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The Flight Attendant Who Blew Our Minds // Life Lessons at 30,000 Feet

update: we have a guest post up today over at the frugal cottage. nicola is hosting a guest series while she’s home taking care of her brand new baby. check it out: living simply equals living by design.

sometimes, life forces us to sit up and pay attention. we recently had one of those experiences in a big way, on what would have seemed to be an ordinary flight for work. if you follow us on twitter, you may have seen a photo we posted the other day:


turns out this was the very last flight for a pilot of 44 years. (and yes, it did sound ominous when he told us all, “this is my last flight.” ;-) but then he quickly said that his whole family was on board to celebrate the occasion, including his one-year-old grandson, and that took away any doubt about what he might have meant!) the flight attendants had decorated the cabin with “happy retirement” decorations, and even handed out “happy retirement” candy when they did the drink service. it was really touching.

of course retirement is something we think about every day, so this experience of being on a pilot’s last flight was more meaningful than it would have been if retirement was just some abstract concept we weren’t thinking about for 30 years. but really, the retirement context was just the thing that said, “pay attention on this flight. don’t tune out in your work or book and miss what’s going on here.”

because it was the pilot’s last flight, he talked on the mic more than pilots usually do. he told us about how his wife of 40 years was on the flight, and how they met when she was a flight attendant. so classic. he told us about his daughter and grandson. he told us he’d try his best to give us a smooth landing. and then he started telling us about the crew.

as luck would have it, his crew of flight attendants — or flight partners, as united now calls them — were a crew he’d flown with a lot. their mutual affection was super evident. he told us about the two male flight attendants, and how long they’d been flying (more than 30 years each — they didn’t look that old!). and then he mentioned, almost casually, how the woman flight attendant had been on united 232 which, in his words, had an “unscheduled landing in sioux falls in 1989.”

ours is a house of airplane geeks, so the light bulb immediately went off. but assuming you’re not as geekily versed in airline disasters as we are, suffice to say, it was a major disaster. a lot of people died. you can read a good account of it here, though fair warning that it will ruin your day. short version: a fan blade broke, cutting the plane’s hydraulic lines mid-flight, meaning that the pilots could barely control the plane. they made an emergency landing in sioux falls, clipped a wing while landing, and then the plane tumbled. 100+ died, but 185 people lived. it was considered a major act of heroism by the pilots and flight crew to save as many people as they did.

but back to this flight attendant. judging by how old she didn’t look, she must have been very young back in 1989. and those drawn to fly seem to have an adventurous spirit. in fact, they seem to have a lot in common with those of us pursuing early retirement — forsaking a “traditional” career path for a life of travel and adventure. but even if she was young and felt invincible, that day back in 1989 must have been the worst day of her life. going through something like that must throw everything into sharp relief, and force some major reevaluations. at the very least, it must make the idea of flying again scarier than it was previously.

any person in the world who went through something like that would be completely forgiven for changing their path in life after such a tragedy. even for never flying again. but this flight attendant didn’t. after her injuries healed, she went right back to work. she didn’t let fear paralyze her, or dictate her life choices. in fact, all of the pilots involved in the crash went back to work after they healed, too.

the phrase “mind-blowing” is overused these days, but this was truly one of those rare moments for us. a person who went through something that is the worst fear for many of us, and then she got right back to doing what put her in that position in the first place. wow.

and here she was, all those years later, still serving beverages with a smile, even to disgruntled and tired passengers. just as she didn’t let fear dictate her life, she also stayed humble and continues to serve the public 26 years later. what an incredible reminder not to judge a book by its cover — or, more accurately, that anyone you meet might have the most incredible story. that someone who seems to have a menial job may in fact be an amazing role model for courage and spirit. i would never have known any of this about the flight attendant if the retiring captain hadn’t been in such a chatty mood.

i wanted desperately to ask her a million questions, but it seemed insensitive to ask about such a horrific day on what was clearly a joyous occasion. but even without talking to her, the lesson was clear: don’t let fear keep you from doing what you dream of doing. don’t let some past trauma dictate your life choices. keep doing your thing, even if you face setbacks along the way.

on the way off the plane, both the captain and the flight attendant were standing near the door. i shook the captain’s hand, thanked and congratulated him, and said to the flight attendant, “you’re an inspiration. thank you.” and then i walked off the plane, thankful to have fallen by chance into this confluence of events that made me tune in and listen up. i’ve never been so glad to be smacked across the face by an important life lesson.

have you had any recent moments when life has practically shouted lessons at you? do you think you could go back to flying after something like that? not sure we could!

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24 replies »

  1. Beautiful post. I used to be paralyzed by fear and didn’t really understand just how much. Then, I lost my brother 2 years ago. He was only 30. Unfortunately, this is how I learned my lesson to never be afraid. Not in a careless way but, in a very concious one. Now, I can say with confidence I fully live my life.

    • I’m so sorry you lost your brother. How terrible. But it’s wonderful that that experience helped you let go of fear. None of us is guaranteed tomorrow, so it’s so important to live every day to its fullest. :-)

  2. What an absolutely beautiful story – so inspiring and so well-told! Thank you for sharing it with us – that was amazing.

  3. That’s a great story, and I can’t imagine going through that. I had a friend that overslept and missed her flight in 1996, and she woke up to see that it had gone down in the everglades, all were lost. It was pretty sobering for all that knew her realizing we weren’t mortal as we had imagined. Kind of a ripple effect from her near miss. Makes you appreciate everything you have in life, even if your day isn’t going well. Easy to say hard to implement. I still fail occasionally, but I don’t quit trying. :)

    • Wow — Of course I know exactly which plane crash that was. And how incredible for your friend. Not to mention how wonderful that you got the ripple effect and feel more appreciation for life afterward. We definitely know what you mean — it’s still easy to get bogged down in day-to-day life (especially at work!), but it’s so important to stay grateful and avoid squandering our days!

  4. This is an absolutely wonderful story. There is just something about airplanes and airports that truly allows for experiencing different aspects of life. Regardless of how tired I am on some travel days, I am always incredibly curious about the people around me: who are they? where are they going? etc. I’m so glad you were able to say a few words to that courage filled flight attendant & also shake hands with someone after disembarking their last flight. What a momentous occasion! This reminds me of a local benefit event that I was able to attend that raised money for children with cancer. It was for my job in high school where a team of us attended events to perform, interact with crowds, and play live games. Here we were, all dancing with HUGE smiles on our faces and I couldn’t help but stop and look at all the children the event benefited around me. Life dealt them more pain & strife than I had ever experienced in my 18 years of life at the time, yet there they were with the most radiant spirits enjoying every moment. It’s amazing how many people in life are facing incredible battles but do not show one ounce of struggle. Their mindsets do not allow fear to overcome them. I always think back to this courage filled kids even in difficult times.

    • It’s great that you engage with people on flights! We both do that *sometimes,* but when you fly every week, it’s easy to just want to tune it all out. Most flights, honestly, I don’t even remember an hour later. That’s why this one was so significant! It FORCED me to pay attention! :-)

      And wow, love your story from high school. That’s been our experience, too — the people with the worst hardships never seem bitter about it. It’s the ones who lack the perspective on what real hardship is who seem to get most bitter about their relatively minor problems. What a wonderful lesson to learn — so inspiring! — when you were young. :-) (Well, you still ARE young, but you know what I mean…)

  5. I definitely would have changed professions! It sounds like an awesome party plane. New plan: have a party plane celebration when we retire. Do you have to be a pilot to do that? Also, being a flight attendant for 30 years?… Mind-blowing! :) Happy Friday!

  6. It really does put things in perspective, doesn’t it? I flew once on a pilot’s last flight before retiring as well. They didn’t “do up” the cabin like they apparently did on your flight, but the pilot did take the opportunity to actually stand outside the cockpit and address the passengers on the microphone face-to-face. It was touching. The entire plane gave the pilot a round of applause.

    After such a traumatic event, it does bear consideration. I ride a motorcycle, and it would be like me getting back onto the bike after a horrible accident that left me in the hospital for days or weeks. Could I ride again? Honestly, I can’t answer that. I just don’t know. I would LIKE to say that I would, but honestly, I have no idea.

    This might be one of life’s questions that can’t truly be answered until you’re faced with that situation.

    • So great that you were on a retirement flight, too. As often as I fly, it was a first for me. Pretty cool.

      Does Courtney support the motorcycle riding? ;-) It always seems stressful to be the spouse of a rider! But I think you’re right — it’s impossible to know what we’d all do after such a trauma. But I’m always so impressed by people who get back to it, like that young girl who had her arm bitten off by a shark, and got right back on the board. Okay, maybe some youthful indiscretion was in play there, but she probably also knew how slim the odds are of that happening to someone twice. I’m guessing the flight attendant knew that too, and that helped her get back in the jumpseat.

      Have a great weekend!

  7. What I love most about this blog entry is how it shows that people are more than we see. It’d be easy to be annoyed with a flight attendant for not giving you a full can of soda or for having a bored look on his face during the safety demonstrations, BUT if I just take a moment to realize that person’s life is so much larger than the moment, I become a little more patient.

    Thank you for the story.

  8. My ex-husband is an airline pilot. He would probably commit suicide if he couldn’t fly. No joke. He will be ‘forced’ to retire from the airlines at 60, but he will then just fly privately, like most pilots. They don’t retire and I admire that. That is also why I don’t really like the word ‘retire’ anymore.

    I also have my pilot’s license…. in gliders, which are engineless. I have met commercial pilots who said they wouldn’t get in one. Lol! I was also an airport manager, so I got to ride in a lot of different aircraft. It is easy to get invited as a the rare girl in aviation. :) I had a couple of scary/emergency moments both soloing and with an instructor. It is liberating when you handle these emergencies. It seems that then you can handle anything in life.

    Also, I saw an airplane crash while I was on the runway waiting for takeoff. My friends thought that I was pretty brave to continue flying after seeing that.

    Lastly, a friend’s father retired from the airlines and the very next day, he was killed in a car accident. Whenever someone tells me they are afraid to fly, I always say “the most dangerous part of the flight is the drive to the airport!” :)

    My point is that aviation is a wonderful gift and we should appreciate our pilots and flight attendants and not be scared, no matter what. Otherwise, we couldn’t see the world and understand global issues as intimately.

    • Pilots needing to fly — that part I understand. I’m sure at some point it becomes so ingrained that they can’t live without it. It just surprised me to hear about that feeling from a flight attendant, since they aren’t actually flying the plane. But the wanderlust and desire to see the world — that I can understand!

  9. Wow what a great story. I don’t know if I would have the courage to hop back in a plane after that. Stories like this are good every now and then to help put things in perspective.