In the early days of passenger flights, air hostesses needed to be small and slender, yet strong and steady enough to carry heavy serving trays with smoking dishes on stilettos through constant turbulence from take-off to landing.
These are some of the memorable encounters my mother, Aase Linaae, had in her ‘flying days’ from 1954 to 1960. Today she is almost 93 years old, but she recalls her flying days as if they were yesterday. And to be sure, they were unforgettable!
First, a few statistics
The Danish airline Det Danske Luftfartsselskab (founded in 1918), The Swedish AB Aerotransport (1920) and the Norwegian Det Norske Luftfartsselskapet (1927) were the parent companies of the Scandinavian Airlines System, which was established in 1946. This was also the year that SAS had their first intercontinental tour with a Douglas DC6Bs from Stockholm to New York.
In 1957, SAS was the first airline in the world to offer a shortcut across the North Pole, with the route from Copenhagen via Alaska to Japan. They still used propeller planes (DC7), as the company didn’t enter the Jet-age – again as a forerunner – until 1959.
In 1960, the company established their first hotel in Copenhagen, and in 1965 they pioneered an electronic ticket system. Two years later, SAS were the first to use a particular type of DC8 with extra long-range, and in 1971 they introduced their first jumbo jet. And as they say – the rest is history.
The 1950s were known as the Golden Age of passenger flights, as it was still considered glamorous to board a plane. Not everyone could allow themselves such a luxury, as it was extremely expensive by today’s standards. On the other hand, the passengers got what they paid for – people dressed up in their finest travel attire, drinks were served in genuine crystal, and hot dishes came on real china and included roast beef and lobster.
Even in tourist class, one could lean the backrest completely down and bring the seat back, so there was ample leg room. The passengers, therefore, received nearly royal treatment – unless they had a real King on board …
Five royal dishes between Copenhagen and London
Gustav VI Adolf, who was the grandfather of the current King of Sweden, was Regent from 1950 until his death in 1973. In 1954, he went on his first official state visit to the UK. He was accompanied by his royal entourage and the most important members of the Swedish parliament. As always, the flight from Stockholm to London had to stop in Copenhagen, and it was here that Aase as a newly graduated flight attendant ended up with the King of Sweden as a passenger.
-Our crew took over on the last stretch to London, and while the first class was reserved for the royal party, we still had regular passengers in the tourist class. The pantry was tight enough on normal flights, with a purser, a steward and one air hostess. In addition, we now got a beefy Swedish royal chef on board who were to take care of the King’s food, and a Swedish air hostess to serve the royal party, while the purser and I concentrated on the tourist class. The steward helped put the food on the special royal porcelain which had to be pre-warmed for all the five dishes that the King somehow was supposed to find time to devour before we landed because Copenhagen to London wasn’t a long flight even back then.
The King sat at the very front of the first class with only a curtain dividing it from the pantry. Despite the noise from the engine, he must therefore have heard how the cabin crew snapped at each other as they collided while trying to get everything done. The planes in those days were generally not full, but to top it off, that day they had a completely full tourist class. That included some very ill-humoured first-class passengers who had been downgraded due to the royal party. And they were of course entitled to free drinks and all that being a first-class passenger entailed.
-The approach with a propeller flight was slow and often bumpy. At the very end of the flight, I was sent into the first class to clean up. The King sat there ever so calmly enjoying his coffee. I couldn’t very well stand in front of him, so I placed myself discretely behind him, to be able to grab his cup before landing. I remember looking across his shoulder, seeing the ground coming nearer and nearer. There was a lot of turbulence that day, and I was terrified that he would spill coffee on himself moments before he was to disembark and step onto the red carpet on his very first English state visit! When the ground was dangerously near, he finally put his cup down. I snapped it up, as we were also supposed to buckle up before landing. Just then, there was another bump and I had to grab onto the hat shelf not to land on the King’s lap. He looked up at me with a friendly little smile – he was otherwise a quite sombre person – and said: “It was a bit of a rush, I guess.”
I managed to toss the cup in the sink and sit down before we hit the runway, but I never will forget that pantry with the royal chef and the five dishes and the porcelain with the royal coat of arms that had to be pre-warmed in the tiny little pantry oven.
Is that really Sophia Loren?
In 1954, SAS opened a route over what they call the magnetic North Pole (which apparently is in Northern Canada). By flying in a curve over the Polar region instead of crossing where the planet is widest, they revolutionized the flying time to California. By 1957 SAS had regular trips to Los Angeles. The route went from Copenhagen to Søndre Strømfjord (now Kangerlussuaq) on Greenland, where the plane stopped to refuel in a tiny stop-over station Then the flight continued via Winnipeg to LA.
-We refuelled and changed the crew in Winnipeg. I recall that we stayed overnight in a real fleabag hotel. In the pub, there was a sign with ‘No Dogs, No Indians and No Women Allowed’ – in that order! If I ever regret not having stolen anything in my life, it is that sign.
The deluxe flights to LA only had first class, often with celebrities on board, so it was on this last stretch between Winnipeg and LA that Aase had Sophia Loren as a passenger.
-The stern cabin on the flights was converted to a kind of dormitory at night. Instead of the hat shelf, the aircraft had overhead bunk beds that we could bring down and make into single beds, while on the cabin floor, we would make four seats into double beds. And it was here, in 1957, when she was at her most famous, that we had Sophia Loren in the flesh laying in a double bed on our flight! (Of course, the purser and the steward suddenly wanted to do all the serving, so I was hardly let through.)
The greatest scandal of the time was that Loren shared her bed with the famous Italian film director Carlo Ponti, who was already married in Italia, where divorce was strictly forbidden. In fact, it was so unlawful that if he had gone back to Italy, he would have been accused of bigamy (with Loren as an accomplice) and thrown in jail. Ponti managed to finally arrange a divorce in Mexico and married Loren later that year.
-There was a lot of gossip about Loren having a relationship with an older director. Since they were not married at the time, it was terribly hush-hush. I recall that we joked about contacting the American press and hinting that she was sleeping in a double bunk with this Carlos fellow on ‘our’ plane.
Full SAS service, including new wife
Terez, one of Aase’s flight attendant friends had directional dyslexia and therefore problems keeping her right from her left. This was even more confusing in a plane, as it depended on whether one was facing the cockpit or the back of the plane.
A couple sat together until the husband went to bed in his bunk, while the wife remained seated, getting more drunk by the minute. When she was to be assisted to bed, Terez asked her where her bed was. The female passenger mumbled something about the left side. Unfortunately, Terez mixed up her directions and brought the inebriated woman over to a gentleman who was sleeping on the right side of the aircraft. The gentleman woke up, pointed at the drunken woman and asked, “What’s that?!?”
«It is your wife, sir», answered Terez boldly, though as it turned out, that was not the case. Rather embarrassed, Terez helped the woman to the correct bed, beside the correct husband, who mumbled “Drunk again!”
When the gentleman who was given a wife that was not his own was departing the plane and bid his goodbyes, he said to the crew: “I have heard a lot about SAS’s excellent service, but I never imagined that I would be presented with a new wife.”
It was a story they laughed about for a long time after.
First behind the Iron Curtain
The pursers and the stewards used to make fun of new flight attendants, and under one of her first longer flights, they threw Aase up onto the hat shelf just as the passengers were about to board the plane.
-I struggled to get out in time because the hat shelves were angled slightly towards the outside walls of the plane so that things could not accidentally fall out. Otherwise, only hats and jackets went onto those shelves, while even umbrellas and walking sticks were placed at the rear of the plane. Just imagine all the enormous bags and suitcases that the passengers stuff into the overhead compartment today …
SAS used 32-seat flights with one flight attendant and two captains on flights within Scandinavia. In Central Europe, they had DC6-engines for 56 passengers including 16 in first class, with an addition of a purser and a steward in the crew. Only after 1957 did they use a DC7 on the longest flights, but they still only had one flight attendant.
In 1954, Aase was a flight attendant when the Norwegian national football team was going to play a match in Moscow. Western airlines were not allowed to fly behind the Iron Curtain, so they flew to Helsingfors (now Helsinki) in Finland, where a Russian plane took over. In 1956, SAS was the first western airline that got a concession to fly to what at the time was the Soviet Union. They had to use a smaller type of plane called Scandia that SAS otherwise only used within Scandinavia because the Russians had a similar type of plane. The crew included a captain, first officer, navigator, flight mechanic and one flight attendant. Incidentally, the navigator spoke Russian, so he came with them on every weekly flight.