Why Flight Attendants Matter in an Accident
In August of 1988, I had an experience that forever changed me as a flight attendant. I flew the first leg of DL1141 from Shreveport to Dallas Ft. Worth and then handed the flight off to my colleagues as I did four mornings a week so they could continue on to Salt Lake City. We chatted about how much orange juice was on board and where the passengers with special needs were seated. I visited with many of my good flight attendant friends in the gate area who were headed to Salt Lake City for their annual recurrent emergency training and were waiting to board the flight as passengers.
By the time I was home, I learned the worst… “my” plane had gone down almost immediately after takeoff.
Many people survived that accident because they not only had the most senior crew in the base working the flight with vast experience, but they had 14 additional crew members scattered throughout the cabin on the way to their annual safety training. These were the best possible folks to have on board during an accident. They had just spent eight hours doing computer module training in aircraft safety and had to pass tests on that information before they could attend the “live” class. They were thinking about safety and little else at that point.
You often hear how important it is to have a well-trained professional flight attendant crew on your aircraft, or in general aviation, to have an egress trained cabin attendant. I thought it would be helpful to hear from one of the crewmembers on Delta #1141 who was on board that day deadheading. I asked Kay Magruder to describe what it was like in the cabin when things started to go wrong and if trained personnel made a difference. This is how she remembers the day’s events and how the crew impacted the outcome:
As a member of a 757 F/A crew Deadheading on the first leg of a turn-around, I was seated in 1A, which is the first row of FC, directly opposite the FC galley.
In addition to my crew, there were 7 F/A’s going to recurrent, and a crew of 2 pilots flying back to base.
We pushed back from the gate and taxied to take our place in line for takeoff. It was a clear, sunny day, however we were delayed by ATC by about 30 minutes. As we approached the active runway, I did my “silent” review, again being aware of the galley door directly across from me as my closest emergency exit. As we began the takeoff roll, I became immediately aware of how long it was taking the pilot to “rotate” the plane. As soon as we were airborne, we heard very loud “bangs” from the engines and realized that the pilot was struggling to keep the plane aloft. Realizing that we were about to crash, my first thoughts were “this can’t be happening,” then “thank goodness I’m close to an exit” to help assist in evacuating. After the initial impact, the plane skidded along the ground for what seemed like an eternity before coming to a stop. There was debris everywhere, and a very strong electrical smell. Dust filled the air, and smoke was already moving through the cabin up to FC. I realized that the F/A’s on the front jumpseat were too badly injured to evacuate, and at the same time saw that the galley door across the aisle was blocked with debris and not a usable exit. Turns out the entire right side of the plane was engulfed in fire, therefore making any evacuations to that side impossible. The deadheading crewmembers seated in FC were yelling commands to help guide passengers toward the front to evacuate out the closest possible way, which happened to be a crack in the ceiling. Miraculously, we were able to help many passengers escape this way.
Every crash/accident is different, and though we are trained to evacuate any plane under any circumstances, evacuating this airplane was far more challenging. The only usable exits were the 2 windows on the left side of the plane. There was much structural damage throughout the fuselage, and many of us actually used these huge gaping holes in the ceiling to escape the burning plane.
Once outside the plane, all of us F/A’s that were physically able, assisted in aiding injured passengers and directing them away from the plane and to triage areas where emergency crews were setting up. Of 107 total passengers (including crew), 14 perished. Eleven lost their lives to smoke inhalation in the very back galley of the plane, despite the heroic efforts of the F/A’s who tried to open the jammed doors before being overcome from smoke themselves.
Two other passengers were found at the front of coach were, though they left their seats, they obviously were unable to make their way through the smoke-filled cabin to escape. One passenger, who went back into the burning plane looking for his wife, passed away in the hospital days later from his severe burns.
As a F/A, of course this is your worst nightmare. But in truth, the intensive training that we receive initially and every year kicks in and you become that well-oiled machine that, though you hope you are never faced with such an event, are confident in and know that you can and do help save lives. Cokes and peanuts aside, this is what being a trained F/A is really all about!
It is obvious from Kay’s description that most of the options for evacuating that aircraft were never covered in any safety demonstration. Years of training on how to think in an emergency made all of the difference in this situation and being prepared to react instinctively made the difference when seconds counted.
The accident involving Asiana #214, as tragic as it was, was also an incredible demonstration of the detailed training that professional flight crews maintain to handle such situations. Chaos and panic could easily have prevailed when you look at that scene; instead that aircraft was emptied and passengers triaged. Few people realize the very specific training flight attendants maintain to handle this kind of emergency. A lot of people have been asking me what made this possible, so let’s take a look at what your flight attendant trains to do to help you in case of an emergency:
1. Can flight attendants really could get people out of an aircraft in 90 seconds and how is that done? Wouldn’t we need time to collect ourselves?
I thought this was a great question. I have been doing this so long it is second nature and I don’t think about it. Our goal is always to be able to empty an aircraft in less than 90 seconds. It is a benchmark. We just know you have to move fast. We are always prepared to begin immediately because during every takeoff and landing we do something called a “silent review” in our minds. When we sit down, we review the operation of our nearest exits, note alternates, scan the cabin once more for any unsecured items that might become projectiles, look for able-bodied assistants, note where those people are seated who might need extra help, review where the emergency equipment is in relation to our seat and then sit in a position that protects our body so we will have the best chance possible to successfully survive impact so we may immediately begin helping when the aircraft comes to a stop. Then we watch the progress of the takeoff or landing and listen to all sounds and notice any unusual smells while repeating the bracing commands in our mind so we are ready to start reacting immediately if something goes wrong. We may look like we’re thinking about our grocery list or ignoring you but we are mentally preparing for any sort of emergency.
2. The next question I received was specific to Asiana #214 and I was asked why they only used some of the exits.
Part of our training is to think through an emergency. When the aircraft comes to a stop, we go to our first choice of exit and assess conditions. If there is fire or water outside that exit or the exit is jammed by impact, that exit is not usable and we move on to an alternate exit. This is why we have been scanning the cabin for our alternates during our mental review so we aren’t stumped when this happens. We only open exits that will allow safe egress and direct passengers towards those exits.
3. Why do we have all of those bracing positions, how do they really help in that kind of accident?
By now probably everyone has watched the video and has a healthy respect for what kind of G-forces are involved when an aircraft lands badly. By assuming an appropriate bracing position, you accomplish two main objectives. The first objective; you get your head and torso below seat level so any flying debris in the cabin will not hit you. Secondly, when you wrap your arms around your legs, or brace them on a seat back you keep them from flailing about and injuring yourself or others seated near you. Remaining injury free is the first step in getting out of the aircraft.
4. That fire looked terrifying… what if a fire started while a plane was in the air?
Every year we do hands-on fire fighting training to give us the best chance possible to achieve our goal of getting an aircraft back on the ground quickly should we experience an in-flight fire. This training has become increasingly sophisticated and even includes modules on handling lithium battery fires. Often fires are in the walls of aircraft and unseen, so we are trained to detect them sooner by noticing odors, and then describing the color and texture of smoke to help determine the source. We fight fires smarter now with better equipment and get an aircraft on the ground a lot sooner where the true professionals can help us.
5. That scene on the ground looked so organized. Are flight attendants trained to help with the aftermath of an accident?
In addition to getting everyone off of the aircraft, and doing a sweep of the aircraft to ensure all are safely off, flight attendants have extensive first aid training. You may have had the opportunity to see a flight attendant respond to a heart attack or other medical emergency in flight, but this is just part of their knowledge. Each year, part of our annual emergency training is a first aid module that includes instruction on how to work with the first responders who come to the aid of a downed aircraft to set up an effective triage system. The very flight attendants who just endured the same horrific accident you did will help triage and then treat the injured passengers from their flight.
This is just a sample of the very specific training a flight attendant receives to make each flight safe. Add in how to handle a terrorist, a passenger with a psychotic break in-flight, and what to do if that plane lands in water or the wilderness and you get a more complete picture of what a flight attendant can handle. Fortunately, the average passenger never sees any of these skills and they tend to think the flight attendants might be extraneous. It took many years of repetitive training before I could react calmly and correctly to the crash scenarios or terrorist threats. You would probably appreciate having a well trained professional on your flight should things ever get sporty. Most folks will get that “deer in the headlights” look and not know what to do. It would probably make some people uneasy if they focused on what flight attendants are really trained to do. These are things nobody wants to think about when they fly. Your flight crew thinks about it every time they fly so you don’t have to. The crew of Asiana #214 demonstrated with pure precision how all of that training and professionalism comes together to save lives. I salute the crew of Asiana #214; they are indeed a tribute to our profession.