How Air Catastrophes Affect Flight Crews

Flight attendant impersonator

When it comes to this topic, perhaps more than any other, I must stress that I can only speak for myself. But people are asking me how I feel about Malaysian Airlines flight 370, so I will tell you.

Generally I approach accidents like a surgeon to her patients. Cool detachment. “Minor” incidents are a piece of cake – evacuations, sliding off the runway, aborted landings, mechanical diversions, etc. – don’t even register on my emotional radar. They are proof of our procedures working, every day. That’s all. I keep moving.

The major incidents are like old relationships – you feel differently about each one. The events of September 11th were the first Big Deal disaster of my career. It meant permanent, intrusive, day-to-day changes in my job, yet I don’t feel closer to that event than I think “regular” Americans do. Maybe it’s because I experienced it on the ground, but I know many workmates will feel differently. Evidence: so many of my colleagues quit then and there. Even though I remember learning about the hijackings of the 60’s and thinking, “How could those stewardesses work under that threat?!”I never even considered leaving when it happened to us.

The accident that shook me by the professional shoulders was American Airlines flight 587, which crashed into a Queens neighborhood just one month later. That time I was at work, called out of layover sleep by the spreading news and accompanying fears. That time I knew someone. She was an acquaintance, really, but one I very much liked, and this accident marked the first time I was unable to keep my usual remove. After that I avoided the Airbus for years, though I didn’t always have a choice.

Asiana flight 214 didn’t rattle me at all. It was awful and huge and – as always – I felt for those involved, but it didn’t breach the barrier of professional detachment. Like the incidents in the first paragraph, it added to the body of evidence that most accidents are survivable. Air France 447 had an eerily comparable start to Malaysian 370, but the only thing that momentarily jolted my system was the eventual details of their free fall. Then I shook the thought from my head and kept moving.

For some reason, flight 370, the missing Malaysian Airlines jet sticks out. I actually felt queasy when the news broke. It’s the only aviation disaster to give me bad dreams (that I recall). Saturday night’s sleep was fitful. In one dream I was working on a 777 in Business Class when the whole plane went pitch black. No emergency lights, no nothing. Everyone froze, silent. After a moment I groped for the control panel to see if I could get some lights back on, but my colleague put her hands on my torso and held me firm against the galley wall. I felt like she was trying to warn me about something big, but I didn’t know what (A dangerous passenger? An imminent plane movement? Something sharp I might trip over in the dark?). That was the whole, inconclusive dream, but I awoke with a speedy heartbeat whooshing in my ears. That is a complete first for my aviation dreams (and more followed that night). I guess that with nothing to go on there’s no way to rationalize what happened, so it hit a unique anxiety pressure point?

Whatever the reason, I’ve regained my footing over MH370, but I’m going to fret over what happened until we know something. Of course, I’m not alone in that. Here’s fervently hoping for flight 370: may the answers come, may they hold useful lessons, and may they bear news from which loved ones can find relative closure and peace, if such a thing is possible.

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Comments (Showing 4 of 4)

  • dat4life at 3:38pm March 11, 2014

    Thank for your insight. It was a nicely written article. One minor note, the Air France flight you’re referring to is AF 447.

  • happymom2008 at 3:38pm March 11, 2014

    My brother was flying from India (on business) when 9/11 happened. He was diverted into Canada, don’t remember the city. I was in NYC on vacation a week before. Didn’t visit the twin towers, just passed them by. Too surreal.

  • rbphilip at 3:39am March 12, 2014

    Every year in the US for the last several decades 30,000-40,000 people die in car accidents. Nobody worries about dying when they get in their car. Every year 16,000 – ish people are killed by guns. This is more noticed but in general nobody worries about guns. And let’s not even talk about the hundreds of thousands of people who die annually from lifestyle-induced diseases.

    While the loss of MH370 is bad for the people who died and their families, and I have sympathy for those people, it’s pretty much a minor statistical blip on worldwide death charts. As such, even if you work in airplanes, it’s not something about which to worry. At least, not more than you worry about driving to work or eating a doughnut.

  • SSteegar at 10:20am March 12, 2014

    @dat4life – Thanks for catching the typo! I’ll see if I can get it fixed.

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