As many of you know, Pride is a favorite subject of mine, and one on which I’ve been posting kind of a lot lately. I’m proud to be gay, proud to be a drag queen’s husband, proud to hate broccoli — throw me a character trait or a physical feature and I can crank out 1,500 words on why it’s awesome before Pandora even asks me if I’m still listening. While my pride in the flying career to which I’ve been called is related, in some ways, to Gay Pride (a link that we can explore in depth in its very own post), it’s a Pride that I don’t spend a lot of my free time or blog space quacking about. They’ve written whole books (surely) on how gross broccoli is, but how rhapsodic are you really gonna wax about your Coke-handing-out skills, legendary though they may be?
Then on Saturday, an Asiana Airlines 777 crashed — rather spectacularly — on landing in San Francisco. They lost a tail, they lost a wing, and they lost two teenaged passengers before the smoldering wreck skidded to a stop in a ditch between runways. Two flight attendants were injured when slide-rafts inflated in the cabin, pinning them to their jumpseats; their co-workers, at the end of an eleven-hour flight, wearing high heels, opened the usable exits and executed what appears to have been a “textbook” evacuation of an airplane that threatened to burst into flames at any moment. According to an article on the Wall Street Journal’s website, a passenger “saw a diminutive flight attendant, Jiyeon Kim, who was carrying injured passengers down the aisle, to get them off the plane. ‘She was a hero,’ he said. ‘This tiny, little girl was carrying people piggyback, running everywhere, with tears running down her face. She was crying, but she was still so calm and helping people. I took a photo of her.’ He said the flight attendants got everyone off the plane as the smoke billowed inside.” As they are trained, and must come to work prepared, to do, a crew of exhausted flight attendants with — I promise you — nothing but their downtown San Francisco layover on their minds leapt to their feet with their hearts in their throats and saved nearly three hundred lives.
Are all flight attendants heroes? Probably not. And frankly, if carrying people piggyback up and down the aisles of a smoldering airplane is what it takes to qualify as a ‘hero,’ Jiyeon Kim is welcome to keep that status for herself. But neither are we all self-important seatbelt Nazis who shower and shave in the morning so we can come to work and pick on you and you alone for not shutting off your phone (that, let’s be fair, you’ve known since you purchased your ticket you were going to be asked to do). Probably we’re asking you to return to your seat and fasten your seatbelt because we don’t want you or your toddler to get hurt in turbulence — you know, that stuff that’s making it practically impossible for you to walk up the aisle? Probably we’re asking you to move your shoes out of the aisle because we don’t want to roll over them with the three-hundred-pound beverage cart and thrash them. If I ask you to return your seatback to its upright position, it’s because your seatback is reclined during a phase of flight when it shouldn’t be — like during taxi, take-off, or landing, which is kind of when accidents happen. It isn’t because I have it out for you or don’t respect you or want to ruin your day, your weekend, or (you’d be surprised the way some people carry on) your life; you don’t need to mean-mug me or roll your eyes or give me a thousand excuses for why it’s back. I don’t care why it’s back, and asking you to put it up is not an accusation or a moral judgment; I’m just doing my job, and you just need to please put it up (and I always say “Please.”). When you smirk and “explain” that your DVD player will not precipitate an aviation incident, you are correct. I’m not asking you to turn it off because We’re All Gonna Die! if you don’t; I’m asking you to turn it off because the FAA mandates that I do so, and I need to stand there and make sure that you do it (if you argue or protest yourself into such a situation) to establish that What I Say Goes, so that in case we do find ourselves in a situation where I’m standing at the top of an escape slide yelling “Come this way! Jump! Jump!,” people might listen to me, do as I say, and live to tell about how Bossy-the-Cow I was being. Probably I won’t be called upon to save your life — in fifteen years of flying, I’ve only personally saved one, and if I serve you too many cans of 7,500mg-of-sodium-per-sip Bloody Mary Mix I’m probably more in the Life-Threatening category. But it’s my job to know how to save your life, and moreover to be ready to save your life, whether we see it coming or not.
Bravery is not the Absence of Fear, but rather the wherewithal to look Fear right in the eyes and say, “I’ll deal with you later, right now I’ve got an airplane to evacuate.” And when flight attendants like Jiyeon Kim and her crew, who may have been crying, and who surely were terrified, rise to the occasion and get it done, yeah, it does make me proud to be counted in their professional company. Are all flight attendants heroes? No. Is the crew that evacuated OZ214 at SFO on Saturday a gang of heroes? You’d better fucking believe it.