Author’s note: I’ve recently come across a flight attendant blog by Heather Poole who writes about flying as a flight attendant in 2020. One of her quotes, “Once a flight attendant, always a flight attendant” helps explain my ongoing interest in the women (and now some men) who serve as Safety Directors on airships past and present.
Weeks ago as part of my historical overview to reflect on the career of women flight attendants, I began this post about TWA’s luxurious Stratoliner. Today I begin to weave the threads of flight attendant history with my own personal story. Challenging, at times, but engrossing for me.
In 1940 only movie stars, the wealthy, and business travelers could afford the price of airfare. At that time, essentially all travelers were traveling first class. Air travel may have looked luxurious in the carefully posed photos of the 1930s — and it no doubt was in many ways—but it was still an incredibly grueling way to travel. The airplane could drop 100 feet at any moment. The lack of cabin pressurization prior to 1940 could cause altitude sickness which meant folks could feel awful. At times, passengers and crew, in flight, needed to receive oxygen.
One historian summed it up writing, “Despite the airlines’ cheerful advertising, early air travel was far from comfortable. Flying was loud, cold, and unsettling. Airliners were not pressurized, so they flew at low altitudes and were often bounced about by wind and weather. Air sickness was common. Airlines provided many amenities to ease passenger stress, but air travel remained a rigorous adventure well into the 1940s.
Flying was also something only business travelers or the wealthy could afford. But despite the expense and discomforts, each year commercial aviation attracted thousands of new passengers willing to sample the advantages and adventure of flight.”2
TWA’s Boeing Stratoliner changed everything!. The Stratoliner was a major achievement! TWA boasted that it was the biggest airliner ever built. It was the first commercial aircraft with a pressurized cabin, allowing it to cruise at an altitude of 20,000 feet! This altitude kept it well above many weather disturbances. The Model 307 Stratoliner had a capacity for a crew of five (two pilots, a flight engineer and two air hostesses) and 33 passengers. During the 1940s many of the other commercial planes in use were not pressurized.
TWA wanted the world to know about this new airship! Print advertising was an important part of spreading the message that luxury and adventure were now available to everyone. And that this relatively new flying metal bird was safe enough for the entire family to come along. Women were still a minority of passengers, but by the end of the 1930s women comprised about 25% of the flying public. 4
In 1941, such an “high-altitude” flight was a remarkable experience, which TWA marked with Stratoliner Club certificates, coins (see the photo above), and other memorabilia including playing cards. That Stratoliner Club certificate, suitable for framing, was awarded to the “small group of distinguished air travelers who have participated in the historical development of the science of upper-altitude air travel.” The passenger’s name was carefully scripted on the certificate and signed by Jack Frye, President of TWA.
TWA’s interiors were created by well-known industrial designer Raymond Loewy, and fitted out with furnishings from the upscale retailer Marshall Fields. On daytime flights passengers had access to a chaise lounge and dressing rooms. A sleeper version offered 16 berths and nine chaise lounges.1
I’m always looking for first-person accounts of those who lived in an earlier era. Ernest K. Gann, author and American Airlines pilot, described the flights in the early years, “The airplanes smell of hot oil and simmering aluminum, disinfectant, feces, leather, and puke…the stewardesses, short-tempered and reeking of vomit, come forward [to the flight deck] as often as they can for what is a breath of comparatively fresh air.”2
Another quip I read from a TWA air hostess who flew in the late 1940s was that the crew often joked among themselves that TWA stood for “Tired Women’s Association”.3
Most people still rode trains or buses for intercity travel because flying was so expensive and possibly unsafe. A coast-to-coast round trip cost around $260, about half of the price of a new automobile. Much of the country was still trying to recover from the Great Depression.
Yet, America’s airline industry expanded rapidly, from carrying only 6,000 passengers in 1930 to more than 450,000 by 1934, to 1.2 million by 1938. Still, this was only a tiny fraction of the traveling public flew. The idea of “coach” service at a lower fare was not introduced until the 1950s.
1939, War in Europe!
On September 1, 1939, Germany (under Hitler) invaded Poland from the west; two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany, beginning World War II. As a counter-attack, on September 17, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east.
Many in the US, both politicians and citizens, were determined to not be drawn into another war in Europe. Isolationism was a great political force in the U.S.
Between 1935 and 1937 Congress passed three “Neutrality Acts” intended to keep the U.S. out of war, by making it illegal for Americans to sell or transport arms, or other war materials to belligerent nations. Yet many in the U.S. were alarmed by all the nations invaded or threatened by the advances of Germany, Italy and later Japan.
President Roosevelt was extremely concerned about the possibility of Nazi Germany controlling all of Europe including Britain. In an effort to supply military aid to its foreign allies during World War II while still remaining officially neutral in the conflict, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, and FDR signed it into law in March, 1941. In a novel approach, the U.S. government could lend or lease (rather than sell) war supplies to any nation deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” Most importantly, passage of the Lend-Lease Act enabled a struggling Great Britain to continue fighting against Germany virtually on its own.
With the Japanese bombing of the US Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the U.S. was drawn into World War II. Four days later, FDR declared the U.S. to be at war with Japan. Two days after the war declaration, on December 13, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the first step toward mobilizing airlines’ resources after the Pearl Harbor attack. FDR directed Secretary of War Henry Stimson to take control of any civil airline assets necessary for the operation of the military air transport system. The United States was suddenly involved in two major wars, one in the Pacific against Japan and the other in Europe against Germany and Italy. Troops were deployed overseas, and combat air forces were formed and located in strategic areas of the world.
Casual air travel virtually ceased in the United States. A tight priority list ensured that only those serving the war effort flew. As a result, aircraft flew more than 80 percent full, 20 percent higher than before the war. The military requisitioned 200 of the nation’s 360 airliners, along with airline personnel.
Wartime Mobilization of the Airlines!
Some in the airline industry’s Air Transport Association were planning for a possible wartime mobilization of the airlines as early as 1937! Records indicate that plans had been drafted that year by Edgar Gorrell for the Air Transport Association. As a result of the ordered mobilization of the airline resources, the Air Transport Command, ATC, a governmental agency, was formed in 1942 to coordinate the transport of aircraft, cargo, and personnel throughout the country and around the world. Major airlines helped with the organization, and the aircraft manufacturers came through with the planes needed for the difficult missions supplying a worldwide airlift campaign. ATC was responsible for the movement of supplies, equipment, and key personnel–basically a major airlift–within its sector and coordinated its activities with other divisions to provide a worldwide delivery system.
TWA’s five Stratoliners were transferred to the government. The Stratoliners, ideal for long-range operations as combination passenger/cargo carriers were converted to U.S. Army Air Forces specifications. The Stratoliners then were designated C-75s and the planes’ heavy pressurization equipment was removed! Extra fuel tanks were added and olive-drab camouflage replaced the airline markings. Maximum gross weight rose from 44,000 to 55,000 pounds.
Maintained and operated by TWA personnel under Air Transport Command’s new Intercontinental Division, the C-75s began flying to war zones across the North and South Atlantic as required, independent of any domestic transcontinental operations. They were flown by the airline’s senior pilots and flight engineers, wearing the same uniforms as Army Air Forces personnel but with civilian insignia.
The early transatlantic flights were all pioneering efforts for the TWA crews, since the C-75s were the first land transports to operate between the United States and the European theater. Regularly scheduled flights soon included Scotland and England, typically via Newfoundland and Greenland, or the Azores to North African bases and on to India and China. Ascension Island, an isolated volcanic island located in the Atlantic Ocean, was the usual stop for the long haul flights between Brazil and North Africa.
Early on, a TWA C-75 made a survey flight on February 26, 1942, as a first step in establishing routes from Washington, DC to Cairo. Three of the five C-75s–remember these are the TWA Stratoliners now operating as troop transports–were allocated to transatlantic service and the other two to the Washington-Cairo route. The latter flights, many of which took off from Washington’s National Airport, often lasted 20 hours. By the end of the war The Stratoliners, or C-75s, as the government called them had flown 3000 transatlantic flights to Africa and Europe. The experience and expertise gained from these strategic flights would serve the civilian TWA operations well after the war ended. TWA’s five Stratoliners compiled a nearly perfect safety record during the war.I’ve been unable to find any information about TWA Air Hostesses during WWII as of this writing. Yet, this is where my own story overlaps with these international events.
My mother, Marie, was raised on Miami Beach, Florida when it was a small town dependent on winter tourists arriving on the railroad. When mother traveled north to visit relatives in Richmond, Virginia she traveled on the Florida East Coast Railway. Florida was the least populated of the southern states in the early 1900s. In the 1930s many military bases were being built throughout the state. The military had taken advantage of the strategic location by the sea, the mild temperatures, flat land, low land prices and mild weather to train year-round.My father, Paul, grew up in upstate New York in the Finger Lakes region. The U.S.army shipped him to Miami Beach for training most likely on a troop train on the Florida East Coast Railway. Both Marie and Paul were recent high school graduates caught up in this national emergency. Over two million soldiers, nearly 15 percent of the GI Army, the largest force the US ever raised, were trained in Florida. What were the chances that these two people who lived more than a thousand miles apart would meet and marry in 1944 before my father departed for the Philippines?
1 p. TWA, Kansas City’s Hometown Airline, Julius A. Karadh and Rick Montgomery,2001 p.24
3 Try Walking Across, Donna Holden, Helen Parker Holden
4 Conquest of the Skies: A History of Commercial Aviation in America, Carl Solberg 1979 p.275