Serving Foie Gras in the sky

Flying across the Atlantic, I saw a 75th anniversary video about Air Canada’s history. I decided that next time I’d see my mom, I would ask her about working as an air hostess in the 1950s, before the age of jet planes, charter flights and mass tourism.

My mom was born in 1930, in a small, rather conservative shipping town in Norway where women, or certainly married women, were not supposed to work. After finishing high school, she went to secretary school in London, working there for two years. Later, she spent a year as au pair in France, which is where she met a young woman who shared her dreams to become an air-hostess.

The Scandinavian Airline Systems or SAS was a conglomerate of Swedish, Danish and Norwegian government-owned air companies, started after the war. By the time my mom applied to SAS, they had had air-hostesses for all of 7 years. Before then, there were none. Otherwise the flight crew consisted of captain, co- pilot, flight-mechanic, steward and purser – All male, the two latter often gay, though this was of course never stated outright. Those days the names of all the Norwegian air-hostesses could fit onto a single letter-sized sheet of paper. Flying, or certainly commercial flying was still rather new and only the rich and famous could afford such an extravagance. Needless to say, it was every girls dream.

More than 500 women applied to SAS at the same time as my mom, all between the ages of 23 and 27, all below a certain height and weighing under 60 kg. That was the prerequisite. 50 women where shortlisted for the handful spots available. Even with fluent English and French, mom was terrified, cramming her German at the last moment. “Ich bin nimmer in Deutschland gewesen” To my mom, all the other applicants looked much more ‘the role’ than her. But she passed with flying colours along with 11 other women who continued onto the 2-month air-hostess course in Stockholm, consisting of mechanical lessons and meteorology, diaper changing and injection lessons. Yet, there was little to prepare them for what was to come…

Imagine one of those old-fashioned propeller planes that can get up into the clouds, but never above them. Add frequent turbulence and a nasty North Sea gale. Include frequent landings for refuelling at small and cumbersome landing strips. Throw in 30 Danish businessmen smoking cigars from takeoff to landing. Put on some high-heels and a frock and start serving three heavy trays at a time, glasses and silverware abound. And that would be just the start, before the sick-bags started filling up. If you needed to sit down, you would have to sneak a flip-down seat in the cockpit with the pilots. Though there were of course no time to sit down, because you were the only air-hostess on board and every passenger had to be told individually about the safety procedures in their language of choice, given that the speaker-system of the plane was only used for important messages…

There were no trade unions. Though the male crew was paid decently, an air-hostess was paid less than secretaries at the time. The rolling carts they suggested were only brought in a decade later. Your first years were spent exclusively flying within Scandinavia, thus Smoking Danes, complaining Swedes and Norwegian fjord turbulence. Finally proven flight-worthy, you were allowed to fly further afield! A flight from Oslo to Rome took all day and included at least 3 pit stops en route. Very few had been outside of their home country, let alone faraway places. And if you were lucky enough to fly to Africa or Asia, as there were no return-flights for days, so the crew had ample time to explore.

In the early 50’s, Einar Sverre Pedersen, a WW2 navigator educated in Little Norway in Canada, developed the Polar Path Gyro system for SAS, a method of navigating safely across the Arctic. My mom was on the inaugural DC7 flight across the North Pole, establishing a new SAS route between Europe and ‘the far East’, as they called it. The world had become smaller.

The Eastern Block countries presented a problem to pilots in those days as planes were only allowed to fly in a designated ‘air tunnel’ across to Istanbul. Nothing allowed them to deviate from this tunnel and one day their flight crossed path with a tempest. The lights went off, the plane was thrown helplessly about and hail struck the plane from all sides, sounding like machine-gun shots. All on board knew this was their last flight – even the pilots. The plane carcass was beaten to a pulp and had to be completely overhauled after landing, miraculously safe, in Istanbul. One of the pilots later told mom that if one of the egg-sized hail pellets had hit the engine, they would have gone down, air tunnel or not…

Mom flew on for and incredible six years, far beyond the average air-hostess career of two. Her final flight in April 1960 took her from Asia and back to Europe. As always there were a few stops on the way: Tokyo – Manilla – Bangkok – Calcutta – Karachi- Teheran – Athens and finally Rome!

Mom retired from SAS on May 1st, 1960. She and dad got married 20 days later, but that is another story…

One comment Add yours
  1. This is a fascinating look at early days of air travel and women’s roles! I really enjoyed reading it. I can just imagine the cigar smoke! And I can imagine the lewd comments and innuendos from the pilots whenever the Air Hostess sat down in the cockpit for a well deserved rest!

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