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A Writer’s Nirvana from Cabin to Cockpit

May 19, 2013

I gazed out at the turquoise Atlantic Ocean from my table on the deck of the Singer Island Hilton. Gentle breezes carried fresh salt air and soft laughter. A sumptuous steak smothered in sweet onion rings satisfied my hunger. Merlot and mellow music completed the creative ambiance of my writer’s nirvana. A beautiful Boeing 767 airliner flew past heading south to Palm Beach International Airport. My thoughts drifted back to my two airline careers.

A month after my twenty-first birthday, I began a career as a Pan American World Airways flight attendant. I was based at JFK International Airport in New York City and flew to eighty-eight countries spanning the globe. Those were the glory days of the airline industry. Pan Am stewardesses were treated like movie stars—people asked me for my autograph, and the pilots were revered as sky gods. Gourmet food was cooked to order in first class, and baked Alaska was served flaming. Hollywood legends and international tycoons were frequent passengers.

During my travels with Pan Am, I had many exciting adventures most sane people preferred to experience vicariously in books or movies. Being a blonde in a country full of brunettes helped save me when I was shopping in the bazaar in Tehran, Iran, and rebel factions opened fire with automatic weapons. A shop owner herded me and two blond friends into a back room, down a stairway, and into a dark escape tunnel. He used an oil lantern to lead us to safety. He could have led us to a white slave trader. We had been lucky. Some Scandinavian stewardesses on trips to Beirut had not been so lucky. They had vanished and were never found.

In the early 1970s, I worked a flight to Managua, Nicaragua, and our crew stayed overnight at the Managua Intercontinental Hotel. Howard Hughes resided in the penthouse suite. That night a major earthquake destroyed almost every building in the city, except our hotel which was shaped like a pyramid. HH flew out in his private jet before the aftershocks ruined all the runways and trapped our Boeing. The sky gods drove us out of the burning city on damaged roads all the way to an international airport in the next country. We thanked God for our sky gods.

Throughout my Pan Am career, I experienced many earthquakes, rebellions complete with bombs and bullets, KGB agents hunting me, crazy people and famed international criminals on my flights, and too many adventures to mention now. I participated in the evacuation of Saigon during the final days of the Vietnam War. The cabin crew carried DOD cards with military officer ranks in case we were taken prisoner. The pilots retained their commissions as US Navy officers. We called them sky gods because they always brought us home safely, no matter what.

In the late 1970s, I transferred to Miami and joined the Pan Am Flying Club. Three months later, I earned my private pilot license. The Pan Am sky gods were kind to me. They let me hand fly a Boeing 707 for two hours over South America on a flight with few passengers and good weather. I also enjoyed flying a Boeing 747 en route from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany. The jumbo jet felt as steady as flying a big house. That was my light-bulb moment. I wanted to fly jet airliners.

I quit Pan Am. Two years later, I was the first woman hired as a copilot with US Air, bypassing the flight engineer position. After seven years, I earned my fourth stripe and upgraded to captain. My airline pilot career provided many exciting adventures I’ll save for future blogs.

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