We can't forget

After a few weeks, consumers will move beyond the American Airlines crash. But flight attendants won't.

Published June 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As the National Transportation Safety Board intensifies its investigation of the crash of American Airlines flight 1420, as families and friends mourn the loss of eight passengers and one airline captain, as more than 80 passengers and crew members continue to heal from crash-related injuries, the questions confound and torment us: Why did a 20-year veteran captain attempt to land the aircraft in weather that, in retrospect, was perilous at best? Why did air traffic control allow him to attempt such a landing? And if the control tower wasn't aware of the weather's deadly intensity, why didn't Doppler radar alert them to the danger? Why? Why? Why?

As with all airline disasters, the answers will come to light during the next few months. If authorities determine that the crash was an act of God, the now-horizontal finger-pointing will be redirected toward the heavens. If Doppler radar is to blame, however, the FAA will have hell to pay. If mechanical difficulties are found to be responsible, complete overhauls of all MD 80 aircraft will be imposed. If an air traffic controller turns out to be the culprit, that person will be fired and someone presumably more competent will be hired in his place. And if the deceased captain is found to have been negligent, the FAA will institute new pilot training measures that minimize the chances of this happening again.

The bottom line, however, is that no matter what caused the crash of American flight 1420, no matter who ultimately is assigned the blame, it will forever remain a searing tragedy. And like TWA flight 800, USAir flight 427, Value Jet's plunge into the Florida Everglades and all the other commercial airline disasters that have taken lives in recent years, this latest one will follow a familiar process: The crash will haunt departure lounges for a few weeks, will increase the number of nervous flyers for a while and then, when the dust settles and the media begins to focus on some other newsworthy tragedy, flight 1420 will be forgotten by just about everyone except grieving friends and family. It will be forgotten, that is, until the next airline disaster.

But pilots and flight attendants never forget. We're not allowed to. Every year we're reminded during recurrent FAA-mandated emergency training. Led by a group of safety instructors, we congregate at our respective companies' headquarters to painstakingly reevaluate emergency evacuation procedures. We study detailed accounts of the previous year's airline accidents. We watch video interviews of crew members who tell how they evacuated passengers after an emergency landing, how they climbed out of the wreckage after a crash, how they regained consciousness in a field in the middle of nowhere. All this is designed to educate crew members on the best way to assist passengers (and each other) in the event of an airplane disaster.

During one of these annual training sessions, a flight attendant who worked for now-defunct Eastern Airlines gave a video testimonial about how she survived a late-night plane crash in the Florida Everglades. 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 that was digging into her ribs. After fumbling with the latch in complete darkness, she extricated herself from the harness -- and promptly fell 20 feet to the soggy ground. That's when she realized she wasn't in the aircraft. Her jump seat had been hanging in a tree.

Like many of my colleagues watching this video, I was shaken. I scanned the crowded room, which had suddenly filled with teary eyes and trembling hands. It was then that I understood what the FAA and my airline wanted to instill in us. They wanted us to understand that airline accidents happen. Before American flight 1420, there hadn't been a commercial airplane crash in a year and a half. We pray that safety measures and improved technology will diminish the frequency in coming years, but airline disasters will almost certainly continue to happen. And when they happen, we have to be ready.

Two days after watching the Eastern Airlines flight attendant video, I was strapped in my jump seat on a flight to the Caribbean. As the plane roared down the runway, I was ready. I looked at the cabin of the crowded 727 and found myself locked in a morbid game of "what if"?

What if the plane skids off the runway? How quickly will I be able to open my primary and secondary emergency exits?

What if smoke fills the cabin and it's impossible to see? How many steps to the exit door?

What if the passengers panic instead of listening to my evacuation commands? Will I be able to maintain order?

What if a passenger is too scared to jump down the slide? How much force should I use to push them?

What if some passengers are still inside the burning aircraft? Will courage or stupidity allow me to reenter the wreckage in an attempt to save them?

Before and throughout just about every flight, the what-if scenarios sift through my brain. The thoughts keep me calm. Keep me sharp. Keep me ready.

Though I've worked more than 6,000 flights in my 13 years as a flight attendant, I've never had the misfortune of having to evacuate an aircraft. But I have friends who have. I've never suffered the trauma of an actual crash. But I've known co-workers who have died in the line of duty. If and when disaster strikes and if I'm lucky enough to survive intact, I think my annual emergency training will give me the best available chance to help others survive.

Next year, the flight attendants at my airline will be studying the detailed accounts of American Airlines flight 1420. As part of the training session, we will probably watch video testimonials from the five surviving crew members. We'll learn how they got out of the burning aircraft, how they helped passengers evacuate, how they regained consciousness at the edge of the Arkansas River. And after the videos are finished, after the numbness begins to ebb from my own body, I'll scan the crowded room and see the teary eyes and trembling hands again.

And once again our hearts will go out to everyone who has ever been involved in an airplane crash, as they go out now to the victims, their families and the survivors of American Airlines flight 1420.

By Elliott Neal Hester

Elliott Neal Hester has been a flight attendant for 15 years. He has also written for National Geographic Traveler, Men's Fitness, Glamour, Maxim and Caribbean Travel & Life. Out of the Blue appears every other Friday. E-mail your tale of life in the sky to Hester. For more columns by Hester, visit his column archive.

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