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Dan Catchpole | dcatchpole@heraldnet.com
Published: Friday, May 16, 2014, 12:15 p.m.

The women who changed commercial aviation

Eighty-four years ago, Ellen Church climbed aboard a Boeing airplane at the Oakland, California, airport and changed the airline industry forever.

Church became the first female flight attendant on May 15, 1930, when she took care of 14 passengers aboard a Boeing 80A — a passenger biplane — on a 20-hour trip with 13 stops to Chicago. The carrier was Boeing Air Transport, which eventually joined other operators to create United Airlines.

Church, who was 25 at the time, helped define the role of the flight attendant, opened the door for women in the airline industry and soothed some of the American public’s anxiety about air travel.

Despite her youth, the Cresco, Iowa, native was already a registered nurse and a licensed pilot.

Church actually approached Steve Stimpson of Boeing Air Transport about flying for the airline. But like most industries in America at the time, aviation was a man’s world. A few airlines had experimented with male stewards.

“Back in those days, it was the copilot’s job to look after the passengers. He passed out box lunches and served coffee from a thermos bottle,” Stimpson said in public comments years later. “Our planes flew at about 100-110 mph, barely fast enough to stay in the air, so we couldn’t fly very high. Consequently, rough flights were the usual thing and passengers often got airsick.”

Many people were reluctant to fly. Church thought trained nurses could make them feel more comfortable about flying. Stimpson agreed and hired her and seven other women.

Most airlines followed suit within a few years.

In addition to taking care of passengers, stewardesses sometimes had to load luggage, fuel airplanes and even help push them into hangars, reports KCET-TV, a PBS station in Los Angeles. “For their services, the first group of (Boeing Air Transport) stewardesses earned $125 a month.”

The women also had to be single and younger than 25.

Church left aviation after an automobile accident about 18 months later. During World War II, she served as a captain in the Army Nurse Corps.

She died in 1965. Cresco’s airportEllen Church Field — is named in her honor.

It has been more than 100 years since the first woman — Raymonde de Laroche — received a pilot’s license, and 84 years since Church led the way for women into commercial aviation. But it’s only been recently that women have made it into the flight decks of commercial jetliners, and they still make up a small fraction of airline pilots.

707 turns 60

Wednesday marked another important anniversary: 60 years since Boeing rolled out the Dash 80 — the prototype of the 707, its first commercial jetliner. The plane was unveiled at Boeing’s plant in Renton, where the company assembled more than 1,000 of the iconic 707. It also produced several hundred of the plane’s military variants.

The plane first flew July 15, 1954, and on Aug. 7, 1955, Boeing test pilot Tex Johnston performed a barrel roll in the Dash 80 over Lake Washington.

SeattlePI.com has photos of the Dash 80 rollout. It was not as big a deal for Everett, where Boeing had a limited presence then. It would be more than a decade before the company came north to assemble the 747 at a new Everett facility by Paine Field.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.
Story tags » AerospaceBoeingGeneral AviationHistory

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