Ultra Swank - Retro Adventures

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

Written by Christopher • 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

Above: Valerie’s Pan Am employee Identification card — Photo courtesy of Valerie Waterman


A Swedish expatriate and founder of Ultra Swank. Chris loves showcasing his passion for mid-century design, defunct airlines, Disneyland and modernist architecture. He's also renowned as a connoisseur of easy-listening music from the 60s and 70s.

Find out more about Christopher

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