When commercial aviation began, most airline operators felt the skies were only for men, but Steve Stimpson of Boeing Air Transport, a predecessor of the company as we known today as United Airlines, believed, “Flight Nurse,” would be a welcome service for the growing transportation industry, and successfully convinced the people he worked for, which is how today’s first flight attendant was born, but how did Ellen Church get into this historical event?
Before women stewardess were allowed to board planes. The copilot would leave his controls and come back to the cabin to care for the passengers. He handed out the box lunches. He took care of those who became frightened or airsick.
Airsickness was common in those days. Planes flew at about 5,000 feet and at that altitude, the air is often rough and bumpy. Sometimes the bouncy ride made people sick. It also alarmed first-time travelers.
In 1928 a German airline added a third crew member, a female stewardess, before the Americans decided women were allowed on planes. Her main duty was to care for the passengers. This allowed the copilot to stay with his job of helping to fly the plane.
Ellen Church grew up with the air age. She was born at Cresco, Iowa in 1904 one year after the Wright brothers’ successful flight. While Ellen was a young girl she watched airplanes perform at the county fair. Sometimes one landed in a nearby Cresco farm field. Ellen decided that when she grew up she would learn to fly.
After graduating from Cresco High School, Ellen studied nursing. Then she went to San Francisco to work in a hospital. In her free time she took flying lessons. Every day as she walked to and from work she passed the Boeing Air Transport office (a forerunner of United Airlines). Companies like Boeing were starting to fly cargo and passengers all over the nation. One day Ellen stopped in at the Boeing office and asked whether there was any chance she could get a job. Steve Stimpson, the manager, told her the airline was planning to hire stewards, like those on some European airlines.
Mr. Stimpson agreed, but convincing Boeing headquarters was another matter. After some argument, Boeing decided to give Ellen’s plan a three-month trial. Ellen was hired as head stewardess and told to find seven other nurses to work on planes. This was not easy. The job paid a well, $125 a month, but back then that was a lot money compared today’s standards.
Ellen found seven trained nurses who met the rigid qualifications. The early planes could not carry much weight, so a stewardess could not weigh more than 115 pounds. The planes had narrow aisles and low ceilings, so the women could be no taller than 5 feet 4 inches, and age requirement was twenty five years old.
The next time you’re sitting in coach and you complain how uncomfortable your seat is remember this story how the early planes had low ceilings and narrow aisles.
Ellen and her seven nurses worked hard to prove women could handle the job. They cared for airsick and frightened passengers. They took tickets, passed out lunches, served coffee and hot soup. They cleaned inside the plane, and tightened the bolts holding the seats to the floor.
Ten years later the United States entered World War II. Ellen joined the Army Nurse Corps, and helped evacuate wounded soldiers from Africa and Italy by airplane. Because of her experience working in hospitals and organizing the stewardesses, Captain Ellen Church was called to train evacuation nurses for the D-Day invasion of France in 1944. For her “meritorious achievement in aerial flight” she received the Air Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with seven bronze service stars, the American Theatre Campaign Medal, and the Victory Medal.
In lieu of today’s story, it took a pleasant and determined young woman from Iowa to change the narrow minds of the aero industry that women have just as much right to serve on a plane like men do!
One of my favorite quotes from Eleanor Roosevelt, when it comes to how determine women can be when we set our goals high, is when she said, “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water,” which is how Ellen Church became our first flight attendant.
Written and Designed by JD Mitchell