Fly the Friendly Skies

Have you read about the Jet Blue flight attendant who let his Saturn v. Uranus get the best of him?

Have you read about the Jet Blue flight attendant who let his Saturn v. Uranus get the best of him?

The story goes: Steven Slater got into a verbal altercation with a passenger who called him a “mother fucker.” To which he replied “fuck you.” He recounted all this on the cabin intercom while the plane was taxiing on the runway. Slater then grabbed two cans of beer from the galley, hit the emergency exit — slid down the inflatable slide onto the tarmac, took the airtrain (this was at JFK) to the employee parking lot, and drove home to Queens.

We all have imagined doing this at our jobby job at some point haven’t we?

The most interesting aspect to this story however is that someone over at Gawker discovered, through Steven’s myspace page, that his all time hero is the legendary flight attendant Uli Derickson.

In 1985 two gun toting Lebanese terrorists boarded a TWA flight from Athens to Rome. Flight attendent Uli Derickson, a Czech-born, German-raised American citizen, took a kick to the chest and was hauled into the cockpit by the terrorists who then pistol whipped the Captain.

What unfolded for the next 55 hours was nothing short of heroic. Let me just paste the account from Wikipedia:

The two hijackers spoke almost no English, but Derickson was able to speak with one of them in German, eventually gaining their trust. She translated the tense communication between the plane’s crew and the hijackers. At one point, one of the two hijackers asked her to marry him.

The plane was diverted first to Beirut, where Derickson successfully pleaded with the hijackers to release 17 elderly women and two children.

Later in the ordeal, a ground crew in Algiers refused to refuel the plane without payment despite the terrorists’ threat to kill passengers. It occurred to Derickson to offer her Shell Oil credit card. The ground crew charged about $5,500 for 6,000 gallons of fuel.

Derickson was asked to sort through passenger passports to single out people with Jewish-sounding names. Initial reports suggested that she had followed the orders, but the truth — that she had, in fact, hidden the passports — was later revealed.

The plane flew back toward Beirut. The hijackers had earlier identified some American military personnel on the flight. They singled out U.S. Navy diver Robert D. Stethem. After beating him severely with the arm of a chair, Stethem was shot and his body was dumped on the ramp. Islamist militiamen boarded the plane to assist the hijackers. The plane then headed back toward Algiers.

After about 36 hours, the terrorists released a second wave of hostages including Derickson and the 65 remaining women. The plane, now with only 39 American men onboard as hostages, flew back to Beirut where they were held for 17 days. The ordeal ended on June 30th after Israel released 31 Lebanese prisoners, a fraction of the 766 the hijackers had demanded.

As happens to true heroes sometimes, her actions were misunderstood, twisted by the media, and the public then used for political fodder by extremists:

Unfounded reports, including some in the mainstream news media, that she had given the hijackers names of Jewish passengers on the flight, brought threats from extremist groups. Ironically, when the truth about her efforts to protect Jewish passengers (by hiding their passports) was verified, she received threats from other extremists. As a result of these threats, Derickson’s family relocated from New Jersey to Arizona.

The Uli Derickson story was made into a movie three years later. She went on to be the first woman to receive the Silver Cross for Valor, awarded by the Legion of Valor, a veterans organization. She continued working as a flight attendant for Delta before being diagnosed with cancer. Uli died in 2005 at the age of 60.

Her quoted response to her heroism was merely, “They threw me a hot potato, and I had to handle it.” Heroes are the ones who make it look easy…