Hard Landings


The violence was immediate. Ms. Derickson took a kick to the chest from one of the hijackers and was kicked again while on the floor. The terrorists spoke no English, but one spoke German just as she did. This put her at the center of the drama for the next 55 hours…

In June of 1985, Uli Derickson was a flight attendant on a hijacked passenger jet. By the time her flight was over, she had negotiated the release of children and elderly women, shielded the identities of Jewish passengers, and halted a murderous beating. She also used her personal credit card to buy jet fuel.

Aftermath is an old agricultural word for growth that occurs after mowing. It now generally means, according to Merriam-Webster, “the period immediately following a usually ruinous event.”

In the aftermath of the hijacking, Ms. Derickson was feted as a hero. NBC made a movie about her, The Taking of Flight 847: The Uli Derickson Story.

But then false rumors claimed that she had not protected, but instead identified, Jewish passengers. She received death threats. Ms. Derickson had to move her family out of her house.

Despite her extraordinary heroism, Uli Derickson remained modest. According to her Los Angeles Times obituary:

She didn’t see herself as a hero. “They threw me a hot potato, and I had to handle it.”


(Photo credit: Vapor trails in the blue sky, Friedrich Haag, Wikimedia Commons)

Vesna Vulovic was a flight attendant for Yugoslav Airlines. Due to a staffing mixup, she was assigned to fly one January afternoon in 1972. An hour into the journey, the plane exploded six miles above earth. Her Telegraph obituary describes what happened next:

Vesna Vulović fell in the central piece of fuselage, her body pinned into place by a food trolley. Pine trees and snow cushioned the final impact. Her screams were heard by a woodsman who had served as a German Army medic in the war and knew how to treat her bleeding. None of the other 27 people aboard survived.

Doctors found that she had a fractured skull, three crushed or broken vertebrae and two broken legs. The three-inch heels had been torn off her stilettos. She was temporarily paralysed and in a coma for a month. The first thing she did on coming round was to ask for a cigarette.

In the aftermath, “Paul McCartney presented her with an award from the Guinness Book of Records and Tito, the Yugoslav dictator, turned her into a national heroine.”

She returned to her employer, but, unable to resume work as a flight attendant, she was assigned to a desk. She lost her job in 1990 after criticizing Serbia’s genocidal ruler, Slobodan Milosevic.

According to her New York Times obituary, “She seems not to have lived the life of a celebrity at all and to have kept mostly to herself.” Nor did she credit fortune, arguing that if she were lucky, she wouldn’t have been in an exploding airplane in the first place.

Ms. Vulovic did acknowledge some benefit, however. Her Telegraph obituary closes with this quote:

‘It made me an optimist,” she said of her experience. “If you can survive what I survived, you can survive anything.”