I'm just a girl, standing on a plane, waiting to grow her wings...
This past month marked a poignant date for me. The 18th March is not only the date that I gained my wings at my most recent airline, but it's also coincidentally the date that I began my role as cabin crew at my very first airline. As I publish this today on the 11th April, it's also the anniversary of my very first wings ceremony. So on the anniversary of the greatest love affair of my life, I thought I'd take you through the day I was sky-bound for the very first time.
I think I probably packed my crew bag, trolley topper and handbag three days before my first flight, which was due to be MAN-FCO (that's Manchester to Rome Fiumicino!). Looking back now this makes me laugh, as by the end of my first season at work, I was definitely scraping off the top third of the case every night mid six day run, repacking that layer, and accepting that whatever was in the bottom two thirds of the case was a lucky dip (not a wise choice, given a red bikini was definitely not needed for the first of the winter season ski flights!). I knew I had a 5:45 am check in/report, and with it being my first flight and being SO worried about being late, I aimed to be in the crew room preparing for the briefing by 5am. So naturally my alarm was set for 2:30am, my lunch was packed and ready by 6pm and after an early dinner, I got into bed by 8pm.
My mom came to see me when I got into bed and asked how I was feeling. I can honestly say I wasn't nervous in the slightest. I was ready. SO ready. This is what I'd worked hard for from the very first recruitment day in the July previous to this, to now. This is what all the late nights studying aircraft diagrams, and rehearsing manual demos was for. This is what I'd made some huge sacrifices for in my life and I couldn't wait for every single second of living my dream.
But could I sleep? I can confirm that I probably got about 90 minutes of sleep through pure excitement, but also anxiety that I'd sleep through my alarm. Anyone in aviation knows how seriously punctuality is drilled into you through your ab initio training, and with good reason! A flight delay costs thousands of pounds, and can cost the reputation of the airline. Delays will only be an option in serious operational circumstances, and a crew member over-sleeping their alarm would not be considered that.
At some point I must have dozed off, because what seemed like two minutes later my alarm was blaring and I was wondering what on earth I was waking up for. It dawned on me that it was day 1 of living the dream, so I jumped out of bed, did my hair into a uniform standard bun, painted my face, slicked my lips with the signature red lipstick, and stepped into the ironed uniform that I'd hung up the night before.
One of my biggest worries was that I'd be the only person in the car park getting onto the crew bus, and I wouldn't know where to go when I got to the drop off point. I needn't have worried. There were so many flights checking in at this early hour of the morning, and thankfully, like I always say, crew have a very special bond without even knowing each other. A fellow crew member with a few years seniority saw that I looked a little lost, and asked me the two questions that from this point on started every single conversation with every single crew member :
1) What day are you on? (note: this doesn't mean what day of your career are you on, but what day of the run of flights are you on. The answer would be somewhere between 1 and 6, and for those on day 6 your reaction would of course be accompanied by the sympathetic head tilt, showing you understood that really they were in need of a solid 10 hour nap).
2) Where are you off to? Now you'd think that this wouldn't matter really, given that this airline mainly did what's known as 'there and back' flights (i.e. with no stopover in the destination), but crew know exactly what kind of flight and what kind of day you're in for by the flight destination told. Crew know their AYT from their IBZ (Antalya and Ibiza to you and me), the early Sunday PMI to the late Thursday PMI (Palma- Mallorca), and believe me when I say, it makes a difference.
My answers to these were, 'errr day 1 of my entire career' and 'Rome!' to which the lovely crew member that I'd see around for months after and we'd always wave to each other, started to talk to me about where I was going to be going, what to make sure I did before the briefing, and what to expect from my flight. If there's anything I learned from day 1 in the skies, it's that training teaches you so much, but so much about the actual job is picked up from actually working the line. Each crew member has their own routine. A perfectly choreographed and rehearsed sequence of events that allows the crew member to remain looking immaculate, remember all of their operational duties, and do all of this with a smile, that involves things from the small (i.e. where they like to hide their heels whilst they're onboard wearing their flats), to the more important (i.e. where they keep their aircraft diagrams for quick reference).
Naturally having left home so early, I was at security before it even opened, but this gave me time to ensure that my liquids were all in a bag, ID was ready to present, and coat, shoes, and blazer were off and ready to go through the body and bag scanners.
Walking through though, my bag got pulled for searching. I started to panic. Had I left my iPad in my bag? A tube of hand sanitizer not in my liquids bag? No no. What I had got, was a small pot of home-made hummus. 'You can't take that through' I was told. Damn! I was down a snack and I hadn't even left Manchester yet!
When I got to the crew room, I printed off my check-in sheet, put my bags and case into one of the cubby holes, and found the table that was going to be for the Rome crew checking in. My crew started to arrive and introduce themselves to me, and we began the briefing. In the brief we covered the flight details, passenger details, sales and service information/targets and of course the safety/emergency procedures question. This is something done in the brief where the senior asks all members of crew on every flight a question to ensure that everybody flying has the correct knowledge, which ensures we are all safe and fit to fly. I passed my questions, was introduced to the flight deck who confirmed the flight time and any expected weather to us, and then we were off to the aircraft.
On the aircraft I unpacked my bag, changed into my cabin flats, stowed my pinny and lunch-bag, and began to do my cabin checks. These were all checked by the senior crew member as part of ensuring my competency, who then asked if I was confident and prepared to do the demo on departure. I confirmed I was, and went to locate my demo kit to make sure all contents were present (it's one of my recurring nightmares that I go to demo the oxygen mask, it's missing and therefore I have to demo with thin air!). In the meantime a crew member had written my name onto a 1.5l bottle of water and placed it by my crew seat (you'll always be a popular crew member if you divvy out everyone's water for the day), and she offered to make me a coffee whilst I went into the cabin, to be ready to welcome our passengers.
The minute they started to board, it was confirmed to me why I was there. To help our customers, and be a part of their travelling experience. Every single customer had a reason to be there, and I was loving having the opportunity to make them smile. I helped customers with their bags, answered their questions, sorted out seating arrangement issues and can hand on heart say I felt in my element.
After closing the doors, arming them for departure on command of the senior, it was time to do my first demo. I mean tell anybody that you're cabin crew, most people will begin to point out the nearest exits to you, so there is definitely some pressure in that and knowing that all eyes are on you. All joking aside, it's safety critical. There's a reason we stand there and point out the exits, ruin our hair by pulling a lifejacket over our head, and check every single seatbelt is fastened before we sit down, and there is a pressure to make sure it's right. After all it's our instructions that will save lives in the case of emergency.
Breathing a sigh of relief after conducting the first of what was to be many demos, and completing my cabin secure, I sat down and prepared for take-off. Before we knew it we were hurtling along the runway, the wheels eventually lifted, and we were sky-bound! There wasn't much time to reminisce though, as seconds later we were released and preparing for service.
Trust me when I say, crew work for their money onboard. As a team we did not stop the whole flight. The two bar services we ran were crazy busy, and it was a relatively short flight time for it to be as busy as it was. But maybe the most important lesson was to come...
Crew have a special sort of sign language. You may have seen it if you've flown a few times and watched the cabin crew. My crew took me into the galley, and gave me a crash course in how to sign language to the galley crew member what you needed. Whether it be a pot noodle, ham and cheese toastie, more coffee, you name it. Whatever was on that bar, there was a signal for. It saves running up and down the cabin, shouting down the aircraft, and that means it was crucial knowledge.
I got to do everything on my first flight. Every service, every bit of preparation, every safety point that needed completing. I did. It was a baptism of fire, and the best way to do it. My crew weren't there to judge, they were there to help me through the flight and make sure I had the chance to learn before becoming fully operational.
Before landing, I also got to go into the flight deck. Something that I have never taken for granted in a post 9/11 world where the flight deck is off limits to 99% of the world for safety reasons. But it's really important for crew and pilots to have a professional relationship, and get to know each other and what each other does in their role to ensure the safety of the entire flight and all on board. It was a pleasure to learn a little bit about what goes on behind the flight deck door, and to be honest the views took my breath away.
After securing the cabin, I took my seat in the galley at the back for landing, and as the wheels touched down into FCO I finally felt myself breathe. I'd made it! We'd made it! Passengers were smiling, toasties had been served, perfumes sold, and everybody was safe. I started to think about disembarking duties, and the turn-around we were to do (this is where we search and clean the aircraft ready to turn around and head back to the UK, which has to be conducted in as little as 8 minutes!), but I needn't have worried. Any crew member that has landed into FCO will know why. This day we were particularly unlucky and we had the longest taxi onto stand.... about 20 minutes from what I remember, and the primary concern was during this time ensuring that all passengers remained seated. The turn-around was still a fair way off!
Needless to say, we made it on to stand, bid farewell to the passengers, and conducted our turn-around duties. I had a short minute to look outside of the aircraft and it suddenly dawned on me... we'd made it to ROME! I had woken up in Staffordshire, and now had successfully operated my first flight!
The return journey was a blur... it felt like I'd settled in nicely already and before I knew it we'd landed back into Manchester, and it was time to wish our passengers a pleasant onward journey. In all honesty I couldn't believe that when we'd got back to the crew room, we'd actually gone from here, to Rome, and back again. The day had absolutely flown by and I was buzzing. I was introduced to the procedures that we went through to effectively close off the flight and the day, which included discussing any issues that we'd had through the day, counting any money from sales, and participating in a de-brief from the senior crew member. As is procedure on a supernumerary flight, you have a short discussion after your flight with the senior crew member who will talk about your performance on the flight, discuss any areas of concern, and advise whether you would need a further supernumerary flight on that aircraft type, or were permitted to be operational. I was thrilled when I was told I passed my supernumerary flight on the Boeing 737-800. I was so lucky with my senior crew member, she was lovely, professional and gave me positive and honest feedback! Even more coincidentally I was flying with her on my 757-200 supernumerary flight to TFS the next day, so she could see my progress from day to day and make a really strong evaluation of my performance.
The drive home felt as though it flew by. I was truly on cloud 9. Not only had I successfully passed my supernumerary flight, making four new friends along the way, I had actually lived my dream. How many people are lucky enough to say that? I count myself as one of the blessed few that actually can say that, and unlike some moments in life, this one had far exceeded expectation.
I think I chewed the ear off my family that night, who had to relive the whole day with me as I excitedly retold every single second to them. I was due to check in even earlier the next morning (I believe check-in was 4:45am), and I can happily say that when I had repacked my bags, prepared my uniform, and made my lunch for the next day, I collapsed into bed at around 8:30, and slept solidly for 6 hours before waking up, and heading off onto a TFS, ready to do it all over again.
There you have it. A day that I will never forget. Never mind relationship anniversaries (not that I have one of those in my life!). This is the one that I celebrate, because it's the anniversary of the true love affair of my life. It's exciting, fun, scarily unstable, heart-wrenching and for want of a better word, truly full of passion.
What did I learn from my first day in the skies?
Don't bother going to bed ridiculously early on the first day of a block of flights. You won't sleep, and you'll just catch up through the remainder of the run.
Don't pack hummus....
Pack a sharpie pen.
Ginger beer is a wonder for the early morning flights (if you ever feel that slight nausea at being awake too early, trust me when I say this is a saviour).
It's acceptable to eat three breakfasts on a flight that departs pre- 8am.
No matter how experienced you are, the pre-flight briefing questions will, and always will cause the odd few butterflies.
Comfy cabin shoes are a MUST.
No matter what you say, you will spend a sizeable chunk of your wage on the Starbucks/Pret/Costa/Nero (delete as appropriate) in the airport terminal.
There's a whole new language that crew have to learn related to how to signal to the back galley crew member that you would like a chicken sandwich.
A smile goes a LONG way.
Learn a few words of the language of the country you're flying to. It will definitely help.
Prepare to laugh. A LOT. Crew have a whole other way of making a day fly by with their banter.
As with any relationship and love, there is inevitably some turbulence along the way. Never in a million years did I think myself and so many others would have spent the year with our feet firmly planted on the ground. I miss my life with my head in the clouds more than I can possibly explain. The year has taught me what true heartbreak feels like.
This year however, despite being so far away from aviation in one way, I'm more connected to it than ever. I've met incredible people through my volunteering, writing, masters degree and flying lessons, and these are the people that have dragged me through the toughest of times.
It's difficult to not go over the could have, should have, and would have. Some days I lose myself to those thoughts. However the reality is that without what has happened, this chapter of my life wouldn't have been written. That thought now seems so alien. This is a chapter of my life, there's no re-writing it, and no matter what, I'm going back to what I love with even more gratitude, new friends, and more knowledge.
This time next year will look completely different again, I have no doubt. The story will be continued with hopefully a few more dreams coming true for myself and my friends above the clouds. Here's to being back in the skies clicking my heels around the world once more x