When former stewardess Sarah Uzzell-Rindlaub teaches airline crew members how to survive a crash, they know they are listening to an expert. Her very presence confirms it. Statistically, a stewardess should be involved in an accident only once every 500 years, yet Uzzell-Rindlaub survived two of them in seven weeks. Her faith in the law of averages may have been shaken; her confidence in airline evacuation procedures was not.
Her first brush with death took place on Nov. 12, 1975, when the DC-10 she was flying on to Saudi Arabia ran into a flock of seagulls while taking off from New York. An engine exploded and the right wing caught fire, but all 139 Overseas National Airways employees aboard escaped unharmed within 55 seconds. Seven weeks later she was working on another DC-10, this one taking 364 religious pilgrims from Mecca to Turkey, when the plane landed short of the runway at Istanbul, spun around 180 degrees and caught fire. Incredibly, most of the passengers had never flown before and seemed to consider the landing a normal one. “They just stood up and started collecting things,” Uzzell-Rindlaub remembers. “They didn’t want to get off. We led them away and they came right back to get their baggage. Finally we just had to shove people off the plane.” Evacuation that time took a full five minutes, but no one was badly hurt.
Raised in Bryn Mawr, Pa., Uzzell-Rindlaub graduated from Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga. Her interest in aviation safety was kindled on a flight home from Georgia when passengers were warned of a possible emergency landing. “I realized my life suddenly depended on what the flight attendant was telling me,” she recalls. “I really listened, and I was fascinated.” Hired as a stewardess in 1968, she later became a self-schooled expert in air safety procedures. While working for Overseas National in 1977, she was asked to testify before a congressional subcommittee. After the hearings, United Airlines hired her to train its employees in survival. Today she conducts classes for United crews at New York’s La Guardia Airport and instructs personnel from other airlines as well.
Nothing annoys Uzzell-Rindlaub, 35, more than the refusal of some passengers to take stewardesses seriously. “We are not flying waitresses,” she points out. “We’re there because the FAA requires trained personnel on all flights to man the exits in case of a crash.” Lives can only be saved with the cooperation of well-informed passengers. “We all know that if a plane slams into a mountain there’s nothing to be done,” says Uzzell-Rindlaub, “but most airline accidents happen on take-off or landing, and most are survivable. What frequently happens is negative panic—people just sit and watch the cabin fill with smoke. They die of smoke inhalation. Over and over again bodies are found without a scratch, often with the seat belts still fastened.”
She has learned that the most difficult passengers are often the most experienced—the “million-mile machos,” she calls them, who won’t pay attention to safety briefings. “First or second-time fliers are more likely to survive,” she says. “They’re more scared or more curious, and they listen. Every plane is different—the exits work differently—and knowing what separates you from an exit could save your life.”
Since speed is of the essence in survival, Uzzell-Rindlaub urges that carry-on luggage be kept to a minimum and that the feet always be free of obstructions. “Also,” she says, “how you use your seat belt can be the difference between life and death. It should be low, across your hip bones and tight enough so you have to sit up straight. At any sound of twisting or breaking metal, assume one of the brace positions, and remember there is almost always more than one impact. Don’t move until the plane comes to a complete stop. If there’s smoke, get down and crawl with your head at armrest level so the fumes can rise around you.”
What’s the safest place to sit in a plane? It’s a toss-up, she says. “If the plane smashes into something, the people up front get hurt. If there’s fire, those in the middle are in the most dangerous place. In some crashes, the tail shears off. So it doesn’t matter. Sit anywhere.” Does she prefer any particular type of plane when she flies? “I admit I was a bit nervous after my second crash,” she says, “but I’ve seen what a plane can go through, and the DC-10 has the best safety exits of any airliner today. I feel safer on it than any other. Anyway,” she adds with a grin, “I figure I’ve used up my chances of being in a crash.”