How my ass ended up in a sling

While fantasizing about a Salma Hayek wannabe, I accidentally broke the plane.

By Elliott Neal Hester
Published August 25, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

President Clinton dropped his pants in the Oval Office. Bill Buckner let a routine ground ball roll beneath his careless glove -- an error that ultimately cost the Boston Red Sox the 1986 World Series. A few years ago at a Florida hospital, a medical professional (his name was probably Bill) pulled the plug on the wrong life-support system. At some point in life, each and every one of us have screwed up big time. Anyone who claims otherwise is lying, living in denial or suffering through the first cruel phase of Alzheimer's. The rest of us fess up to imperfection and pray that when the big inevitable blunder descends upon us, our ass doesn't end up in a big proverbial sling.

At 7 a.m. one bright and cheerless morning, my ass was in such a sling. But when airline management came to castigate me, when the cold iron hand of guilt snatched me by the neck, I protested innocence with the skill of an indicted politician: "I am not aware of, nor have I ever been aware of, any wrongdoing on my part."

It happened before takeoff, on a Boeing 757 destined for Mexico City. The plane was packed with the usual cast of characters: bilingual businessmen wearing dark suits and darker dispositions; unwitting vacationers headed for a week of Montezuma's revenge; a group of snobs who were beside themselves, literally, after being denied a first-class upgrade; and a Salma Hayek wannabe with sculpted nostrils, collagen-injected lips and surgically enhanced breasts that protruded from her torso like Tomahawk cruise missiles set to launch.

Shortly after the agent closed the aircraft door and passengers began to nod off in their seats, our flight attendant purser made the "prepare for departure" announcement over the intercom. This announcement does to flight attendants what Pavlov's bell did to dogs. But instead of salivating with the expectation of food, we stop whatever we're doing and move, as if under hypnosis, toward the emergency doors. There, beneath the conspicuous gaze of passengers, the designated attendant engages a door-arming mechanism.

When an armed door is opened (ideally, this should happen only in the event of an emergency evacuation), a canister of compressed air is punctured and the emergency slide/chute unfurls. The slide stiffens within seconds like a huge, incredibly excited penis, then angles toward the ground, providing a lifesaving escape route for passengers and crew.

Door arming is of tantamount importance among crew members. Failure to do so could jeopardize the safety of everyone on board. We might forget to deliver that drink you asked for a half-hour earlier. We might give you chicken instead of the beef you desire. Hell, we might even forget the names of crew members we've been working with for the previous month. But the arming of emergency doors is one of two things flight attendants never forget. The other is disarming the doors upon arrival.

Imagine what would happen if a crew member failed in this regard. After positioning the jet bridge and opening the door to welcome passengers, the unsuspecting agent would be greeted by the inflating emergency slide/chute and sent ricocheting down the jet bridge like a pinball. A multimillion-dollar aircraft would be temporarily put out of service while mechanics worked feverishly to repack the slide. Hundreds of passengers would be inconvenienced. Anarchy would ensue.

The flight attendant responsible for this fiasco -- a blabbering simpleton reduced to tears by the magnitude of such an unforgivable blunder -- would be snatched from the trip, dragged before a tribunal of snarling, mustache-twisting supervisors and berated, mocked and sent home to bathe in the sweat of irresponsibility, and maybe, just maybe, if a history of screw-ups cluttered his personnel file, the guilty flight attendant would have his wings clipped.

None of this entered my mind until seconds before departure to Mexico City.

My door-arming responsibilities were 4-Left and 4-Right. These two doors, located off the aircraft's aft galley, are hidden from passengers by bulkheads behind the last row of seats on both sides of the aircraft.

Having heard the "prepare for departure" announcement, my Pavlovian conditioning kicked in. I ripped my eyes from Salma Hayek's chest and found myself standing in the aft galley, in front of the 4-Right emergency door. I lifted the clear plastic cover and pushed the metal lever to the "armed" position -- all the while wondering how such a tiny body managed to support such enormous breasts. The woman was less than 5 feet tall.

A cavalcade of questions began marching through my brain. Do newly implanted C-cups affect a petite woman's balance? Might the added weight cause lower back trouble later in life? Do plastic surgeons prescribe special exercises to the artificially endowed?

Preoccupied by these mammary thoughts, I moved across the galley to the 4-Left door. But when I tried to push the lever to the armed position, it only moved a couple of inches, about a fourth of the required distance. At first I thought I had done something wrong. I tried again. Still, the lever barely budged. Perhaps something was stuck in the door -- a stray strap, a forgotten blanket, an uncooked steak dropped by a careless caterer. I stepped back, surveyed the door seal and found myself locked in an inner debate about real breasts vs. fake breasts, silicone vs. saline, size vs. quality.

I called the captain on the interphone.

"Hey, captain," I said, realizing I had failed to introduce myself to either of the two pilots. (Occasionally, I'll fly across the Atlantic without seeing a pilot's face until the aircraft lands and we find ourselves seated together in the van on the way to the layover hotel.)

After a quick introduction, I told the captain about the problem with 4-Left.

"I can't arm the door."

"Ahhhhhh," he said, in the all-too-familiar jargon known as pilot talk. "Ahhhhhh." He was apparently checking the instrument panel. "Ahhhhhh ... yeah. Four-Left is definitely disarmed."

"Want me to open the door and see if something's stuck inside?" I asked.

"Ahhhhhh ... yeah, why don't you do that."

Strictly speaking, flight attendants aren't supposed to open doors except in an emergency. I knew this. The captain knew this as well. But the clock was ticking; it was a few seconds after departure time. It would be easier for me to open the door and remove the obstruction than to have the captain leave the flight deck and trek to the rear of the plane. Besides, I've opened doors many times before. Not just during annual emergency training drills, but while the plane was parked at the gate without air conditioning, or when galley straps were caught inside, or when catering needed to reenter for one reason or another. We never open doors without first informing the captain, and most of the time it's not a problem. But this time it was.

After first making sure the arming lever was pushed to the "disarmed" mode, I grabbed the long silver door handle and rotated it clockwise.

In the split second in which the galley filled with sunlight, I entered a Salvador Dali-like world of incongruity. There was an improbable ripping noise, and the gnashing of iron teeth upon metal. My heart beat a wicked conga rhythm against my chest -- something by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. Then I heard a hard, flat thud from far away.

Suddenly, there were voices from below. I looked down and saw half a dozen ramp workers standing in a circle. In the middle of the circle was a large, square, heavy-looking object that looked somewhat out of place, lying still and bleak, smack-dab in the middle of the airport tarmac. In my gut I knew what had happened, even before it registered in my brain. It was the slide pack. The big canvas sack containing the emergency slide/chute: Somehow, it had ripped from the door and fallen 20 feet to the tarmac.

My ass was most definitely in a sling.

As I peered down from the open doorway, the stiff morning breeze was like a slap on my cheek. I felt my mouth opening, my eyes bulging in their sockets, a freight train of stupidity bearing down on me. Had someone been standing beneath the door when the slide pack was ejected, had some unsuspecting baggage handler been driving past in a tug, he might have been severely injured or maybe even killed. This fact was not lost on the crowd of eight or nine ramp workers who stared up angrily at me.

"What the fuck!" someone shouted.

Perhaps, while distracted by thoughts of saline and silicone, I forgot to make sure the lever was in the "disarmed" position. Maybe I'd left the handle partially engaged. Maybe a couple of inches were not enough to engage the slide, but enough to yank the slide pack from its hinges. Or maybe the door had simply malfunctioned.

Within minutes the galley filled with airline personnel: the captain, flight attendants, a couple of gate agents, numerous supervisors, a customer service agent -- even a wheelchair operator who was wedged in one corner, watching the circus with a smirk on her face.

"You the one who blew the slide?"

I turned to answer, focusing on a gray-haired supervisor, wondering what President Clinton would say in this predicament.

"No, I did not blow a slide," I said, pointing to the slide pack on the ground. "Do you see an inflated side? No, you see a slide pack. The door was stuck. I tried to open it so I could remove the obstruction. The captain gave me the OK. Somehow the door malfunctioned and the slide pack was ripped off its hinges. There is no blown slide. What you see is a slide pack that has fallen from the door."

He rolled his eyes and grunted.

Unbeknown to me, arrangements were being made for my removal from the flight. A standby flight attendant was preparing to take my place. This was standard company procedure.

In the six-month period preceding this incident, flight attendants at one major airline were responsible for 20 "inadvertent slide deployments." These are embarrassing, dangerous and extremely expensive screw-ups. It can cost more than $28,000 to install a new slide on a 757 aircraft. A 767 slide goes for as much as $60,000.

But in breaking the plane, I had entered new territory. This particular slide/chute was detached, not inflated. And technically speaking, I did not open the door in the armed mode. After a 30-minute delay, during which mechanics reattached the fallen slide pack, the plane took off for Mexico City.

On board was the usual cast of characters: bilingual businessmen, unwitting vacationers and a Salma Hayek wannabe with Tomahawk cruise missiles that almost blew up in my face.

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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