Flight attendants are a rare breed. While they were sometimes seen as glamorous in the past, they are often misrepresented and not always acknowledged for their work. Here we look at some flight attendants throughout history who went above and beyond their duties in extraordinary circumstances and showed the passion and work ethic that is at the very heart of most true flight attendants.
Heinrich was the first flight attendant known in history. He worked on airships, supervising the waiters and chefs onboard. Heinrich was on the famous ‘Hindenburg’ in 1937 when it exploded. Thankfully, he survived and helped passengers from the burning airship get to the ground.
The world’s first flight attendant and surviving the Hindenburg disaster. Photo: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive.
This Serbian flight attendant fell from a JAT Airways aircraft at 33,300ft when a bomb exploded in the aircraft’s cargo area in 1972. She was pinned within the broken fuselage by a catering trolley and miraculously survived the crash. This also earned her the Guinness World Record title of surviving the highest fall without a parachute.
She was found at the crash site by a former German army medic who fortunately knew how to give her the best treatment on site. She spent time in a coma, was partially paralyzed, and suffered a broken skull and three broken vertebrae but ended up recovering She did not return to flying, although she reportedly wanted to. Instead, she was given a position at the airline’s offices.
Neerja was the senior purser working on Pan Am flight 73 from Mumbai to New York via Karachi, where it was hijacked by four armed terrorists in 1986. She took control inside the aircraft and hid the passengers’ passports to stop the hijackers from identifying Americans, who they were targeting.
After 17 hours, the hijackers opened fire on board, but Neerja managed to open an exit door and start evacuating passengers. Sadly, she was shot in the head at point-blank range by one of the hijackers whilst shielding three children. as the ‘heroine of the hijack’ and posthumously received three awards for her courage and dedication.
Barbara Jane Harrison
She was working on BOAC Flight 712 out of London Heathrow in 1968 when an engine caught fire and then fell from its position. help of another flight attendant, opened an exit and inflated a slide. Unfortunately, the slide was twisted, and the second flight attendant went outside to correct it but could not get back inside the aircraft.
Barbara shouted to the passengers to jump to safety as the aircraft was on fire and pushed some out to save them even though the fire was close to her. She redirected passengers when it became impossible to evacuate from the rear and would not leave the aircraft whilst there will still passengers onboard. She died in the fire trying to rescue a disabled passenger. She was awarded the George Cross for her bravery and determination.
Nigel was working on British Airways flight 5390 from Birmingham to Malaga in 1990 when the left cockpit windshield blew out, the force of which pushed the captain out of the window. The captain’s legs were trapped by the flight controls, which avoided him being sucked completely outside the aircraft. Nigel kept a firm hold of the captain’s legs until the first officer landed the aircraft safely. All of the crew were awarded the Queen’s Commendation for ‘valuable service in the air’.
Carolina Sanitzo Arriola and Nicole Foren
In 2009, Carolina and Nicole were onboard Canjet flight 918 at Montego Bay in Jamaica, when an armed hijacker ran onto the aircraft, which was still boarding passengers. Carolina persuaded the hijacker to free the passengers if they gave him all their cash and left their belongings behind, whilst the crew stayed onboard as hostsages.
She talked to the hijacker about her family and asked questions about his to humanize the situation. Nicole grabbed the hijacker’s gun at a moment when he was distracted, and the aircraft was stormed by the anti-terrorism squad. for their actions on that fateful day.
Greg Khan and Denise Hickson
In 2003, Greg and Denise were working at the front of the aircraft on Qantas flight 1737 from Melbourne, when a passenger tried to enter the cockpit. He stabbed Denise in the head as she tried to stop him from gaining access to the cockpit, and she collapsed. Greg stepped in to restrain the man, who then repeatedly stabbed him in the head but managed to restrain him with help from passengers.
Carole worked as a flight attendant for First Choice Airways and helped a pregnant woman give birth during a flight. The baby was premature, and Carole kept the baby alive by delivering rescue breaths to its lungs through a drinking straw and massaging its chest until landing.
Lee Yoon Hye and her crew
In 2013, Asiana Airlines flight 214 landed too low and caught fire at San Francisco International Airport. The flight attendants risked their lives returning to the aircraft time and time again, rescuing passengers and even cutting some out of their seatbelts. Lee was seen carrying passengers out on her back and was the very last to leave the aircraft.
An Alaskan Airlines flight attendant noticed a young disheveled girl with an older man who would answer for the girl. Sheila knew that something wasn’t right and encouraged the girl to go to the lavatory where she had left her a note. ‘I need help’. Sheila contacted the flight crew, and they alerted the authorities on the ground.
Betty Ann Ong
Betty was on the first aircraft that was hijacked on 9/11, American Airlines Flight 11. She called the company and tried to explain what was going on onboard the aircraft. She remained on the phone for 23 minutes communicating all the information given to her by her fellow flight attendants onboard the flight until the aircraft crashed into the North Twin Tower.
This flight attendant was involved in one of the most famous aircraft accidents of all time – the ‘miracle on the Hudson.’ On ditching, the three flight attendants began evacuating the aircraft immediately. Doreen was working alone at the rear of the aircraft and battled. the water current to get passengers out of the aircraft.
She had to redirect passengers to the overwing exits as the rear was sinking, leaving her neck deep in water. Finally, she managed to make her way to the front of the aircraft. She was so intent on her responsibility she did not notice a large L-shaped wound in her leg caused by metal protruding from the cabin floor after impact.
Do you know of any other heroic flight attendants?