Look before you leap and other useful lessons

Harriet Baskas waits her turn to try out the emergency inflatable ramp.
Harriet Baskas waits her turn to try out the emergency inflatable ramp. Alaska Airlines

Although the flight across country was uneventful, it suddenly became clear I would not be able to land the plane safely at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The problem wasn’t bad weather, a computer or instrument malfunction, wildlife on the runway — nothing of the sort, in fact.

I simply discovered I’m way too short to reach the brake pedal on a Boeing 737 jet airliner. Good thing my longer-legged co-pilot was ready to take over.

And it was lucky, too, that we were in a flight simulator as part of an on-the-ground course at the Alaska Airlines Flight Operations Training Center.

While you can rest assured no one will ever let me fly a $30 million aircraft, some of the skills we practiced during the flight attendant safety training portion of the course may certainly come in handy. So, for those of you who missed class, here are some of the highlights of what we learned.

Focus, don’t flail
Have you ever used a fire extinguisher? I had never even picked one up before this class. As a half dozen of us failed miserably when asked to combat flames during a live fire training scenario, it became clear that few of my classmates had either.

But after demonstrating how they could put out a fire in less than 4 seconds, and telling us that it’s still not unusual to find passengers smoking in airplane lavatories, our flight attendant instructors taught us some valuable fire extinguisher handling tips, including:

  • Aim at the base of the fire, not the flames;
  • Squeeze the lever slowly and continuously without stopping;
  • Concentrate on one end of the fire and sweep slowly to the other end.

Roll, don’t lift
In a recent column about airplane exit row etiquette, I asked well-mannered travelers what they’d be willing to do to score a coveted exit-row seat. Would they sing a song or pay a fee? More than 4,000 people said exit-row seats should be handed out on a first come, first serve basis. (You can add your vote, and your comments on that topic here.)

But if trainer Claudia Modl had her way, those seats would only be assigned to travelers who have taken a safety training class.

“The likelihood of passengers ever having to use those skills would be minimal, but those exit doors aren’t the easiest thing to open and unless you know what you’re doing, it can be easy to get injured,.” Modl said. “It would be great if people had the opportunity to know what they getting themselves into.”

Instead of having each student in our class sing a song, our instructors had us practice opening the heavy over-wing exit as well as the aircraft's even heavier main door. In addition to paying attention to which way the latch opens (some handles move up; others rotate) we learned that when faced with a 40-pound exit-wing door, even 90-pound weaklings can be heroes if they know how to quickly and efficiently roll the door out of the way instead of trying to lift it and heave it aside.

Know when to get out of the way
From the in-flight safety videos (you always watch those, right?) we’re all familiar with those airplane emergency evacuation slides. But is leaving an airplane via an 8-foot inflatable slide as easy (and fun) as it looks on the screen?

It’s definitely not. In class, a few students wouldn’t even go down the slide, choosing instead to make their exit via the stairs — an option that wouldn't be available in a real emergency. Several other people hesitated before jumping, wasting what could be precious seconds.

Me? I didn’t hesitate at the top of the slide — but instead hung around way too long at the bottom, giggling and marveling over the experience. Bad idea. In an emergency, my actions could create a dangerous pileup when as others come hurtling down behind.

“There’s a technique to minimizing injury,” Modl told us. “You need to kick out your legs and hit the slide with your bottom first.” And, just like it says in the safety videos, you really do need to move away from the slide as soon as you reach the bottom. “That way,” Modl said, “we can get the maximum number of people out of the plane in the minimum amount of time.”

Will there be a pop quiz?
Will I ever have a chance to use the skills I learned during my five-hour safety training and flight simulator class? I certainly hope not.

But as classmate Brian Herman said: “I feel confident that I could help other passengers through an [onboard] ordeal because I know what the flight attendants expect and need us to do.”

After putting out a fire, opening an exit-row door and sliding down an inflatable emergency slide, I’m not only appreciative of the intensive safety, self-defense and first-responder training all airline flight crew members go through, I’m in total agreement with my classmate’s assessment, who summed up his experience this way: “If you ever thought of the flight crew as in-flight waiters and waitresses, then stop it. These guys and gals are hard core!”

Harriet Baskas writes msnbc.com's popular weekly column, The Well-Mannered Traveler. She is the author of the , a contributor to National Public Radio and a columnist for USATODAY.com.