Aviation is fixated, quite correctly, on in-flight safety. From the humblest sailplane or microlight to the mightiest 747, safety procedures have to be completed, to ensure that aircraft don’t drop out of the skies like confetti.
Before any aircraft takes flight, it’s crew must conduct a thorough inspection to make sure that it is in a fit state to fly. Cabin attendants will check every door and overhead locker, and ensure that all of their required safety equipment is in place.
Their pilot colleagues will also be checking all flight systems thoroughly. There are two elements to this – the internal cockpit checks, and what is known in the trade, as the “walk-around” or the exterior preflight inspection.
Each item to be inspected is laid out in the Flight Crew Operating Manual, or FCOM, and follows a carefully planned and logical sequence so that no item is left unchecked.
As an instructor, strict adherence to procedures is part of my everyday working life.
Here is my lighthearted look at the external walk-around procedure for the Boeing B747-400.
I think it’s a little better than writing about the procedure I follow on my own, much smaller aeroplane.
Whilst our Jumbo’s on the ground, Before each flight, we must walk round, And carefully check so many things, Are engines fixed, likewise the wings, Are panels shut, are windows clean, Do nav lights work, do lenses gleam, And as a safety-conscious fellow, Be sure to wear your vest of yellow, To help you check before night flight, Be sure to use your bright flashlight, Do just what the FCOM says, Check the tyres, and gear door bays, Check the cowls, and drain mast pipes, Inspect the engine pylon stripes, Look at the fin, and check the slats, The lightning wicks, and Fowler flaps, For safety’s sake – what could be worse? Than looking forwards whilst in reverse! Check the brakes and steering too, The vacuum outlet for the loo, The outflow valve, the pitot head, Oh boy – you should have stayed in bed, Cos whilst you check in pouring rain, The captains in the warm – AGAIN!
We have all seen them walking through the airport terminal as we have been departing for our own trips – a group of smartly uniformed and elegant men and women, all dragging the ubiquitous wheelie bags behind them, as they head off to check-in for their flights.
Once onboard, we take for granted the smooth and professional welcomes, and the brisk and efficient manner in which the aircraft is prepared for its trip.
The Safety demonstration is performed, choreographed beautifully to a disinterested audience, many of them studiously reading their newspapers, or playing games on their smartphones.
Once airborne, we don’t bat an eyelid as we are served drinks, meals, and hot towels, all with a smile and good grace.
We are treated to the spectacle of the swift collection of headsets, and the prompt stowage of equipment as the aircraft descends towards its destination.
Finally, we disembark, with the farewells from the cabin crew still ringing in our ears.
Leaving the airport, we will probably notice a crew outside, patiently awaiting the arrival of the crew bus to take them to their hotels.
What an easy life! Operate a thirteen-hour flight to Singapore, then enjoy three days shopping, and relaxing, and staying in a four-star hotel! And get paid for it.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Fancy it as a career?
Must be an easy job, right?
Now let’s do a quick reality check, and see what is really involved in operating as Cabin Crew.
Firstly, we have to appreciate why the cabin crew are there in the first place. Contrary to popular understanding, their primary function is not serving food and drink and making duty free sales.
Their primary function is that of safety.
Strangely enough, their principal concern isn’t bringing you some warm nuts and a gin and tonic, but ensuring that the required safety standards are being maintained, and for increasing your chances of survival in the event that something goes wrong.
All of these safety requirements are laid down by the relevant regulatory authorities; EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) in Europe, the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) in America, and are legally binding upon airline operators.
So, your average cabin crew member is actually a highly-trained individual who is capable of many things that the travelling public are not aware of. They are certainly not stereotypical “fluffy” airheads.
In an effort to discover what it takes to become aircrew, I enrolled on a new entrant cabin crew course with a major British airline. This course would take at least four weeks, which I admit, did surprise me, as I didn’t think it could have that much content.
How wrong I was!
My course was to be conducted in West London, at the main training centre for the airline, and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I met with my fellow students, who, it seemed, came from all walks of life, and some from other areas of the airline.
We were all still milling about when a harried-looking instructor arrived and requested that those of us on course number 041 follow him immediately to classroom 6.
We all shuffled into the classroom and a minor hubbub ensued as we found somewhere to sit and stow our bags.
Our instructor introduced himself as John, and without further fuss, he launched straight into a briefing, giving us all an overview of what was to come in the forthcoming weeks.
He concluded by telling us that punctuality was vital to an airline operation, and that should we arrive late, we would be awarded a demerit point for each minute. Collect 6 points, and be washed off the course.
I realised then that this course would be no picnic. I did feel that this draconian system was primarily aimed at the younger members of the intake, young lads and lasses fresh out of school, who may have had a much more laissez-faire attitude to time keeping.
For an experienced man, punctuality was ingrained in my soul, indelibly stamped there by my parents, both of whom passsed on their work ethics to me whilst I was still a small child.
Our course was to start with a weeks worth of medical training, known in the flying business as Avmed.
We were all herded into our classroom, which was filled with medical equipment, including portable defibrillators, oxygen cylinders and resuscitation trainers. It all looked a little intimidating.
Our instructor, Louise, was an ex-nurse, and experienced crew, so she immediately commanded the respect of the class. The first thing we had to learn was our basic responsibilities – what we could, or couldn’t legally do.
Cabin Crew are trained to be able to handle lower level medical issues, and are more than capable of dealing with cuts, sprains, burns, and the like.
But normal workplace first aid just doesn’t hack it when the workplace is a pressurised aluminium tube flying at 38,000 feet – miles from any hospitals or medical centres.
Cabin crew may be expected to identify – and treat, diabetics with uncontrolled sugar levels. They may have to adminster therapeutic oxygen to a semi conscious passenger.
Possibly deal with epilepsy, cardiac problems, panic attacks, air sickness and in extreme cases, childbirth and even death on board.
Yes folks – not so glamourous now…
In order for crew to be able to perform these functions, every aircraft is required to carry a minimum level of medical equipment.
This normally consists of a number of small first aid kits distributed around the passenger cabin and one large suitcase-sized medical kit containing a much more comprehensive array of equipment.
We had to commit to memory the contents of each type of kit, its location on the aircraft and the procedure for issuing medication and equipment.
It is important to realise that cabin crew are not trained medical practitioners, and as such are not legally entitled to prescribe medication, so a large proportion of the aircraft medical kit is prohibited for use by cabin crew.
That is why, in serious cases, cabin crew may make an announcement for any trained medical professionals to identify themselves and assist with the treatment of a sick fellow passenger.
There is also an unseen level of back-up available to help.
Many airlines subscribe to a service called MedLink, a specialist medical unit that is experienced in airline procedures and protocols, and whose staff are familiar with the type of medical intervention that maybe needed mid atlantic!
MedLink doctors and specialists may be contacted by using the aircraft’s satellite phone, the cockpit High Frequency radio patch or a specialist system called ACARS.
ACARS stands for Aircraft Communcations Addressing and Reporting System.
This system is normally used routinely for the transmission and acceptance of flight clearances from Air Traffic Control, company operational messages, such as flight plans, fuel plans, aircraft performance calculations and load and balance plans.
In our case, as cabin crew, any developing medical emergency in the cabin may be swiftly escalated via the flight deck to involve a fantastic level of support and guidance for the treatment of a sick passenger.
We were given practical instruction in how to provide therapeutic oxygen, and the use of an automatic external defibrillator. We also had to demonstrate that we could make an accurate patient assessment, deliver CPR, and place an individual into the recovery position.
This training was all delivered in a cabin simulator, with airline seats, and a standard sized aisle. We all had to show that we could get someone out of their seat, place them on the floor in the aisle, use the defibs, administer CPR and then place them into the recovery position.
I have been a qualified First Aider for years, but I still needed to make a huge amount of effort to remember the procedural and legal aspects of delivering healthcare in an aircraft cabin environment, so I was extremely pleased (and relieved) to have passed my first weeks training in Aviation Medicine.
I now had a complete weekend off in which to study that manuals related to operating the rest of the aircraft, including operating doors, firefighting, operating the emergency slides, ditching drills, and wet drills and security training.
No beers for me then!
Stay tuned for the next chapter in this thrilling account…
Yesterday, I had started work at 0430, and it had been pretty much full on all day. I was lucky that I managed to slip out at 0830 and grab a late breakfast from the “Roach Coach” burger van, as the crews used to refer to it. The Roach Coach, or Botulism Bus was an old Citroen van fitted out as a kitchen.
Breakfast was usually good and reasonably cheap – I had a simply huge egg and bacon French stick and a mug of tea so strong that it stripped the plating off the spoon. Despite its nickname, in all of the eight years that I used it, I never got any form of food poisoning!
By the end of my shift, I had handled one inbound emergency diversion, two gate delays, and a flight returning to gate due to a technical problem.
My throat was tingling with the tell-tale signs of an oncoming cold, and my nasal passages felt strangely dry and cold, and I was feeling distinctly under the weather as I returned home.
In an effort to clear my head, I dripped some Olbas Oil into a Pyrex bowl filled with hot water, and then draped a towel over my head and around the bowl, so that I could breathe the vapours. My dear old Mum used to swear by this stuff when I was a kid.
I think after about half an hour under the towel, my head felt marginally clearer, so I took full advantage of this, and went straight to bed.
The next day, I was on an 0500 start, and would be co-ordinating the whole of the flight operation at Heathrow for the Mighty American Airlines.
Waking up well before dawn, the hot shower did little to improve either my mood or my well-being, and my throat felt like I had swallowed a cheese grater. Overnight, someone had slipped into my room, and stuffed both of my nostrils with glue, and my head had been packed with cotton wool.
Once I was booted and suited, so to speak, I drove mostly on auto-pilot to the Northside staff car park, and waited in the cold pre-dawn air for the staff shuttle bus to ferry us to the Central Area of London Heathrow’s Airport.
The bus soon filled with security-screened zombies, bright in their High Vis jackets, and the uniforms of many different airlines. The conservative navy blue of my Flight Operations uniform was overshadowed with the bright crimson red of the Virgin Atlantic hostie who plonked herself next to me.
Muted desultory conversations murmured around the bus, but in the main, we all slumped in silence each still longing for bed.
Arriving at the central staff bus stop, I briskly strode the five-minute walk to Terminal Three, the home of American Airlines. The check in hall was almost deserted as I walked through, but some of my colleagues from security were already at work, checking and calibrating the X-Ray equipment and testing the baggage belts and check in computers.
Pushing the large, heavy-duty vinyl doors open, I walked down the gloomy corridor towards the baggage make up area, and waited in line to have my ID card inspected, and walk through the arch scanner.
On this morning I was feeling too miserable to engage in my normal banter with the Indian lady who normally manned this isolated post.
I arrived in the Ops room, snotty and grotty and made myself a hot Lemsip, and then went to look at the movements board, which had been updated by Mick on the night shift. It looked like the system was running normally, with all of the birds departed, and heading east, and no obvious delays or cancellations.
The first arrival from JFK would be hitting the tarmac at about 0615, so I had time to check in with all of the other parts of the operation, doing radio checks with check-in, arrivals, gates, security, catering, special services, ground movements and engineering.
I then sat back sipping mournfully at the Lemsip, in the vain hope that it would clear my head and ease my throat.
It did neither, and by 1300 I was feeling really rough. Thank goodness the shift had run smoothly, with no problems or incidents.
When I got home I was feeling hot and sweaty and my skin had become super-sensitive.
I decided to have a good soak in a hot bath to try and warm up, and feel a little more comfortable.
My nose was still blocked, and my sinuses were still jammed, and I felt totally congested.
As the bath was running, I spotted the small brown bottle of Olbas Oil, still sitting on the shelf over the hand basin, where I had left it after using it the previous evening.
It was then that I had my brainwave.
I could save time if I were to mix the Olbas Oil into the bath water, and gain the benefits of a relaxing tub of hot water whilst the vapour gently penetrated and cleared by nasal passages.
Unscrewing the cap, I looked at the bottle top. There was a small nozzle similar to the shaker top on a bottle of vinegar, so I could apply it easily.
According to the instructions, all I had to do was drip a few drops into a bowl of hot water to clean my passages.
I considered this, and decided that if I needed a few drops in a bowl, I would probably need to shake a considerable number of drops into a bath that probably held 100 litres.
I upended the bottle, and vigorously shook the bottle, watching as the droplets scattered over the water.
I stirred the water around briskly, and was satisfied to smell the pungent odour wafting from the water. I could see that the drops had each formed a miniature puddle that floated on the surface, some refracting the light in a myriad of rainbow hues.
Satisfied that all was well, I climbed gingerly into the bath, the water coming up to the middle of my calves.
Crouching down, I slowly eased myself into a sitting position, sighing deeply as I relaxed back into the water, leaning back into the wonderfully warm water.
I had just shut my eyes, when the burning began.
It started gently initially. A slight tingling in my crotch, and a faint burning in my armpits.
My eyes snapped fully open as suddenly, it felt as if someone had taken a welding torch to my family jewels, the heat searing and eye-watering. I clambered up out of the water as fast as I could, but getting out of the water did nothing to ease my immediate predicament.
The logical side of my mind was telling me that the oil-based product was clinging to my skin, but the other side of my brain was demanding that I use the abrasive cleaning sponge to rid my skin of the intense fire caused by the herbal napalm that was soaking the most delicate bits of my anatomy.
I hauled the shower head from behind the taps, turning the water on full, and attempted to douse the areas that were blazing with the intensity of a bush fire, but it was to no avail, the Olbas Oil was diligently refusing to release my soft tissues from its inferno grip.
Hopping out of the bath, I literally ran down the stairs, and grabbed an ice pack from the freezer, and jammed it lovingly between my legs, praying that Olbas Oil wouldn’t leave chemical burns that would need treatment at Ashford General’s A & E department. That would take too much explaining away.
The ice pack made little difference, but eventually, after what seemed like three days, (but was in fact about twenty minutes) the pain subsided a little, and I was able to face returning to the bathroom.
I spent a good half hour cleaning the bath, wiping the walls and base with a cloth, and rinsing and re-rinsing the entire structure to ensure that there was no Olbas Oil left to interfere with future bathing enjoyment.
I dried off, and eventually conceded defeat to my cold, and went to bed, tired, damp, feverish and very delicate.
So, folks – whatever you do, DON’T climb into a bath laced with nasal decongestant -Stick with bubble bath or foam bath.