AFA Salutes 747 ‘Queen of the Skies’ and Honors Heroic Actions of Flight Attendants Amid Forty-Seven Years of Advancing Aviation Safety Throughout Her Majestic Flight
November 7, 2017
November 7, 2017 (San Francisco) — The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA) bids farewell to the Boeing 747 today, affectionately known as "Queen of the Skies," and recalls the safety advancements, heroic actions amid tragic events and personal connections aboard our first and most distinct jumbo jet. More than twice as large as the next largest aircraft when it took its first flight in 1969, the history of the B747 is interwoven with the history of modern aviation, and the history of aviation safety and security.
"Flight Attendants around the industry are raising a glass to our ‘Queen of the Skies,’” stated Sara Nelson, AFA-CWA international president. “We remember connections with new cultures, our most precious cargo of young troops going to war and the joy of bringing them home, as well as the lasting relationships first formed aboard this extraordinary iconic bird. Millions traveled safely on this great plane, and Flight Attendants played a big role in making sure safety, heroism and wonderment is the legacy that she leaves as the 747 and AFA members fly over the horizon for the last time.”
AFA has had its own rich history with the B747 since its first flight. The plane ushered in a new era in commercial aviation with its upper deck and its instantly recognizable hump. Throughout its decades in service, AFA Flight Attendants from numerous carriers have flown the Queen of the Skies, including:
- United Airlines
- Continental Airlines
- America West
- Northwest Airlines
- Cathay Pacific
- Pan Am
- People Express Airlines
- Flying Tigers
Emergency Evacuation Exits
In 1984, AFA's Air Safety Department learned that the FAA had approved a request from Boeing to remove two of the emergency evacuation exits from the B747 airplane. Boeing's request assumed that, even with fewer exit doors, a full load of passengers on the 747 could be evacuated through 10 emergency exits within 90 seconds under the direction of the Flight Attendant crew. Data obtained by AFA showed that the existing exits were sometimes not useable in an emergency evacuation due to unexpected emergency exit slide failure, not to mention fire or debris outside the exit(s). AFA fought for Congressional hearings. With AFA as a lead witness before the House Public Works and Transportation Committee in June 1985, it was clear that removal of the exits was a dangerous policy mistake.
In the aftermath of the hearing, then-FAA Administrator Donald Engen wrote to each US flag carrier that flew the 747 and asked them not to remove any 747 exits, even though they could legally do so. The carriers agreed to not remove the exits.
Although the removal of the doors was averted, AFA continued to push for a permanent solution. By 1988 our advocacy helped prod the FAA to propose that no two exits on each side of the airplane can be more than 60 feet apart. The FAA’s final 60-foot rule effectively prevented removal of the two 747 exits and became the worldwide standard for passenger airplanes still in effect today.
United Flight 811
On February 24, 1989, a B747 operating as United Flight 811 lost a cargo door shortly after leaving Honolulu. The explosive decompression that followed blew out several rows of seats, with nine passengers losing their lives. The aircraft returned to Honolulu, where it landed safely. The heroic actions of the 15 Flight Attendants and the pilots on the flight deck averted a far greater tragedy.
The Flight Attendants attended to the injured, secured oxygen masks, cleared debris from the aisles and exits, and prepared for an emergency landing. When the cargo door and a section of the hull blew out, Laura Brentlinger, the Flight Attendant serving as the chief purser on the flight was knocked down near the stairs to the upper deck. She later described being drawn toward the hole in the aircraft by the force of the decompression, digging her fingernails into the carpet to slow her movement toward ejection. She was just feet from the hole when she managed to hook her elbow around the bottom rung of the stairs to the upper deck. Once the aircraft had stabilized she led the preparation of the cabin for an emergency landing. Other Flight Attendants described being in the lower galley when the decompression caused the walls to cave in around them, barely allowing them to escape. Still, others told of the final moments before landing, sitting together on their jumpseats and rehearsing emergency evacuation procedures.
Returning to Honolulu, the aircraft landed 24 minutes after the cargo door had failed. Despite the loss of two engines and damage to the wing, the landing was without incident. When the aircraft came to a stop the Flight Attendants completed the evacuation in an astonishing 45 seconds. Every Flight Attendant suffered minor injuries. Known flaws in the design of the cargo door latching mechanism were ordered to be repaired within 30-days.
In the investigation that followed, the NTSB recognized the crucial safety role Flight Attendants play in a decompression, and made recommendations intended to ensure that Flight Attendants had immediate access to oxygen bottles in order to avoid being incapacitated by lack of oxygen and left unable to assist the passengers.
TWA Flight 800
In July 1996 a B747 operating as TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed 12 minutes after takeoff from New York’s JFK International Airport. All aboard were killed, including the 14 TWA Flight Attendants on the working crew, 14 TWA deadheading or pass-riding Flight Attendants and one United Flight Attendant non-revving. This incident resulted in the death of the largest number of Flight Attendants ever in a single crash.
The NTSB later determined the cause of the crash to be the ignition of a fuel-air mixture in the center wing fuel tank. The investigation led to numerous recommendations for design changes to prevent such explosions.
“Although we continue to honor those who we lost throughout the history of aviation, the 747 will live on in fond memory for all that we gained. The 747 embodies the magic of flying. Flight Attendants will honor her legacy by telling her stories, cherishing the relationships formed within her great cabin and fighting for important safety regulations, like the 60-foot rule, that continues to make U.S. aviation safer. United Airlines flew our Queen longer than any other airline and we are grateful to celebrate her extraordinary history with the Friend Ship’s final flight." Nelson stated.