Not-So-Famous Firsts: Who Was the First Stewardess?


Editor's Note: Last fall, Kara Kovalchik wrote a story titled '8 Not-So-Famous Firsts,' which covered such topics as the first auto insurance policy and the first wet t-shirt contest. This year, in our newest semi-regular feature, she'll be teaching us about all sorts of underappreciated firsts. This week's topic: aviation. Enjoy!

The term seems hopelessly outdated today, but until the early 1980s, the majority of airline cabin attendants were female and it was commonplace to refer to them as "stewardesses." In the late 1920s, a registered nurse named Ellen Church was so captivated with air travel that she took flying lessons. She approached the president of Boeing Air Transport (BAT) for a pilot position and was turned down. He did, however, like her alternate suggestion—having a registered nurse aboard each commercial flight to assuage the passengers' fear of flying. Air travel was still a new idea at the time, and fledgling airlines were in need of some sort of safety assurance in order to encourage the general public to choose an airplane over a train for their travel needs.

On May 15, 1930, Church became the first stewardess when she worked the BAT flight from Oakland (California) to Chicago. She wore a specially designed uniform that included her nursing pin, and she served drinks and meals as part of her duties. BAT (which eventually became United Airlines) hired seven more stewardesses shortly afterward, and three years later each major airline had at least one stewardess aboard (who was not only a registered nurse, but who also was single, younger than 25, and weighed less than 115 pounds.)

In-Flight Movie

The first movie shown on a scheduled basis on a commercial flight was By Love Possessed. Unlike the already-available-on-DVD movies shown on today's flights, the 1961 potboiler starring Lana Turner and Jason Robards was still fresh in theaters when TWA started screening it in July of that year on flights between New York City and Los Angeles.

The first recorded hijacking of a commercial airplane occurred in Peru on February 21, 1931. A group of five Peruvian rebels commandeered a Pan American Airways Fokker F7 mail plane for the purpose of dropping propaganda leaflets from the sky.

Airport Codes
In the earliest days of aviation there weren't any official "airports"—any field with enough space for take-off would do. In the early 1920s, though, certain large cities had enough demand for air travel that small airports were built, and since temperature, precipitation and wind speed/direction were critical factors in air travel, the National Weather Service began using these airports as data points for reporting the weather. The NWS assigned two-letter codes (LA for Los Angeles, PH for Phoenix, etc.) to each airport for easy reference.

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Airport Metal Detector
Airport security was virtually non-existent until a rash of hijackings occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Note that in the 1970 disaster film blockbuster Airport, not only was Helen Hayes able to freely travel around the world as a stowaway, but Van Heflin also easily carried a briefcase full of dynamite onto an international flight. In December 1972, the FAA finally decided that skyjacking was a big enough concern to issue an ultimatum: all U.S. airports had one month to install the necessary equipment and procedures to ensure that each and every passenger and his or her carry-on baggage would be properly screened.

The first metal detectors used at most airports were large, clumsy devices called magnetometers. These machines were originally designed for the logging industry (if a piece of metal is present in a log, it can severely damage the saw, so the magnetometer was devised to prevent mill shutdowns.) Unlike the door-frame design of today's metal detectors, the original magnetometers were tunnels about five feet long. Passengers walked up one ramp to enter the device, and down another to exit.

In-Flight Meals
Various airlines served cold sandwiches and hot coffee aboard flights (sometimes distributed by the co-pilot) as a way to attract passengers in the 1920s. In 1936, United Airlines established the first "in-flight kitchen," which had chefs preparing hot meals behind the scenes for stewardesses to serve to passengers en route.

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