Ellen Church on her first trip as a nurse/hostess for Boing Air Transport, 1930.
Sitting interminably in the crammed boarding lounge of a major airport for an overbooked flight mysteriously delayed, you can almost inevitably overhear a nostalgic conversation between older executives or retired men. These frequent flyers will lament the passing of the days when stewardesses where hot babes in heels and tight skirts, who lavished them with pillows, cocktails, and TLC. And if you knew just the right hotels and cocktail lounges you could hook up with the fun loving swingers and the wives need never know. Those girls were virtually the Bunnies of the air.
This image, whether true or wishful thinking, was constantly reinforced in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s by popular culture in books like Coffee, Tea, or Me and in innumerable films line Boing, Boing.
The old men's fantasy.
All of that ended, the geezers will lament, when the damn Federal Government made rules tossing out the traditional airline requirements--women only, single status, mandatory retirement in their early 30s, and weight restrictions. Now, the old men complain, the cabins are staffed by squat, middle aged, homely women, and Gay men. They work over crowded planes and do have not time or patience to lavish individual attention, barely pausing to pour overpriced sodas or tiny bottles of hooch and a bag of exactly seven peanuts.
Your heart practically breaks for the old duffers, doesn’t it?
Of course, even in the days they wax nostalgic about, Stewardess also were portrayed as loyal and brave in air disaster films from No Highway in the Sky, the High and the Mighty, Doris Day in Julie, the Airport movies, to the spoof Airplane!
But female flight crew or flight attendants, to use the preferred terms of today, were much more than either stereotype in the beginning. And we owe it to one woman—Ellen Church who led a quite remarkable life.
Church was born on September 22, 1904 in Cresco, Iowa in the northeastern part of the state, just south of the Minnesota border. That was less than a year after the Wright Brothers first took flight at Kitty Hawk. The Midwestern girl with an interest in science literally grew up along with aviation.
Church as a young nurse.
She wanted to be a doctor, but that seemed unattainable to a young woman and she was discouraged by skeptical parents. Instead, she studied nursing after graduating from Cresco High School. Then, like many restless and ambitious young women in the post World War I era, she escaped small town life and went to vibrant and exciting San Francisco where she worked as a registered nurse in a modern hospital.
In her spare time, Church pursued another dream. She took flying lessons and obtained a pilot’s license. She quickly made a name for herself among west coast flyers and became one of the few women to qualify in multi-engine aircraft.
Church as a pilot--she was one of the first women on the West Coast to be certified on multiple engine aircraft.
Then she dared ask Steve Stimpson, the manager of the San Francisco office of Boeing Air Transport (BAT)—the predecessor to United Air Lines—for a job as a pilot with the fledgling airline. When Stimpson turned down the proposal as impossible and ludicrous, Church suggested that the airline put nurses on board their airplanes as a way of reassuring a nervous public that flying was safe. She shrewdly pitched it as a public relations ploy. BAT was struggling to attract passengers other than adventurers and they desperately needed the revenue to supplement their main income, carrying the mail. But clumsy and lumbering early airliners were still falling out of the sky with some regularity and schedules were at the mercy of unpredictable weather.
The airline decided it was worth a try and gave Church the go-ahead to recruit and train seven nurses to join her in a three month experiment. Applicants, in addition to being registered nurses, were required to be “single, younger than 25 years old; weigh less than 115 pounds; and stand less than 5 feet, 4 inches tall.”
The women’s diminutive size was not just a whim or even the preference of company executives for lithe females, although general attractiveness was an unstated requirement. The airline literally counted ounces. Every additional pound on a cabin attendant had to be subtracted from a profitable payload of mail, passengers, luggage and freight. They also had to be able to stand up and maneuver in the very limited space of airline passenger compartments.
Despite being small, the young women had to be strong. As a bonus to the public relations benefits, Church promised that women could also relieve the co-pilot of many menial tasks that had previously been assigned to them. That including loading and unloading luggage, fueling, and helping push the planes in and out of hangers. In fact taking over those duties helped smooth over the opposition of many pilots to having women crew members. It elevated the status of co-pilots to be relieved of menial tasks.
Despite the hiring restrictions, the rigor of the short but intense training devised by Church, and the physical demands of the job, there was stiff completion for the jobs. Not only did the positions seem to offer excitement and adventure, but the pay was $125 a month, a small fortune for a young woman in Depression ravaged America where a shop girl often made less than $10 a week.
Church and her first seven Sky Girls.
Church and her Sky Girls, as BAT advertising called them, first flew on May 12, 1930. They were divided into two groups. The first worked flights from San Francisco to Cheyenne, Wyoming and the rest from there to Chicago. Church, however, in a tri-motor Boeing 80A airliner piloted by aviation legend Elrey Jeppesen, worked both legs of the grueling 20 hour flight serving 14 passengers. The plane made 13 scheduled stops along the way.
In Chicago Church was greeted by newspaper photographers and newsreel cameras. She was an instant celebrity and the Sky Girls did boost passenger traffic as predicted. The experiment was declared a success and all eight women were hired permanently with Church as their chief. Scores more were hired on other routs as quickly as the newly reorganized United Airlines could add them. Competing airlines were quick to follow suit.
In just three years the first movie featuring a romance between a pilot and an attendant, Air Hostess starring Evalyn Knapp and James Murray hit the screen. It was a B-movie but set the pattern form many more.
By that time Church’s career as a stewardess, as the job became known, was already over. After just 18 month in the air she was grounded by injuries incurred in an automobile accident.
Church returned to school and earned a B.A. in nursing—a level of training only a small minority of working R.N.s then had—from the University of Minnesota. By 1936 she was supervisor of pediatrics at Milwaukee County Hospital.
Ellen Church was the Chief Nurse for the 52nd Troop Carrier Command and oversaw the activities of the Medical Air Evacuation Squadrons. Seen here being decorated for her service.
With America’s entrance into World War II, the flying nurses of the airlines were called to duty by the armed forces. They were replaced by women without the medical training. Church volunteered and with her experience flying, as nurse, and as an administrator, she became a Captain in the Army Nurse Corps. She worked as an air evacuation nurse in the North African and Italian campaigns and then trained the many evacuation nurses that would be needed for the D-Day invasion and subsequent campaigns. For her service she was awarded the Air Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with seven bronze service stars, the American Theatre Campaign Medal, and the Victory Medal.
After the war, Church became the Director of Nursing and later administrator of Union Hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana. She continued flying as a private pilot and led a full, active, and athletic life. At the age of 60 in 1964 she married for the first and only time to Leonard Briggs Marshall, President of the Terre Haute First National Bank.
A plaque at the small Cresco, Iowa airport memorializes the town's home grown heroine.
On August 22, 1965, less than a year later, Ellen Church died of injuries in a horseback riding fall.
She left no children but is the spiritual mother of flight attendants everywhere.