Contingency 1: Sharks, sharks, sharks!
It was 1999, one week into my training course, and I was squished inside a life raft with 16 other trainees, top-to-tail, like sardines, listening to Darren, one of our SEP instructors. “There has been only one successful ditching in the Atlantic, just off the Dominican Republic coast, where it’s thought some passengers and crew survived impact,” he was telling us. “But it’s believed they were then killed by sharks.”
His voice echoed around the hangar: killed, killed, killed, sharks, sharks, sharks.
“Rescuers found rafts,” he continued. “Inflated. Empty. No survivors. Now, can you imagine how difficult it would be, after landing in shark-infested waters, with 20ft waves, to get, say, a hundred passengers safely onto one of these rafts?”
Pretty difficult, it turned out. Darren was teaching us to use the slide raft. We had to practice erecting the shelter awning and learn how to repair a tear in the raft using the array of clamps, plugs, and pumps found in its supplementary survival kit. And the oars, we discovered, were not just for paddling: according to Darren, they could also be used to fend off sharks. “A good whack on the nose should do the trick,” he said.
Like all major airlines, Virgin Atlantic has a strict requirement that cabin crew are able to swim well. And, naturally, you have to prove this. For us, this meant jumping fully clothed -- sweaters, jeans, tights, thermals, and life jackets (not inflated) -- into the deep end of a swimming pool at 5:30am. An upside-down raft was positioned at the far end, and the mission of our 17-strong crew was to manually inflate our life jackets while treading water, swim to the raft, turn it over, and get everyone inside. The lights were dimmed and, once again, sound effects boomed: people screaming and shouting, the monstrous yawn and creak of breaking fuselage, the deep roar of the ocean. Two SEP instructors barked commands over megaphones.
The toughest part of this exercise, for some, is inflating the life jacket. Just staying afloat is exhausting, especially with the soaked clothes weighing you down. Then you have to muster enough breath to blow into the tube. I noticed one girl, Susan -- tall, beautiful, and rake-thin -- was struggling, her head intermittently bobbing under the water as she grappled with the tube. Once I’d blown up my own inflatable I swam to her aid (you must always inflate your own jacket before helping others). Acting as a buoy I instructed Susan to grab my arm.
“I can’t do it, I can’t do it,” she spluttered.
“Yes you can,” I said. “Just inhale, and on every out-breath, blow into the tube.”
And so, as other crew members splashed past us towards the raft, Susan finally inflated her jacket.
Flipping the 10ft-high raft and getting everyone inside it was the next hurdle. Even the three sturdy guys who’d been appointed group leaders had difficulty mounting the raft to reach the straps to heave it over. When they did eventually succeed we had just two minutes to clamber aboard, which was an arduous affair requiring vast upper-body strength. The first person into the raft, one of our leaders, Tim, had the hardest job, as he had no one to help him. He then had to haul the rest of us over the lip. Tim did great; one by one we tumbled into the raft, falling on top of one another, drenched, weary, but alive. And as the final crew member flew stomach-down into the raft, the sound effects ended.
The exercise didn’t stop there. We then had to stay inside the raft for a further 20 minutes while our instructors quizzed us on other procedures: did we have the correct survival kit and enough rations? And how would we go about bailing water from the raft? Then more role-play, starring yours truly as a terrified passenger in the throes of a panic attack. I think I was convincing, pretending to hyperventilate while thrashing around and slapping “crew” assigned with the job of assuaging my fear. Which they did by placing a hand on my chest and telling me to take deep breaths.
Our final task was to demonstrate how we would boost morale on the raft. “Play games, sing songs,” we decided. So that’s exactly what we did. But as we belted out the chorus of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” I looked down at my life jacket and thought, God, I hope I never have to use one of these.