Come Fly With Her

By Lance Avery Morgan
Photos Courtesy of Joanne Flynn, Archival images

The recent ABC television show, Pan Am, brought back the glory of mile-high international jet-setting. Here, we get a bird’s eye view into the real flyin’ high world of an actual 1960’s Pan Am stewardess, Austinite Joanne Flynn.

“Flying for Pan Am in the 1960’s was a top-notch job. It really was a chance of a lifetime to see the world.” Joanne Flyn

Champagne. A VIP Lounge. First Class with caviar, china and sterling silver flatware. Stewardesses who looked like fashion models. It was the Swinging Sixties and these were just a few of the posh options you could have while flying the world’s most experienced airline, as it was referred to in its heyday, Pan American World Airways. That was an elegant era; a long time ago before terrorist attacks, locked pilot cabins and flight attendants keeping tabs on bagged peanuts… all of which, elbowed its way into what was once a streamlined way to travel. Then it was a world more entrenched with well-dressed passengers, public etiquette and yes, adventure for a young woman seeking something different in life.

Not so long ago, when a woman wanted to explore a career, she was often relegated to a few professions: mostly as a nurse, teacher or secretary. Endeavoring to become a stewardess (not yet called a flight attendant) offered a glamorous alternative and a chance to go beyond their hometown humdrum. A classified ad for a stewardess for Pan Am from that era might have read something like this:

 

Girl Wanted:

Must Speak at Least Two Languages, Including English

College Education Required

Slim Figure A Must

Outgoing Disposition An Asset

Must Work Well With Others

 

“To represent Pan Am, the stewardesses criteria was to be educated, cultured and refined. We trained to handle everything from in-air emergencies to unruly passengers; all without rumpling our pristine uniforms or mussing our hair,” says Joanne Flynn, an Austin resident who flew for the venerable airline from 1966 to 1969, the heyday of jet-setting. Pert, trim and very much still a vivacious personality, Joanne Flynn is someone you’d want to have take care of you 30,000 feet up in the air. When I caught up with her for this exclusive interview, she was not surprised by all the hoopla over the Pan Am TV show because she realizes what a great time of mid-century aviation history it was, as well as being an amazing opportunity to travel all around the world.

“Flying for Pan Am in the 1960’s was a top-notch job. It really was a chance of a lifetime to see the world. Pan Am stewardesses spoke at least two languages and some spoke three or four. We had to meet certain weight and height requirements, wear hosiery, full slips and girdles, and our hair could not touch our collar,” says Flynn. Sound regimented? You bet it was, but so was the rest of the world then. People didn’t fly in their sweats like they do now, and it was a kinder, gentler world where outward appearance was important. The Women’s Liberation Movement was just a blip on the cultural screen after Betty Friedan’s 1963 groundbreaking novel on women’s life choices, The Feminine Mystique. Babies were rare on planes and because of the expense of a ticket then, flying was much more rarified before the cost deregulation of the airlines in the late 1970’s. A better world than now? Perhaps to some, but we’ve come a long way, baby.

“As a Pan Am stewardess we learned that there was a whole range of possibilities for how to live your life and that every day is an opportunity to expand your sense of what you can do in the world and to enrich your community; all while having a lot of fun,” states Flynn. Her journey with Pan Am started when she bravely moved from Houston to San Francisco in the summer of 1966 and worked as a Kelly Girl temp secretary for large corporations like Kodak and Boeing. A close friend of the family suggested that Flynn try Pan Am. Why not, she thought?

The odds were against her since only two out of 800 Pan Am applicants were actually hired. “I went for my interview and then waited anxiously for the letter to come in the mail, which came right away. I was accepted and so excited and then, immediately off to Miami for training.  I had long hair and had to cut it all off since it had to be short and neat. In the television show, the hair is a little longer on the actresses than was actually allowed,” she notes. In fact, the show has the details stretched a bit further since Pan Am rules were strictly enforced: In the 60’s the airline required its stewardesses to be at least five foot two and weigh no more than 130 pounds. They also couldn’t be married or have children. In an era where college educated women were much more rare than now, the airlines were able to pick the cream of the crop even within these constraints. In addition, the mandatory retirement age for flight attendants was a youthful 32.

Rules, rules, rules for the stewardesses in their light blue uniforms and white blouses. “Anywhere you were off the airplane, if you were in uniform, it had to be complete at all times: hats, short white cotton gloves [we had ¾ length black leather gloves for winter], because we were representing an iconic brand and we knew it.” Flynn recounts. “Unlike on the TV show, we took off our hats, gloves and jacket while on the plane. We had a smock that we wore when we worked in the cabin and it was washable so we could hand wash it at night and it would be fresh for the next flight. There were girls who tried to get away with not wearing the girdle, but really, we looked better with it on,” she confides.

‘There are so many differences between then and now,” she goes on to say, “So many people smoked in those days, especially on planes. And, our shoes were practical pumps, not the sexy, high-heeled stilettos like on the show. We changed into flats that were more comfortable once the plane had leveled off in the air.” It was a far cry from the liberties the TV show has taken by showing the shoeless stewardesses drinking champagne on the floor of the jet in between flights, and certainly a Pan Am stewardess would never have been allowed to sit in the captain’s seat and fly the plane on a whim, injects Flynn. “The pilots on the show are so young, when in reality most pilots at the time were much older and had flown in WWII.”

The stewardesses were a tight knit group. “When we finished training, I lived in a one-bedroom apartment with two other stewardesses. We had two beds in the bedroom and a pullout sofa in the living room and we thought it worked fine because we were hardly ever all there at the same time.” she shares. “The apartment complex had a swimming pool in the middle and it was a great time. Almost all the girl tenants were stewardess and the guys who lived there were stockbrokers, bankers and Miami Dolphin football players.”

“After arriving in Miami at the Pan Am headquarters for training, we had a two month classroom instruction and hands-on training in a mock cabin and galley. For the emergency training lifeboats in the pool of our hotel were used. After two months of thorough training we could hardly wait to get our first schedule and start flying. I vividly remember the thrill and excitement of walking onto the tarmac in Miami to board each amazing flight because another country was calling,” Flynn recounts.

She also recounts, “There was a real difference in the nationalities of the stewardesses. The German girls were usually pretty serious while the girls from Norway, Sweden and France were very sweet.” They would all experience new cultures in their destinations, too. “I flew all over South America, Central America and the Caribbean. I was often “deadheaded” [flying without actually being on duty] to New York City to work the flights to London, Paris and Lisbon. In our layovers we were able to shop for unique things in cities like those and Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Panama and Caracas. Then there were those exotic beaches. We could hardly wait to get to the hotel, which was always the best, and get to the beach or the pool right away and order something special to eat and drink. Since we had the luxury of two or three day layovers due to the long flights, we had time to have fun and get to know the city, wherever we were.”

When asked about more details on her experiences, Flynn reflects with pride, “Pan Am always put us up at the best hotels in town. They treated us like queens. For example, in Rio, we stayed right on the Copacabana beach. Wherever we were, when we got to the hotel destination, there would be an envelope with our name on it arranged by the airline and that would be our cash per diem for the trip.”

The duties of the actual job were many, in addition to taking care of passengers and the pilot crew. “It was a bit of a challenge to cook in the small galley area, but somehow it worked. We served things like rack of lamb, filet mignon and lobster with all the different courses that included wines, cheeses, and other accoutrements. Even in economy class, we scrambled their eggs,” says Flynn.

When asked if there were any challenges that stuck out in her mind, she reflects that the flights were not always smooth. “There were a few turbulent flights during a thunderstorm at night, an incident of almost running out of gas while hoping and praying for enough visibility to land, and a near miss when hearing of a devastating earthquake in Caracas, Venezuela where they were the day before.  Rio was notorious for electricity blackouts and occasionally had the crews trudging down many flights of stairs to catch the van leaving for the airport.”

We trained to handle everything from in-air emergencies to unruly passengers; all without rumpling our pristine uniforms or mussing our hair,” Joanne Flynn.

As far as Cold War intrigue, as portrayed on the television show, she said she was not aware of it.  “I do remember that a Cuban man asked me to deliver a package for him and I declined. I had the sense that I should stay away from that sort of thing, she states. As a civil war was starting in El Salvador and Guatemala, the Pan Am crew was often met by a line of guerrilla rebels with machine guns as they left the plane to quickly purchase hand made items on the grounds around the small airports. They bought items like colorful fabric or a set of beautifully carved wooden salad bowls. “Then we hurried back on the plane passing the rebels with guns again. I still have those wooden salad bowls,” she said, laughing.

Aside from the glamour and excitement, Flynn and her roommate, another Pan Am stewardess, were exposed to the sights of abject poverty that they had never known existed and the women were deeply affected by seeing families living in ramshackle huts, of mothers on sidewalks with babies in arms begging for coins. They began a practice of filling an extra suitcase with clothing to take on their flights which they distributed among the needy they encountered. Her memories of this despair has led her to continue charity work these many years later and Flynn’s children, she states, have grown up with the same compassion. Other stewardesses had similar experiences as many retirees now support their own Pan Am charitable organization, Pan Amigo.

Joanne Flynn loves recalling her Pan Am days. “I only flew for three years and gave it up to be married since the average length of time for a stewardess to fly was between three and five years. Stewardesses didn’t quit because we wanted to – we loved flying. We had to quit if we decided to be married.”

Flynn now stays active in the community by being a top salesperson with Amelia Bullock realtors in Austin. Also keeping her very busy is her hobby as a photographer specializing in family photography and special events.  She has her own picture-perfect four grown children and four grandchildren. “There are many more odd, funny, scary and touching stories about the Pan Am adventures we all shared. I’m sure there were Pan Am angles looking down on us.”  Joanne Flynn wouldn’t have traded the life she has had for the world.  She’s already been there.

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