MC Wolfman & Jennifer Bui/Thrillist
MC Wolfman & Jennifer Bui/Thrillist

"Oh My God, the Pilot's Dead!": Disaster Prep With a Former Flight Attendant

The noise was deafening: the sound of terror in the face of death. People were screaming and sobbing, wheezing and choking. There were babies wailing, overhead bins smashing open, and items crashing around the cabin. I shouted, “Heads down, feet back, heads down, feet back!” to petrified passengers searching my face for reassurance. The air outside whined murderously past. These are the sounds of a Boeing 747 hurtling into the Atlantic Ocean.

I spent 10 years working as an international flight attendant for Virgin Atlantic -- a job that requires you to wear a permanent smile and serve copious amounts of tea, coffee, and booze, but more important, to be able to handle everything from engine fires to potential terrorists with unshakable professionalism. The “crash” above was a Safety and Emergency Procedures (SEP) training exercise on a makeshift plane at London’s Gatwick Airport, complete with cabin crew trainees playing panic-stricken passengers, and amps blasting sound effects. It was part of a rigorous six-week training course that prepared us to deal with the most insane and terrifying disaster contingencies imaginable. Some of which, during my decade in the business, actually happened.

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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.

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Contingency 2: The passengers have gone berserk!

No two days are the same at Richard Branson’s School for International Air Hostesses. One day you’re attending a grooming class, learning which brands and shades of lipstick are “acceptable,” the next you’re being taught combat skills by ex-SAS officers designed to help you keep disruptive and violent -- and usually drunk -- passengers in their seats.

The latter came in handy later, during a flight to Vegas. There were about six people in Upper Class who were in a wedding party, including the bride-to-be, a scrawny, perma-tanned individual. “We’re getting married,” she told me when I delivered a second round of Champagne to the party. “At the Little White Chapel where Britney Spears got married.”

“Sounds like a dream wedding to me,” I said, making a mental note to keep an eye on how much she and the rest of the wedding party were drinking. They all seemed quite tipsy already. An hour -- and only one more round of Champagne -- later, they were all steaming drunk, delivering loud, slurred renditions of “Get Me to the Church on Time” interspersed with chants of “‘Ere we go, ‘ere we go, ‘ere we go!” Unbeknownst to us, they’d been drinking their duty-free booze on the sly.

In an attempt to sober up the mob, we got the meal service under way early. It didn’t work. Somewhere between dessert and the cheeseboard, all hell broke loose. I was serving passengers towards the front of the cabin when I heard someone shouting, “You’ve been with my bird, haven’t you?!” The voice belonged to the groom, who was now clambering over his seat, raining blows upon his best man’s head, while the bride-to-be sobbed. Fellow passengers watched in horror as the groom dragged his now-bloodied friend to the floor in a tangle of limbs.

It took four of us to restrain them: two of us applying short, sharp shocks to pressure points in their necks -- as we’d been taught in training -- while two stewards cuffed their hands behind their backs. At the same time the bride projectile-vomited a fountain of Champagne and poached salmon onto the floor and the seat in front of her. We sat the two men away from each other, cuffing their hands to their seats -- we keep handcuffs on board -- while they insulted us.

When we landed, police boarded the plane and escorted the trio into the terminal, where they were grilled by immigration officials and denied entry into the state of Nevada.

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Contingency 3: The plane is on fire!

The smoke at first was wispy. Through the visor of my protective smoke hood my eyes followed its trail to an interior panel two rows in front of me on the left-hand side of the cabin. What happened next happened within seconds: flashes of orange light -- fire -- through the porthole window in the panel, followed by the sound of an engine exploding. More smoke, dense now, flooded the cabin. Sweat trickled down my cheeks as the temperature soared.

I was back in the mock cabin, accompanied by just two fellow trainees, Jay and Angela. The drill this time was to perform an emergency evacuation (on land) following an engine fire; one unconscious passenger -- a life-size dummy -- would need to be helped to safety.

My role was to lead the way through the cabin. Angela followed, her hand on my shoulder, and Jay was at the back, his hand on her shoulder, carrying the dummy. I had to feel my way through the cabin, sweeping the aisle floor ahead with my foot to check for obstacles, debris, holes in the floor. It’s a demanding exercise: even though the smoke isn’t toxic it still stings your eyes and it’s easy to become disoriented. Nevertheless, we pulled it off.

A few years later, on a flight from London to Miami, I found myself calming a cabin full of terrified passengers after the captain made this announcement over the PA: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid we’ve had a bit of an engine fire. The situation is in hand, but as a precautionary measure, we’ll be diverting back to Gatwick.”

The crew had already been briefed about the fire. Because the cause had been electrical, the captain had extinguished the blaze by turning off the electricity to that engine. The aircraft could still fly with the three remaining good engines, but, as per Virgin Atlantic procedures, a diversion was necessary.

Still, pandemonium struck. People started screaming and shouting one question after another: are we going to crash? Which engine is it?

“The fire is contained,” I told them. “Everything is perfectly safe. Just try to stay calm.”

Just then, a huge plume of smoke billowed from the stricken engine on the right side, prompting further hysteria.

Fortunately we landed safely at Gatwick, greeted by fire engines on the tarmac. We had been extremely lucky. If the fire had not been contained, it would have spread to the wing and fuselage (where the fuel is stored), which probably would have led to the plane ditching in the Atlantic. Of course, we didn’t tell the passengers this.

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Contingency 4: The pilot is down!

This actually happened on one of my flights, on a 747-400, just two hours before we were due to land at Boston. The pilot, in his mid-50s, collapsed just outside the flight deck door -- in front of the passengers on the upper deck. I was serving afternoon tea when he went down, clutching his chest, and smashed face-first onto the floor.

Chaos erupted, sparked by a “nervous flyer” who’d had one too many glasses of merlot screaming, “Oh my God, the pilot’s dead!” Gasps and shrieks filled the cabin. People were clambering over seats and clogging the aisles. There were only two of us working on the upper deck -- Felicity and I -- and we swung into action, flashing our scarlet smiles and assuring passengers, “Everything’s fine.”

Felicity was closest to the flight deck, so she rushed to the captain’s aid while I used the intercom to make a coded emergency address, which signaled to crew on the lower deck that we needed immediate assistance, including our defibrillator unit.

Seconds later our flight service manager, Jane, called on my intercom. “Defib is on its way,” she said. “Is there anything else you need?”

“The pilot has collapsed,” I said calmly. “Do we have anybody on board who can fly a plane?”

Not that we were about to start running Airplane!-style up and down the aisles begging passengers to jump into the pilot’s chair, but we did have a list of off-duty staff on board whom we could surreptitiously approach in the hope that one of them might be a pilot. If not, crew would have to rely on their pilot-incapacitation training and step in to help with the landing checklists. Technically, the first officer could land the plane aided by autopilot. But if he ran into difficulty on approach, he would need another pair of hands at the controls to switch to manual.

Meanwhile, Felicity and two stewards had managed to move the captain to the crew rest area within the flight deck. Felicity re-emerged just as I arrived at the recess.

“How is he?” I asked. The plane had begun its descent, bouncing through rain clouds. Very soon the seatbelt sign would illuminate. Downstairs our colleagues were discreetly being asked, “Do you know how to fly a plane?”

“Not good,” said Felicity, closing the curtain behind us. “I think he’s had a bloody heart attack. The first officer is going to land on autopilot. He hasn’t got a choice. One of us will have to go through the checklist with him.”

I gave Felicity a hug. Just then, the curtain swished behind us and our problem was solved. It was a junior crew member from Economy. “Hi, I’m Ben,” he said. “I’ve come to help land this plane.” It turned out he held a private pilot license. And although he didn’t have nearly enough flying hours under his belt to officially land a big jet, he knew enough to help the first officer more than we could.

Ben managed just fine and, as we taxied to the stand, our weary travelers cheered and clapped. Paramedics boarded the plane and stabilized the captain before carrying him off on a stretcher. We later found out he’d suffered a mild heart attack.

Incidents of pilots having heart attacks are rare. In fact, the most common cause of pilot incapacitation is food poisoning. But rest assured, there’s a strict-yet-simple rule in place to prevent gastro-related illnesses in the skies: two pilots flying together are not allowed to eat the same food.

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Contingency 5: Terrorists!

Before 9/11, none of the scenarios put to us in training involved terrorists using planes as missiles. “Hijackers normally have only one goal in mind: to seek asylum,” we were told. “Listen to them, don’t antagonize them and, in most cases, nobody gets hurt.”

This was no more. After 9/11, the message was clear: any passenger acting suspiciously should be treated as a potential terrorist. For reasons of security, I can’t divulge all the behavior we look for, but the extra training certainly paid off.

In March of 2002 -- just three months after Richard Reid tried to blow up an American plane bound for Miami with a shoe bomb -- an incident happened at Heathrow on board a San Francisco-bound flight I was working.

Myself and two other crew members had been watching two men towards the rear of the cabin who had been setting off all sorts of warning signals. One was sitting in the middle row of seats, the other in a window seat a few rows behind. They looked jumpy and irritable, and were staring at other passengers. I alerted my flight service manager and checks were swiftly made with ground staff, which discovered the men had booked their tickets on the same credit card but had chosen to sit separately. The jetway was reattached and passengers were asked to leave the aircraft due to a “technical fault.” Some of them went berserk, demanding compensation and threatening to complain to Richard Branson.

Meanwhile, the two men were discreetly taken aside by airport security officers. The sniffer dogs entered the cabin and headed directly for the suspects’ seats. It later transpired that the two men were on the FBI’s Most Wanted list, and were suspected sleeper terrorists who apparently traveled on every airline to suss out security measures. (We never found out if the dogs had detected actual bomb residue on the seats.)

The plane was grounded. We were dying to tell those disgruntled passengers the real reason their travel plans had been disrupted. But we just smiled and apologized for the inconvenience.

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Contingency 6: The passengers are starving to death!

The first question we were asked on survival training day was: “Have you seen that film, Alive?”

Darren didn’t wait for a response, opting instead to launch right into the harrowing true story of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, which crashed into the Andes in 1972. I’d seen the film -- an ex-boyfriend had kindly recommended it when I told him of my dreams of becoming a “trolley dolly” -- so I was aware of the desperate measures survivors of that flight were forced to take in order to stay alive.

“Given up for lost and faced with starvation,” Darren concluded, “the survivors ate the flesh of their dead companions. Imagine having to do that?“

The classroom fell silent for a moment as everyone turned to look at Susan, the trainee who had struggled to inflate her life vest during the raft exercise.

“What?” she said, crossing her pipe-cleaner legs.

Our survival training consisted of watching dozens of documentaries, from which we learned a myriad of techniques: how to survive on a desert island; how to survive in a jungle or a desert or the Arctic. Did you know that a water-filled condom can be used as a magnifying lens to start a fire? Well, you do now.

Surviving the six-week training course was an endurance test in itself. It’s extremely hard work, and quite often people drop out within the first couple of weeks. Trainees take exams on every subject I’ve mentioned here (and more) -- and have to score at least 90% to pass. And then, for those of us who make it to the final week, we get to learn how to push a trolley and serve tea and coffee. You see, those are the very last things we’re taught at cabin crew school. Just saying.

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Mandy Smith is the author of the People’s Book Award-nominated international bestseller Cabin Fever: The Sizzling Secrets of a Virgin Airlines Flight Attendant. Follow her: @CabinFever_Book.