Antoine de Saint Exupery
Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Orville and Wilbur Wright
Throughout the 1920s, travel by air was slowly, but steadily, gaining popularity with passengers. One of the reasons flying wasn't more popular with the public was the fact that most people still considered flying too dangerous. In order to win passengers away from trains, the airlines needed to convince the public that flying was, indeed, safe. The one person who would help redefine the image of airline travel in the 1930s was Ellen Church.
Church was a registered nurse from Iowa who was so captivated by flying that she began taking flying lessons. In fact, when Church initially approached Steve Stimpson of Boeing Air Transport (BAT) for an airline job, it was for the position of pilot. Although Stimpson wouldn't hire Church as a pilot, he did see promise in another of Church's ideas. She suggested placing nurses onboard planes in order to combat the public's fear of flying.
Forseeing the tremendous publicity that would result from having nurses on their planes, Stimpson sold the idea to his superiors. In 1930, Boeing Air Transport (BAT), the predecessor to United Airlines, began what other airlines thought at the time to be a bold experiment. BAT hired eight nurses to work as stewardesses on their flights for a three-month trial run. On May 15th, Ellen Church became the world's first stewardess, working the BAT route from Oakland to Chicago. The addition of stewardesses would prove to be an unquestionable success for BAT. Within the next three years, most airlines followed BAT's lead in hiring stewardesses.
The requirements for stewardesses in the 1930s were strict. In addition to being registered nurses, the women had to be single, younger than 25 years old; weigh less than 115 pounds; and stand less than 5 feet, 4 inches tall. The responsibilities of stewardesses in the early years were far from glamorous. In addition to accommodating the regular needs of passengers, stewardesses at times needed to haul the luggage on board, screw down loose seats, fuel planes, and even help pilots push planes into hangars. For their services, the first group of BAT stewardesses earned $125 a month.
While she helped open up the field of aviation to women, Church's own career as a flight attendant only lasted 18 months. After an auto accident grounded her, she completed a bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota and resumed her nursing career. Church returned to the skies in 1942, this time as a captain in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II. She was honored with the Air Medal for her wartime heroics. After the war, she continued her nursing career in Terre Haute, Indiana. Church died from a horseback riding accident in 1965. Church's hometown of Cresco, Iowa named its airport "Ellen Church Field" in her honor.