Ch 7 – IN THE HOT SEAT
Flight attendants are trained professionals who have been thoroughly trained to re-act to any emergency quickly, professionally and calmly. In an emergency situation we revert back to immediate action mode.
Even sky gods have to come down from Olympus occasionally and admit to having feet of clay. My “Come to Jesus moment” occurred on the return flight from Ghana to Liberia during one of my Africa runs.
After preparing the cabin for landing in Roberts Field, Liberia, I was sitting in the FC lounge with Cathy Connors, a bubbly wholesome all American girl from Chicago, and a relatively new hire like myself. Cathy and I were making plans to join another group of young FAs in a beach-side barbeque where we planned to partake of some quality African “Ganja” and chilled white wine. This was in the 80s in the days before drug-testing and occasional recreational smoking of joints was, while not the norm, quite common place amongst FAs in their 20s.
From the altitude of the plane and the view from the lounge windows we could tell that we were on our final descent into Roberts Field. As Cathy and I strolled to our jump seats in the front of the cabin we observed Svenska Hollestram, our chief purser, hurriedly exiting the cock-pit leaning against the door frame and crossing herself. Svenska, a Swedish beauty famed for her calm demeanour as well as her particularly large assets, at that moment looked like the wrath of God - wide-eyed, hair dishevelled and a sheen of sweat marring her perfectly made-up face. At the same time as Cathy and I were exchanging worried glances the plane began a rapid accent, pulling back to flight path and banking sharply to the right. Svenska, meanwhile, dashed into the FC lavatory, slamming the door behind her.
Stunned, both Cathy and I thought she had gone completely crazy and looking aghast at each other, undid our seat belts and getting on the planes inter-phone, asked permission to enter the cockpit to see just what the hell was going on.
Inside the cock-pit was a scene of controlled chaos, a grim-faced captain conferring with the control tower, the first officer and flight engineer both engaged in checking the myriad of dials and switches on the control panels.
When he had a moment to spare the flight engineer explained to us that Svenska had in fact saved the day. Something had not sounded or felt right to her and she had breached protocol by contacting the cockpit in the final stages of our descent. This proved fortuitous as the landing gear over the left wing had not retracted into its full down position, even though the cowling had opened.
At this moment the captain was completing a fly-by over the control tower to check if the gear was visible. When he received word that we did not have the landing gear fully retracted the captain had the flight engineer attempt to manually retract the wheel, and when that failed to work, made the decision to dump fuel and prepare for an emergency landing.
Even to well-seasoned travel professionals, these were words no FA wants to hear. This dire situation was exacerbated by the fact that we were on a plane full to capacity with mostly first-time travellers whose collective demeanour would fall far short of being either calm, cool or collected! As for the crew (most of whom like Cathy and myself had not been flying that long), even though we did our best to appear non-plussed, underneath our professional veneer we were scared shitless!! I can recall with clarity the look of sheer terror behind our un-blinking eyes as Svenska told us that we would have to prepare for a land evacuation. Meanwhile the pilots circled the airport dumping fuel - a procedure which could possibly take up to 1 or 2 hours. Loose bowel syndrome had indeed set-in.
After the initial shock of what was occurring had passed our training kicked into over-drive and we set about our duties with grim determination. People have varying ways of coping with stressful situation and our crew was no different. Svenska, who snapped back into command mode, was a study in fortitude as she went through our emergency handbook, making certain we followed procedures to the letter. As for myself, I was a classic study of contrasts. Ever the consummate actor, outwardly I was stoic and went about my duties with a studied aplomb. Internally I was a nervous wreck. By the time we had to go through the cabin and brief the passengers, I was completely drenched in sweat and not the glowing “variety”, but the deep down wring-out-your underwear sweat of utter terror. I knew then what my mother meant when she admonished me to always wear clean underwear – just in case I was in an accident. But soak drenched under-clothes were the LEAST of my worries.
By now it was apparent to everyone on board that something was amiss, and pandemonium broke out when Svenska made her initial emergency announcement advising the passengers of our situation and more specifically that we would be making an emergency landing without the use of the wheels underneath the right wing. The cabin was soon filled with imprecations and wails of “Jesus! Save us!” in several African dialects as well as heavily accented English. While people were obviously fearful, surprisingly no one panicked and every eye was on us FAs as we demonstrated the emergency exits, the position to place your body in to brace for impact and the commands we would use to exit the aircraft.
Our extensive training was apparent as we moved throughout the aircraft calmly reassuring everyone that all would be well, and moving passengers who would be of most assistance to us closer to the doors and window exits. The FAs were in the aisles and all was going according to plan until an elderly white woman, a missionary of some sort, took the opportunity to grab the microphone at the aft FA jump seat to shriek out “Prepare to meet Je...!” She never got to finish her sentence as she was pounced on by the aft galley FA, who snatched the microphone from her and roughly ushered her back to her seat, uttering some very un-lady-like oaths in the process.
As clichéd as it sounds, time truly did crawl to a standstill and every single moment that passed by as we circled the area surrounding the airfield dumping fuel was an eternity of angst and trepidation. All of the tension was exacerbated by our ability to see the fire trucks alongside the runway below us. My mind was reeling with the morbid thought that this could be the moment I “cashed in my ticket”. As I passed through the cabin checking on our passengers’ preparations my mind became crystal clear and I channelled all of my fear into a single mantra that I repeated over and over to myself: “I WILL get OUT of this plane!!”
Cathy and I were the two most junior of the crew and we were responsible for the over-window exits in the middle of the plane. Even though I had complete trust in the capabilities of our cockpit crew and was secure in the knowledge that Boeing 707 was an incredible aircraft, I couldn’t help but hypothesise that my chances of surviving an air crash while seated in the middle of the plane - as opposed to the tail or over the nose - were not promising. But even with that morbid thought creeping into my subconscious I repeated my mantra and was damned and determined to make it out alive.
With 500 feet to go before impact Cathy and I assumed our brace positions at the over-wing exits all the while shouting for the passengers to “Grab your Ankles, Grab your Ankles, Grab your Ankles!” We could hear the ground rapidly approaching and just moments before we made impact Cathy, who was wearing thick “Coca-Cola”-lensed glasses, glanced sideways at me and squealed: “Tal, my glasses! What if they fall off?” I peeked across at her and shouted “Bitch, have you heard of Braille? Feel your way out of this Mother f…ker!” Finally, with a horrifically loud thump, we bounced off the tarmac and briefly back up a few feet before careening to a halt, the plane listing slightly off-kilter on the right side where the gear had not deployed. The instant the captain’s announcement to evacuate came across the loud-speaker both Cathy and I had wrenched our window exits open. I did not have time to complete the command to come this way before a surge of frenzied Africans were streaming out and over me in a mad dash to the edge of the wing and away from the plane. I have never in my life witnessed so many large women move with such speed and agility. Miraculously, we evacuated the entire aircraft -185 people in total - in less than two minutes. Several of the frantic passengers were seen to sprint not only away from the aircraft but through the terminal itself, hell bent on putting as much space between themselves and the plane as was humanly possible! After making certain that no one was left on-board, our crew joined the passengers in beating a hasty retreat from our near disaster.
I have never felt such a surge of relief and appreciation for still being among the living. As soon as we were out of sight of the public, there were plenty of tears, both of exhaustion and jubilation, as we all marvelled at the drama that we had just lived through.
Later, after the completion of reports to both the FAA and the company, we literally celebrated as if there would be no tomorrow. After a boisterous night of shared emotional bonding, the sunrise the next morning was without doubt the most beautiful sight of my life.