High-flying Henry Sutton joins a cabin crew on its exhaustive training course
Don’t call me a trolley dolly. Or a tart with a cart. Or a jumbo bimbo. I might have spent a day with some of Air 2000’s finest recruits on the charter airline’s brand new £1.6 million cabin simulator, but I can tell you, it was really tough. We hardly mentioned make-up or boyfriends, or pilot-potential all day. We put out fires, struggled through smoke-filled cabins, armed and cross-checked doors, shouted at one another and leapt down down an evacuation slide, again and again.
In fact I didn't see a trolley all day, or a hot meal, or a dishy pilot for that matter, though at one point I had to pretend to be an incapacitated one. If pilots become incapacitated it’s the cabin crew’s duty to pull them away from the controls and strap them tightly into their seats. What wasn't addressed on the course was what you do if both pilots become incapacitated. “Perhaps the plane would just come down on autopilot” Jane from Stockport suggested. “Pray,” someone else offered.
As my day in a rumbling hangar at Jetset House, a stone’s throw from Gatwick’s main runway, progressed, I couldn't help feeling that much of what we learned was based on an emergency plane going somewhat according to plan despite being told that emergencies never do. We were shown how to open a door if the aircraft had ditched at sea, and inflate the life rafts and then detach them from the plane. Though if the water had already come up to, say the level of the window in the door, we’d have to find another way out. Somewhere.
Of course such catastrophic situations in real life are rare and I suspect no amount of training can totally prepare anyone for them. The truer purpose of the simulator is to help familiarise trainees with their future working environment and to teach them how to react to incidents — such as the fire on board an Air-tours flight from Kos, in Greece, last weekend, which was successfully put out before the plane made an emergency landing. The trainees also learn how to tackle and stabilise what I’d call containable (and relatively more common) incidents, such as toilet fires, cabin decompression and emergency evacuations. “We want our trainees to have the confidence to react to any situation from the moment they start flying,” said Diane Disley, Air 2000’s safety training manager.
Diane started out as an air hostess with Dan Air 15 years ago. She laughed when I asked about cabin crew safety training then. “We did the minimum legal requirement, I suppose,” she said, “but what we try to do now is go way beyond that.” Of the five-and-a-half week long cabin crew training schedule, three and a half weeks are devoted solely to safety, during which time some 15 exams are taken.
Certainly the 17, mostly young and mostly female, trainees on the course I attended couldn't believe the workload. “I haven’t gone out for a month,” said Jackie a former teacher. “I’ve had no personal life at all.” Tracey, sporting some neat and well tied back blonde highlights said: “It’s been much harder than I thought. Had I known it would involve quite so much I might have had second thoughts about joining.”
However, everyone seems to have been doing their homework because they not only knew all the answers to technical questions but they could answer in unison. Seventeen voices quickly became one, and, urgh, a half, as I tried to join in. “What do you do if there’s a fire in a warming oven,” asked the guy in charge of the fire section, who believe it or not was called Singe. “CLOSE the oven door,” we shouted, and “TURN the galley power off.”
Strapped into the remarkably authentic simulator, compete with engine noise and dimmed lighting, we prepared for a crash landing and the aftermath with a rousing chant of “BRACE, BRACE.” Then after the supposed impact: “Undo your seat belts. Come this way. Leave everything behind.” We rushed to the emergency exits for a final chorus of: “Wait, wait, slide inflating.”
After nearly four weeks in the classroom, everyone was enjoying the practical aspects. Emerging from a smoke-filled cabin, having successfully found and extinguished a fire in an overhead locker and located a stray baby, Kelly declared, pulling off her smoke hood: “That was brilliant. Can I have another go?” Claire said: “You really feel like you're there.” Until now the only other time the girls felt like proper cabin crew, they told me, was when they went to a Tesco store in their new uniforms and someone asked them which airline they work for.
Jackie, who swapped running a bakery in south Cheshire for Air 2000, thought that flying might bother her a little more now because she knows what is going on. And from what I gathered, if you suddenly hear the captain come on the PA to say: “Cabin crew to stations,” start panicking. It means something’s up.
The course ends with what everyone regards as the “best bit”, the slide descent. Air 2000’s training facility has a Boeing 767 emergency chute permanently inflated, and I can tell you it's a long way down. You also go very fast. If anyone reading this is in the unfortunate position of having to use one of these things for real, a word of advice — don’t put your hands out to slow you down, you’ll get friction burns. It also helps of you are wearing a thick pair of underpants because the deceleration pads at the bottom are like sandpaper.
Having already beaten some seriously stiff competition to get on the course, all 17 trainees took to the chute like ducks to water. Indeed, nothing fazed them all day. The only thing that seemed to be bothering was the prospect of a planeload of dirty meal trays, one of the few things they won’t be practising. Oh, and of course being called trolley dollies. Don’t try it. By the time this lot go to work, they will have completed a course in conflict management and self-defence.
Originally in The Times, June 17th, 2000