Ahoy!
In January of 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 lost power in both engines when it struck birds shortly after takeoff. Less than four minutes later, Flight 1549 landed in the icy Hudson River. A Manhattan security camera video (click here) showed that Shelia Dail and Donna Dent— the flight attendants working in the front section of the Airbus airplane— had the first hatch open less than 30 seconds after touchdown.
Because the airplane made contact with the river in a normal, nose-up landing attitude—but without the landing gear being deployed —what was just a “firm” landing for those in the front section was a violent “crash” for those in the tail section.
In the back of the Airbus, Flight Attendant Doreen Welsh suffered a severe gash on one leg when some of the rear cargo compartment structure was pushed through the floor during impact with the water. Despite being seriously injured, she continued to scream instructions to the passengers and urged them forward to exits that were above the water level rather than letting them grapple with the partially submerged exits in the back.
Flight Attendant Welsh also urged those who could do so to climb over seats as they made their way forward, rather than crowding into the aisle. This was not a tactic she had been taught to use, she said later, but it helped the entire group to move to safety more quickly. No doubt her 38 years of experience helped her to analyze the situation properly. All 155 passengers and crew aboard Flight 1549 survived.
Northwest Flight 188, Are We There Yet?
In October of 2009, Northwest Flight 188 failed to respond to air traffic controller communicaitons for one hour, 17 minutes and eventually overflew its destination of Minneapolis-St.Paul by 150 miles. The pilots later said they had lost track of the time while they discussed a scheduling problem. Fortunately, the flight attendants onboard Northwest Flight 188 kept track of the time and noticed the delay.
After the lead flight attendant contacted the pilots by intercom to ask when they would be landing, the pilots realized their mistake and contacted air traffic control for instructions to finish the flight safely.
Baby Boarding En Route, Southwest Airlines
A passenger gave birth at 30,000 feet during a Southwest Airlines flight in December of 2009. While the event was not routine, the delivery was accomplished safely and the flight diverted to a nearby airport to permit the mother and child to proceed to a hospital.
According to a report on ABC News, “A doctor and two nurses on board helped deliver the baby at the back of the plane with the help of flight attendants and an in-flight medical radio service.”
All went well and, afterward, the doctor complimented the assistance provided by the flight crew during the delivery in the back galley of a Boeing 737.
Coffee, Tea or… Full Flaps, Air Canada?
When the first officer of a Toronto-to-London Air Canada flight suffered an airborne mental breakdown in November of 2008, one of the flight attendants suffered wrist injuries while helping to forcibly remove the disoriented pilot from the Boeing 767 cockpit.
The captain asked the flight attendant in charge to see if any airline pilots were on the passenger list, but none were. Another flight attendant informed the captain that she held a commercial pilot’s license with multi-engine and instrument ratings (although not current). She was asked to take the first officer’s seat and assist the captain for the remainder of the flight. The captain later praised this emergency first officer/flight attendant for seeming “not out of place” in the right seat as she helped the captain divert and land at Shannon, Ireland where the ill flight officer was removed from the airplane.
Some Hidden Service
We all complain about the “hidden fees” airlines tack on for baggage, food, and other items these days. But the next time you disembark from a flight, be sure to smile and thank the flight attendants on your way out. Maybe it didn’t look like they did more than push the beverage cart down the aisle during your flight, but they probably did more than you knew and were prepared to do much more to keep you safe.
Airline service isn’t what it used to be, but flight attendants are more important now than they’ve ever been.
Statement of Captain John Prater before Subcommittee on Aviation, 2/24/09
Remarks of Robert L. Sumwalt III before Subcommittee on Aviation, 2/24/09
US Airways 1549 Crash Captured by Con Ed Security Camera in Manhattan, 1/15/09
KDKA Ch. 2, Pittsburgh, Local Flight Attendant on 1549 “It’s a Miracle.”
NTSB Group chairman’s Factual Report, DCA10IA001 (Northwest Flight 188), 12/4/09
Scott Mayerowitz, Lisa Stark, Matt Hosfort, Woman Gives Birth on Southwest Flight, ABC News Web site, 12/4/09
Air Accident Investigation Unit, dublin, Ireland, AAIU Synoptic Report 2008-027
David Byers, Flight attendant forced to land plane after co-pilot suffers mental breakdown, London Times Online, 11/19/08 http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article5191202.ece