I'm Ellen, fly me: the birth of the stewardness

Beautiful, helpful, reassuring - flying just wouldn't be the same without an air stewardess. Yet for one woman, she might never have existed. Seventy-five years after Ellen Church first took to the skies, Andrew Buncombe celebrates a true trailblazer
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The Independent Travel

From all accounts the in-flight service that momentous day was nothing remarkable.

From all accounts the in-flight service that momentous day was nothing remarkable.

The dozen or so passengers flying from Oakland, California, to Chicago, Illinois, in a clattering Boeing 80A tri-motor plane owned and operated by Boeing Air Transport (BAT) were served a meal of chicken, fruit salad and bread rolls. They were told not to dispose of their glowing cigarette butts through the open windows.

What was exceptional was that the simple meal was served - and the fire safety instructions were delivered - by a woman. That woman - the world's first airline stewardess - was the late Ellen Church and the pioneering flight took off 75 years ago this week. To mark the occasion, United Airlines, the successor to BAT, has invited its flight attendants to wear any vintage uniforms they may still have.

But the story of Ellen Church and her role in the creation of an industry whose members are seen as either glamorous jet-setters or glorified "trolley dollies", deserves more than such a low-key celebration. It is a tale of overcoming the odds in a business world dominated by men and of a time when aviation was a decidedly precarious activity. It is a throwback to an era when getting on a plane was anything but the everyday experience that it is nowadays for some people. Rather it was a world of dashing, handsome pilots, of flasks of hot coffee being handed around the passengers and of the swirling wool capes worn by the newly minted stewardesses. It is a story that unavoidably comes with a strong dash of romance.

"It's the story of the first industry pioneered by a woman," said Johanna Omelia, co-author with her husband, Michael Waldock, of Come Fly With US!: A Global History of the Airline Hostess. "She made aviation history."

Church had not wanted to be an airline hostess. Not for her the world of serving others and being looked down on by the pilots; she originally wanted to join the growing number of civil pilots and fly the planes herself. The young woman from rural Iowa had even taken flying lessons in San Francisco and would have been on her way to joining the staff of one of the US's fledgling airlines had any of them at the time accepted female pilots.

Instead, one day in 1929, Church was window shopping in San Francisco when she saw an advertisement in the window of the BAT office promoting the airline's new service to Chicago and its new male stewards who would be on board to look after the passengers' needs. Stewards, or "cabin boys", had first been introduced by Britain's Daimler Airways in 1922 but BAT had only introduced them in 1926 after the manager of its San Francisco office, Steve Stimpson, had helped out on a bumpy flight from Salt Lake City by passing around coffee to the passengers. He decided afterwards that having a dedicated steward would be a good idea.

It was Stimpson that Church approached on 23 February with her revolutionary idea: if stewards were there to help keep passengers calm, what better way to achieve this than by showing how safe BAT's planes were by having supposedly weak and fragile women working on the flights? What's more, as the safety and well-being of the customers was of prime concern, why not insist that these stewardesses were trained nurses?

She told him: "Mr Stimpson, if people imagine women casually living in the air, choosing to work there, would it have a good psychological effect in helping rid the public of any fear?"

Stimpson was immediately hooked by the idea. In a letter that he dashed off to his boss suggesting a three-month trial with female attendants, he wrote: "Imagine the national publicity we could get from it and the tremendous effect it would have on the travelling public. Also imagine the value they would have to us, not only in the neater and nicer method of serving food but in looking out for the passengers' welfare." The suggestion was turned down flat.

Stimpson and Church persevered and eventually BAT agreed to the trial. Church helped Stimpson recruit and train a further seven women - Alva Johnson, Margaret Arnott, Inez Keller Fuite, Cornelia Peterman, Harriet Fry Iden, Jessie Carter and Ellis Crawford - and the pair of them drew up a manual to guide the new staff. To highlight the professionalism of the so-called Original Eight, the women were given a uniform of a dark-green, double-breasted wool suit with silver buttons and a wool cape to keep the women warm in the draughty, unheated cabins.

The cape's pockets were required to be large enough to hold a spanner and a screwdriver to secure the passengers' wicker chairs to the floor of the cabin and a railway timetable to be consulted if a flight was delayed or abandoned and passengers had to be found other means of getting to their destination.

"You have to remember that flying in those days was terrifying," said Waldock. "It was flying at below 10,000ft because there was no oxygen so you were below the weather and flying into it. They made their money flying mail and there were only 12 to 15 passengers on board."

If the female airline attendants of today sometimes balk at the requirements never to show bare legs and to apply a thorough battle-mask of make-up before every flight, requirements of the women in the 1930s were no less oppressive. Applicants had to weigh less than 115lb (as to permit maximum capacity for mail) and be no taller than 5ft 4in. They had to be aged no more than 25 and - after the trial of the Original Eight - applicants had to be single. (During the initial trial the husband of the one stewardess who was married would persistently telephone and pester Stimpson whenever his wife's flight was delayed and she was late coming home.)

The new staff were to be paid $125 a month and it was agreed that the new attendants would be called stewardesses "at least", said Church, "until a more suitable name can be found". The women were also taught about basic aeronautics and the physics of the aircraft they were flying in so they could explain to passengers any changes in the noise of the engine or any turbulence. Church once joked, however, that the women were not experts. "We could never get our coffee hot when flying out of Cheyenne because of the altitude - and we were too dumb to know why."

While today's airline attendants have to deal with all manner of troubles and challenges in the air, few would envy the tasks required of their predecessors. In addition to screwing down the seats and serving meals, Church's handbook instructed the stewardesses that they were also required to swat flies in the cabin, calm passengers and mop up any leaks from the lavatory.

She also instructed them that the pilot and co-pilot should be given a "rigid" military salute when they boarded and that a "ready smile" was essential. At the end of the flight, stewardesses were sometimes required to help push the plane into the hangar.

Harriet Fry Iden, one of the Original Eight who died in 1979, once recalled: "Our lavatory was very nice with hot and cold water but the toilet was a can set in a ring and a hole cut in the floor so when one opened the toilet seat, behold, open-air toilet! Soon chemical toilets made their debut. The only thing wrong with them was in rough weather and turbulence: I would often see the contents of the toilet running out into our cabin from under the door which meant a quick mop-up. That, I did not like."

Another member of the original group, Inez Keller Fuite, remembered that when the planes were forced to make emergency landings in farmers' fields, the stewardesses had to help knock down fences to enable the plane to take off again. "The plane ran out of gas and had to make an emergency landing in a wheatfield," she once recalled. "People from the surrounding area came in wagons and on horseback to see the plane. They'd never seen an aircraft before and they wanted to touch it and to touch me. One of them called me the Angel from the Sky".

For all the hardship that the stewardesses had to endure, their presence on board quickly paid dividends. According to Waldock, after their introduction bookings at BAT soared by 30 per cent. Soon all other airlines were rushing to copy Church's idea.

Church was born on a farm in Cresco, in the far north-east corner of Iowa, on 22 September 1904. As a child during the First World War she spent hours watching servicemen learning to fly at the small airfield close to her home. She was apparently mesmerised by the noise of the engines. The house in the small town in which she was raised is no longer there and a fire station is now on the site.

"There is nobody left around from her family. She had no children," said a somewhat forlorn-sounding Mary Ann Billmyer, of the Cresco Historical Society. "She had a brother who married, but there were no children. It would be nice if the house was still there but it is not. We have some pictures of her; that is it."

But the town still celebrates her achievement. A road sign on each of the four main routes into Cresco announces to the visitor that the town is the birthplace of the world's first airline hostess. "It's something that the teachers tell the pupils in the school," said Kenneth Becker, news editor of the Cresco Times Plains Dealer. "They talk about her achievements, especially that she was a woman who made her mark in the world."

Given her achievement and later fame, it was ironic that Church spent just 18 months working as an airline attendant. She was grounded after a car accident and she returned to the University of Minnesota, where she had been a student during the 1920s. In 1936 she became supervisor of paediatrics at Milwaukee County Hospital.

But she returned to the skies in 1942 as part of the war effort, serving as a captain in the Army Nurse Corps and was honoured with an Air Medal for her efforts helping treat wounded soldiers in north Africa, Sicily, England and France. At the end of the war she took up a job as nursing director and, later, hospital administrator at the Terre Haute Union Hospital in Indiana.

It was in Indiana that Church married Leonard Marshall, a former president of the Terre Haute First National Bank, in 1964. Little more than a year later she died in a horse-riding accident.

In the town where she grew up she is still remembered. In addition to the school lessons and the leaflets printed by the town's chamber of commerce, she has also been remembered at the tiny airfield where, as a child, she watched those early airmen take to the skies.

Nowadays, anyone flying into Cresco will land at the Ellen Church Field.

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