Sunday, January 13, 2008

Sky Marshal Story - Stewardesses - #14

The fear of mid-air hijackings of U.S. flag airliners spurred the government to create the Federal Air Security Officer – a.k.a. Sky Marshal (lately, Air Marshal) – program in the fall of 1970. That, and my infatuation with a Smith & Wesson Chief''s Special, landed me on International flights, first out of New York, and later departing from San Francisco.

I, along with about 1,500 other Sky Marshals, provided more or less undercover in-flight security from the winter of 1971 through the fall of 1972 when they concluded the program and converted the Customs Security Officers – our formal job title – to other jobs within U.S. Customs. Some moved to other branches of Federal law enforcement.

During the nearly two years I worked as a Sky Marshal, I had almost no encounters with anyone even remotely resembling a skyjacker but I had extensive contact with airline personnel – mostly stewardesses.


Even with my consciousness “raised” by countless feminist rants, how can I still be so…chauvinistic…as to use such an archaic term? In the first place, the term, stewardess, was what female flight attendants were called in the 1970’s and, the second place, at that time it wasn’t a derogatory term. In those – some might say – sexist days, stewardesses were avatars of feminine appeal. They ranked up there with Playboy bunnies and movie starlets. For quite a few young women, working as stewardess was a very desirable job and getting hired was literally like winning a beauty contest. As a result, competition for stewardess jobs was high, at least it was for the major and/or international airlines.

Sitting at the top of the list for prestigious global airlines was Pan American World Airways…later shortened to PanAm. Started in 1927 to fly shuttles from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba, PanAm pioneered trans-oceanic and international air travel. Its fleet of Clippers first lumbered out of San Francisco in the 1930’s destined for what in those days were some of the most exotic destinations on the planet. In the late 1960’s, PanAm debuted the “Jumbo” jet – the Boeing 747 – which was to play a big role in my personal Sky Marshal experience.

By the 1970’s, PanAm had achieved a level of prestige that was virtually unequalled among airlines. Its blue-striped planes were still called “clippers” and bore individual names like ocean liners. Flights of long duration could be staffed by a Purser who would often chart the progress of the flight on a world map that was taped to the First Class bulkhead.

Two of PanAms regularly scheduled flights, #s 001 & 002, circumnavigated the globe each day – one chasing the sun and the other heading the opposite way. To serve its sophisticated international clientele, PanAm’s stewardesses came from all over the world and, from what I could tell, were some of the most attractive and chic of any airline. PanAm’s Scandinavian-born stewardesses were legendary. If you have to ask why, go ask your father. You’re not old enough to be reading this.

In part due to the prestige of international flying and PanAm, itself, the PanAm stewardesses that I met were very proud of their jobs. Since PanAm was barred from carrying passengers between U.S. cities, a PanAm “stew” was guaranteed many opportunities to buy lingerie in Paris, luggage in Spain, shoes in Italy, cameras in Japan, gold in Hong Kong and gems in Bangkok. Almost all were college grads, or planned to finish college after a few years as a stewardess. Quite a few were bilingual and for many, English was a second language.

Best of all, for us guys who were unmarried at the time, every one of those gorgeous gals was single thanks to airline regulations which stipulated that a young woman couldn’t work as a stewardess and be married. Of course, single didn’t always mean available – to the likes of me, at least. Girls as good-looking as your average PanAm stewardess generally had boyfriends, fiancees and/or wealthy sugar-daddies. Some even had fan clubs. For those girls who were still unattached there was furious competition beginning with the pilots, co-pilots and navigators. With each Clipper staffed with by bevy of beauties the cockpit was aptly named.

Still, if you washed behind yours ears, trimmed your nails, could articulate a complete sentence without stammering, and didn’t drag your knuckles when you walked – all of which applied to me – you stood a small chance of asking one of these gorgeous gals out and not having her laugh in your face.

© Stephen Rustad, 2008

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