Ultra Swank - Retro Adventures

Come Fly With Us – The Story of a Real Pan Am Stewardess

Written by Christopher Alm • May 28th, 2008
Come Fly With Us – The Story of a Real Pan Am Stewardess

Valerie with fellow stewardess Colette in a brand new Boeing 747 — Photo courtesy of Valerie Waterman

FIFTY YEARS AGO, 1958 — the jet age officially makes its mark in history with the launch of the Boeing 707. Jet planes could fly to their destinations non stop, cheaper and faster than before. Air travel was now longer not restricted only to people of wealth.

The infamous phrases “Fly me friendly”, “coffee, tea or me?”, stewardesses with big smiles, elegant outfits and long legs making sure that your trip is an unforgettable experience is the epitome of fantasy air travel. But what was it really like? Is there any truth behind how air travel was portrayed in its golden days? Ultra Swank travels back to 1970 to talk to former Pan Am stewardess Valerie Waterman.

STILL ATTENDING COLLEGE in California, living a typical laidback Californian lifestyle Valerie felt restless.
— I did not have a direction where I wanted to take my life. I got an interview with Pan Am at the San Francisco airport.
On the way to the airport it was raining cats and dogs, she got into a multi-car accident.
— I arrived one hour late to my interview, soaking wet, with blood on my dress. I apologized, and felt certain they would never hire me under the circumstances.
However, two days later, a large envelope arrived in the mail “Congratulations you have been accepted”.
— I wish I still had that letter.

PAN AM HAD ITS BASE of education in Miami, Florida. The living situation was a not very classy motel with four women to a room. There were about a dozen European women as well as Americans in the class.
— I remember we had charm and grace training where we were taught how to sit with our knees and ankles together. We were also taught how to allow a man to light our cigarette, lightly touch his hand while looking into his eyes.
Pan Am stewardesses were expected not only to be charming and sophisticated but also know how to walk with grace.
— There was make-up and hair training – just exactly what it sounds like. There were hair rules we had to follow. Long hair had to either be in a bun or a pony tail. They cut my hair short. I hated it.
— Safety training was actually fun. We got to practice in mock-up jets – we’d “evacuate” in various mock emergencies. We even got to go down an emergency slide so we could instruct passengers on how to do it right.
Not all of the exercises were held on the ground though.

— THE FIRST FLIGHT I went on was a training flight. A group of about 10 trainees boarded a 747 in Miami for what was known as a San Juan turn around. We flew very early in the morning from Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico, stayed for lunch and then took a return flight. It was lovingly referred to as “the vomit comet” – largely because the passengers were typically not your high-roller types, but were simple people without much travel experience.
What did go through your mind during that first flight?
— I recall how surprised I was to learn how much people stared at us.

AFTER GRADUATION FROM THE PAN AM academy the girls got assigned their base of operation. Valerie and the rest of her class all went to New York.
— I got my “wings” pinned on me in New York City, Pan Am Building penthouse by Juan Trippe and Najeeb Halaby. If that doesn’t make a 20 year old girl feel like royalty, I don’t know what does!
Having earned her wings, Valerie was ready to take off to the sky in her brand new blue Pan Am uniform.
— My first real flight as a working stewardess was to Paris. We were still trainees, the regular crew watched us as we new ones worked the cabin. I was barely an adult when I started, and I was introduced to the world wearing a cute blue uniform and a funny hat. I felt like a million bucks, actually!

I almost wish I could tell you it was not glamorous, but the truth is, it was fantastic!

AS A FULLY FLEDGED Pan Am stewardess Valerie Waterman got to experience the world first hand. Exotic locations, food and layovers were all part of her new glamorous lifestyle.
— I almost wish I could tell you it was not glamorous, but the truth is, it was fantastic! The sights were amazing; I learned more about culture, geography and human behaviour during those years – things I could never learn in college.
But of course, not everything was glamorous and stylish.
— Picking up garbage, getting things spilled on me, and looking and smelling like a refugee after being on a plane for 20 hours. The jet lag was unrelenting. Something people don’t usually think about is the body’s circadian rhythm is very disturbed by this strange lifestyle. A big topic at crew parties was sleep, not sex!
During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s several rather daring and sexist marketing campaigns were used to attract the attention on male passengers. You could “fly” one of National Airlines stewardesses or experience the Braniff “air strip” in flight.
— I thought it was fun, I was not offended. South West Airlines was out there – the colours – the hot pants and those bucket hats! We weren’t allowed to hoochie ourselves up like that. We were supposed to be classy – sometimes I made that goal – and sometimes I was a goof.
It was not unusual for real life stewardesses to be featured in ad campaigns during those times.
— I remember being in a Pan Am print advertisement once. It was for some local advertisement in Asia. I never got saw it though.

Before take off, drinks were served on the ground, delivered using a small tray. We wore our white gloves during this service.

HER FIRST BASE OF OPERATION was New York City, JFK airport. Coming from a friendly California community Valerie had a hard time adjusting to the some what introverted New Yorkers.
— I talked to everyone I met in New York and this made other people suspicious that I was hustling them.
Most Pan Am flights out of New York were usually bound for Europe and the Middle East. After a few years working Valerie transferred over to the San Francisco hub.
— While I was based there, I generally did the “round the world” trips. I’d work for 10 days – go around the world on Westbound 001 – and have two weeks off. Then, usually I’d go around the world Eastbound on 002.
She is of course referring to the famous Pan Am 001 and 002 flights. Introduced in 1947 they took passengers who could afford it around the world with San Francisco as a starting point and then touching down at Honolulu, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Delhi, Beirut and Istanbul before going back to San Francisco. The flights offered truly luxurious service, especially in first class cabin.
— Before take off, drinks were served on the ground, delivered using a small tray. We wore our white gloves during this service. The cabin crew memorized passenger names as best we could, so we could refer to them individually. “May I take your coat Mr Templar? Here is the dinner menu – I’ll be back in a moment to take your order. Would you care for a drink before we depart the terminal?”

VALERIE RECALLS THAT ALL the service equipment had the Pan Am logo on it. Silver, glasses, table line, everything. The menus were colourful and beautifully printed for each region of the world. Probably collector’s items by now. Hot scented towels were offered to each passenger using silver tongs; this was a very important procedure Valerie points out.
— After take-off an aperitif was offered along with wines and good French champagne from a cart with a silver ice bucket. Imagine if you will, clinking ice in crystal glasses. Each passenger’s table in first class was set individually with linen, silver, wine goblets, small cut glass salt and pepper shakers – the works.
Pan Am stewardesses were trained to handle everything, in a way they were at the same time hostesses, entertainers and service attendants. In other words; wonder women.
— We served food table side using two large silver serving spoons in one hand, almost chop-stick style the food was delicately cradled between the spoons. Sometimes this was difficult with slippery food!

TODAY THE GENERAL SITUATION and service onboard airlines is different. The glamor, excitement and the experience of making the plane trip a part of your journey is now a thing of the past. Valerie Waterman like many other frequent fliers observes that it does not appear that the flight cabin crew is enjoying themselves very much. The crews tend to ignore the passengers except during meal service.
— I used to play chess with my passengers. Of course, I was usually on very long flights and I had plenty of time to get to know people. After we showed a movie we’d pass out blankets, pillows, sleep masks and Pan Am playing cards. There was a lot to do – especially in first class.
Another thing that has changed today is the introduction of male flight attendants.
— When I started, there were no male “stewardesses”. We did not call ourselves “flight attendants”, it was females only. In many ways, this made it more glamorous.
Valerie flew the open skies with Pan Am for six years until 1976 when she got inspired from flying over to a war torn Vietnam.
— I was on the last Pan Am scheduled flight out of Saigon. It was a 747, we came into Saigon with only a handful of passengers on board. Some Pan Am office staffers, there to close out the base and a small group of civilian nurses, whose purpose was to go into the ever-growing refugee camps and assist where they could. We were on the ground in Saigon for a few hours. It was chaos. Our Captain told the group of nurses there was no guarantee they would get out of there once this plane took off, and they certainly could not get out on another Pan Am flight, because “this is the last one.”
After that experience Valerie decided to leave Pan Am to go back to college. She graduated with a degree in nursing which she has practised for 28 years now and still loves.

MAYBE WE DO HAVE TO go half way around the world to realize that we were meant for some other cause. Meanwhile, never be afraid to follow your heart and impulses. You never know what’s around the next cloud.
— Isn’t it funny how events can open our eyes to something missing in our lives? Valerie asks, and how right she is.

Above: Touchdown in Australia, Valeries first visit “down under” — Photo courtesy of Valerie Waterman

Above: Valerie with her favorite Pan Am captain — Photo courtesy of Valerie Waterman

Above: Valerie with her friend Colette from Switzerland. She later married a PAA captain and moved to the US — Photo courtesy of Valerie Waterman

Above: Wing tip, “dumping fuel” before making an emergency landing in San Francisco during a bomb scare — Photo courtesy of Valerie Waterman

Above: Beirut, before any war broke out. It was an irresistible city full of delightful things to see and do — Photo courtesy of Valerie Waterman

Above: The group graduation photo at Pan Am in Miami, Florida — Photo courtesy of Valerie Waterman

Christopher Alm

Christopher founded Ultra Swank in 2005. Has a crush on mid-century graphic design, defunct airlines, Disneyland and the Century 21 Exposition. Is a collector of easy listening music from the 60s and 70s and a Swedish expat living in Barcelona, Spain.

Find out more about Christopher Alm

  • Charles

    The first time I flew was in the early 80’s and it was first class. From then to now, air travel has definitely become depersonalized.

  • Diego

    Even economy class was better because not as many seats were placed in a cabin. Great post.

  • Chris

    Maybe we’ll wake up tomorrow to discover that someone just brought back Pan Am, TWA and Braniff airlines? :)

  • valerie

    Just saying hello Christoffer.
    Happy landings!

  • Chris

    Hi Valerie, hope you are doing good! Happy landings to you too! Forgot to ask you this, do you still have your stewardess uniform or didn’t PAA let you keep it?

  • valerie

    I still have one uniform. They did not “let” me keep it.



  • Chris

    Woah, someone is up early ;-) Which uniform did you keep? The blue or brown one?

  • valerie

    The blue one. I have the skirt, the jacket, the derby hat, the Pan Am flight bag … I do not have the white blouse with the little necktie. This uniform is a size 2.

    I kept 2 sets of stewardess wings. They made an up-dated design of our wings, and we were supposed to turn in the old wings to get our new wings. The older design was the nicer of the two, so I kept it.

    I was supposed to return all these items when I quit … but, I was bad. (no remorse, can you tell?)

    My daughter wore my Pan Am uniform as a costume one Halloween.


  • Chris

    Oh yeah I was just gonna say that someone should wear that uniform again.

    I have a blue PAA flight bag, it’s the mid ’60s version seen in the movie “Catch me if you can” and a Junior Clipper Stewardess pin along with a 747 boarding pass and baggage tag.

  • Lepus

    Wounderfull story, i could actually see this made in to a great movie full of nostalgica showing how great the world used to be :-)
    Today traveling by plane is no more glamourus then taking a bus ride. Myself i flew for the first time around year 2000 and even in that short time it is possible to see a great decline in service.

  • Anonymous

    I’m trying to find out what a ticket on the 002 flight in 1977 would have cost. Does anyone remember? Valerie? Thank you!

  • Atika

    Valierie, it was amazing! It would be a pleasure to read many-many more reminiscence from you! Greetings: Atika

  • Anonymous

    Ciao Valerie,
    my father has worked for pan am from 1952 until his retirement with delta in 1996…when you started in the 70’s i was a kid and remember very well your uniform…if i am not wrong the hats were made from Borsalino an historical hat factory in northern italy…i have many touching memories of pan am !Thank You ! FC

  • JukesRunway, the collection

    Hello Valerie,

    What an amazing story! I hope to become a flight attendant soon! Im 17 years old, live in the UK and love Pan Am! I collect stewardess unifroms too, i only have a ground staff Pan Am scarf. Do you know whee i could egt a Pan Am uniform, ive always wanted one and it would look amazing on a stand in my room!
    Let me know!

    Also, visit my website http://www.jukesrunway.com

    Love your stories, any chance of more?

    Take Care and the ebst for 2009, Juke

  • Ron

    It was really neat reading about you and your experiance as a Flight Attendant.
    My father was in the Air Force and I remember my very first flight overseas was from New York Kennedy to Munich on Pan Am and I even remember the flight number..91.

  • Fhardyfan

    I read it again today. So good! Hope to read more in the future!

  • Virgin747Steward

    Hi Valerie,

    How lovely to hear of your experiences. The days of glamour and excitement are sure gone! People don’t get dressed up to fly anymore, it’s all slacks and tracksuits.

    The hot towels are still there, and the silver and crockery (at least at my airline), the exotic locations and layovers are still here too. But you’re right, it’s the picking up rubbish, the gashing in, cleaning the toilets that are the bad bits. The majority of our passengers are lovely, but some can be remarkably rude – but the smile stays there!

    Thank you so much for sharing your memories, it’s made me proud of my job again!

    747 Steward

  • Franklin

    Hello Everyone,

    Does anyone know where I could get a Pan Am Stewardess uniform like the ones worn in the Movie – Catch Me If You Can? I would need a size 4. Thank you!

  • @Franklin The ones in the movie would obviously not have been real uniforms but something the costume department made up. The bags are real though, even though they were reproduced from the original ’60s bags.

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  • Brian

    Valerie, while I enjoyed the trip down memory lane, I did not appreciate your negative tone towards male flight attendants. We are a great addition to the onboard experience and now a days, certainly and most always, much nicer to look at. Also, flying has changed dramatically from the 1970’s for flight crews, loss of pensions, deep paycuts, discrimination based on union activity. It would be interesting to see how your attitude would be today if you had kept your job as a Flight Attendant.

  • @Brian I am sure Valerie has nothing against male flight attendants. This story was posted to shed some light on how it was to work as a stewardess back in the early 1970s, something light, trippy and fun to read. If would never work in Life Magazine, if you know what I mean.

  • Valerie

    Brian, I agree that male flight attendants are wonderful.
    Back in the 70's, during my Pan Am days, all the Flight Pursers were male. In other words, the males had higher pay and more authority. The boys were in charge.
    I did this interview from the perspective of a “Stewardess”, not a “flight attendant”. Please, do not be offended, as there was no offense intended.

  • Brian

    I enjoyed reading your trip down memory lane. What an exciting time those 6 years must have been for you. You did this job at a time when it was truly an important job not to mention a job that a lot of people wanted to get as well. I have flown for 19 years, starting in 1991. I have had many great experiences and I continue to maintain my positive outlook, despite the burdened and constantly changing airline industry. Nonetheless I am beginning to hear whispers and often a shout or two telling me that it is time to move in a different direction. Again, thanks for your contribution. Warm wishes and the best in 2010.

  • sandyPAFA

    Glad to hear everyone enjoys keeping Pan Am alive. I began flying for them in 1979 and it was the best 10 years! So sorry they are gone. Wish I could have kept my uniform and would love to have one now. Safe flying!


  • Sounds like you had a great time Sandy. Happy landings!

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  • Roman G.

    What a great article. Flying sure was a treat in the days before Reagan-era deregulation and modern terrorism. Thanks for sharing your memories, Valerie !

  • Brian

    loved hearing of your experience with Pan Am. I really wanted to fly as a flight attendant and after applying to several airlines for a year or so was hired by one but they unfortunately went bankrupt before our training period was over.lThat was in the late nineties. At that time I decided it was not meant to be. But to this day I deeply regret not being able to fulfill my aspiration. I still often wonder just what the experience would have been like. I travel by air on average once a month and every time I am on an aircraft I regret not pursuing the position. Once again thanks for sharing your experience



  • From then to now, air travel has definitely become depersonalized.

  • I flew Pan Am in 1960, and I thought you had to be over 21 and not more than 26 to apply for the position.  I only flew for 2.5 years and married a Turkish professor and we lived in Istanbul.  My book came out late April, 2011 called “Through Her Eyes – An Infidel’s Perspective” and an excerpt can be read on the website at    http://www.cynthiabhuntington.com  go ahead look, and then please buy! 

  • Peter

    I enjoyed your article, Valerie.  I was a flight attendant and training specialist for US Airways for US Airways from 1989 to 2004 and loved the experience of domestic and international flying.  I left the airline (and luckily got free lifetime passes) in 2004 to try out a new career and am now the organizational development manager at a major media company, which I also love.  There is no career, though, that is quite like a flight attendant career.  It was a fantastic experience! 

  • Valierie, it was amazing! It would be a pleasure to read many-many more reminiscence from you! Greetings: Atika

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  • bonnieb

    Valerie……….you couldn not be more wrong…..I was a Purser from 1968 to 1986….and the “boys” were certainly not the ones in charge…..only if they were junior to me…..  get your story right.  bonnie bonnet 

  • Wouter

    Hi Valerie:
    Thanks for the wonderful webpage! Quick question: you were forced to changed the music on your YouTube page http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8llXDkhIRE&feature=related
    Could you tell me what that piano piece is? I am looking for the title for a long time already!
    Thanks. Wouter

  • Hi! I can’t speak for Valerie, but I assume this is stock music from a music library that YouTube licences.

  • Daniel Hoffmann

    Liebe Valerie , Es ist einfach nur wunderbar und für mich bist Du ein Teil von Pan Am, Danke

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