Where the friendly skies began

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Natalie Stanley
  • 153rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
This is part two of a two-part series about Wyoming's role in aviation history. Part one may be found by clicking here.

You've just reached altitude on your commercial airline flight and are looking forward to kicking back and enjoying a snack and a drink. You look around and there are no flight attendants to be found. All of a sudden the pilot comes out of the cockpit and starts serving the passengers beverages, maybe offering blankets or pillows, making sure everyone is comfortable.

This was the reality for the first passenger service aircraft starting in 1927, with the introduction of Boeing 80s.

"The pilot-mechanic was not only responsible for the mechanical functions of the aircraft but had to ensure that the passenger cabin was supplied," said Michael Kassel, curator of collections at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum. "The pilot-mechanic was also responsible for serving lunches, keeping the cabin clean and attending to the passengers needs."

Having only a two-man crew to accomplish all the tasks made getting the job done difficult. This was about to change however, with the introduction of female nurses as stewardesses.
In 1930 Ellen Church, a registered nurse, approached Boeing Air Transport with an idea of how women could get involved working for the airlines.

"For the women of the time becoming a stewardess was really the only way they could get involved in civilian aviation," said Kassel, "it was absolutely a male dominated world."

According to PBS's article "Chasing the Sun," Church was a registered nurse who was intrigued by flying and even took flying lessons. Church approached Steve Stimpson, of BAT, for a job as an airline pilot. Stimpson wouldn't hire her as a pilot but saw potential in her idea that nurses onboard planes could help combat the public's fear of flying.

On February 24, 1930, Stimpson wrote a letter to his management explaining the idea and benefits of nurses aboard aircraft.

"At first, management was skeptical but Stimpson ultimately prevailed," said Kassel.

To some pilots the notion of women aboard planes seemed absurd, at first.

"From a lot of accounts some of the pilots couldn't imagine having women on board the plane or even around the plane," said Kassel, "they had this phobia that having women on board was bad luck."

On May 15, 1930, the first eight women arrived in Cheyenne to be trained as the world's first stewardesses and the pilot's attitude quickly changed as the women became an invaluable part of the flight crew.

"They had to stock the entire plane for the flight," said Kassel. "They would clean and polish the silver, make sure the thermostats were correct, dust the inside of the aircraft and the stewardess's duties didn't end at passenger care."

"If the plane landed with a problem they had to help push the plane into the hanger," said Kassel, "and if they landed on an emergency field they were required to haul buckets of fuel from the trucks to the plane."

The standards for the women applying as stewardesses were very strict, according to "Chasing the Sun". The women had to be single, younger than 25, weigh less than 115 pounds and stand less than 5-foot, 4-inches.

"They had to be trained as nurses and this was true all the way up until World War II," said Kassel. "They had to have a huge battery of expertise just to apply." These continued to be the standards until 1970.

While attending stewardess training the women's world revolved in and around what is now known as building 16 at the Wyoming Air National Guard Base, Cheyenne, Wyo.

"The school use to be in the office spaces of building 16," said Kassel, "it was known at the time as hangar number three."

"They worked there, they did their homework there, and they slept there," said Kassel. "Every young lady got a dresser, a bed and a lamp and that's what they had."

The women trained five days a week on subjects ranging from etiquette and graceful walking to avionics and first aid.

The stewardess's school in Building 16 trained 1000's of women every year for BAT with the most up to date technology, including a full scale aircraft galley mock up. Graduates would go on to work for United Airlines. They averaged around two years of service, said Kassel.

Kassel said the school continued in Cheyenne until 1962 and was just one more example of the "astronomical amounts of cool things and cool people to come through Cheyenne" during the early to mid 1900s.

Some information in this article was obtained from Michael Kassel's master's thesis and a power point presentation presented to the Wyoming Air National Guard on Dec. 3, 2011. Information also obtained from pbs.org article "Chasing the Sun".