July 8, 2013 at 7:46 PM ET
They punctured an emergency chute that inflated inside the damaged plane and trapped people beneath. They doused fires while guiding — and sometimes carrying — passengers through smoke to exits and away from the wreckage. With their brisk, measured actions, flight attendants aboard the Asiana Airlines jet that crash landed over the weekend became the talk of American flight crews Monday.
That the South Korean crew coolly carried out those valiant tasks while wearing pencil skirts, high-heeled pumps, buttoned blazers and scarves equally impressed high-ranking members of two U.S. flight crew unions.
“They literally look like Brownie or Girl Scout uniforms. And you see this flight attendant, she’s maybe 120 pounds, piggybacking people off the plane. I’m blown away,” said Leslie Mayo, an American Airlines flight attendant and spokeswoman for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, the union for AA flight attendants. She works aboard 777s.
“I can’t say enough about all of them because they — we — always work as a team. Whenever crew members talk about (incidents like this) on the training videos that we watch, they always say: ‘I have no idea where this came from, how I did that,’ ” Mayo added.
In fact, a woman who identified herself as the flight 214 cabin manager, Lee Yoon-hye, told journalists: “I wasn't really thinking, but my body started carrying out the steps needed for an evacuation. I was only thinking about rescuing the next passenger."
Her heroics included trying to extinguish a flaming chunk of the plane: "I was only thinking that I should put it out quickly. I didn't have time to feel that this fire was going to hurt me," the Associated Press reported. She also revealed that she helped clear the jet after suffering a broken tailbone during the impact — and was the last person to leave the smoldering cabin.
'You become a robot'
Flight attendants are often viewed as cart-pushing drink servers who are tasked with keeping fliers pacified while hopping from one destination to the next. While service is part of the job, more critical functions of the flight crew involve passenger safety and first response.
Their unemotional, rote reactions are cultivated through hours of emergency training – something international flight attendants undergo just as American flight crews must annually repeat mock crash drills, said Candace Kolander, who spent 23 years as a flight attendant who now heads air safety, health and security for the Association of Flight Attendants, a union representing 60,000 crew members employed by 20 airlines.
“She reacted automatically. When that happens your brain says: ‘OK, it's time to do what I’m trained to do.’ And your body just does it because through training you build those motor skills, the motions you're supposed to do, the voice commands you’re supposed to do,” Kolander said.
“You become a robot. That’s why I can open that (aircraft) door in my sleep because in training you get that adrenaline going and you do it the same way every year. So when it does happen you know what adrenaline feels like and you know you can do it,” she said.
While Kolander is unfamiliar with the precise training tactics of Asiana Airlines, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), based in Montreal, sets training guidelines and promotes security measures. Those form the basis for safety steps that nations, in turn, require their air carriers to adopt, she said.
“Similar to U.S. flight attendants, international flight attendants have to do these extensive trainings on handling situations like these emergency evacuations,” Kolander said.
Well-dressed first responders
And aboard international carriers like Asiana or Emirates Air — which outfit flight attendants in skirts or decorative veils — emergency practice sessions are typically carried out while attendants wear those fancy getups — even if pants would offer safer gear for clearing burning planes, she added.
“What I’ve seen internationally is they usually will train in the type of garment (they wear) so they know how the garment will react in an emergency situation,” Kolander added.
In the U.S., when planes land or go down unexpectedly yet remain somewhat or fully intact, the flight crews are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to clear the cabins in 90 seconds, no matter the size of the aircraft, Mayo said.
Schooling and practice are critical to maintaining a calm demeanor — which the passengers hopefully absorb and reflect, Mayo said.
American Airlines uses a simulator cabin, posing flight attendants as passengers in the seats to mimic an emergency in which a plane must be emptied within that minute-and-half span. At its Dallas-Fort Worth headquarters, American Airlines also has a large swimming pool where flight attendants practice water evacuations.
“You have to build a raft, inflate a raft, and everybody gets into it,” Mayo said. “It's two days each year that we — everybody — dreads but as soon as everybody is done, we all say we’re glad we did it."