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Up, up and away ... on a journey back to golden age of flying

TV viewers may need to adopt the brace position as the new Pan Am series takes off on BBC2 this week. But what is life in the skies really like? Two Northern Ireland stewardesses from different eras reveal all to Helen Carson.

A stylish new TV series about luxury airline Pan Am’s heyday in the 1960s will arrive on our screens this Friday. And by all accounts viewers will need to fasten their seatbelts for some of the racy storylines in the BBC2 show. Expect some turbulence as we join the high-flying antics of glamorous stewardesses and dashing pilots in 1963.

In the swinging 60s being an air stewardess was the most glamorous occupation a woman could have. She had to be extremely stylish, slim and good-looking to bag the jet-set lifestyle which often meant taking to the skies with rock stars and screen hunks of the day, as well as staying in five-star hotels everywhere from New York to Singapore ... very often with a string of offers from heart-throbs.

The sky really was the limit for these women. In the TV show, Christina Ricci, who plays Maggie Ryan, dons the iconic blue and white uniform of Pan Am to star in what has been dubbed ‘The Mile-High Mad Men’ because of its stylish, retro appeal.

Behind the glamour, though, the sexism of the era was also a big part of the women’s jobs, but how do today’s cabin crew feel about their role in an industry where budget airlines now rule the skies?

Often described as ‘trolley dollys’, female cabin crew have been described as ‘glorified waitresses’. Even Kate Middleton’s mum Carole, who was an air stewardess at one time, was mocked in the Press before her daughter’s wedding, with the phrase ‘doors to manual’ often accompanying reports questioning the Middleton’s pedigree. Two air stewardesses from each era share their stories about a job than is anything but ‘plane’ sailing.

‘There were quite a few affairs going on’

Gemma Hunt (nee Conway), (69) is married with two children, Michael (31) and Susie (26). She says:

I joined British Eagle International Airlines in 1963 as a ground stewardess, based at Aldergrove Airport.

When the airline stopped its Belfast to London route, I was transferred to Heathrow, where I continued to work on the ground, checking in, doing meet-and-greets and looking after VIP passengers.

One windy night, I was standing on the tarmac, freezing cold and wet, watching the girls coming in off a flight from Singapore.

They were all sun-tanned and fresh-faced, so the very next day I applied to work in the air and got the job.

As well as scheduled flights, we did chartered flights, including trooping flights for the MOD, which involved us signing a secrecy oath, and emigration flights to Australia.

I travelled all over the world, to Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, New Orleans and Rio. Often we had celebrities on board.

I flew with The Beatles, who were all quite rude, Them, Tom Jones, Gerry and the Pacemakers — all the big pop stars of the day.

Chubby Checker, who sang The Twist, even offered me a job as an au pair, but I turned it down.

On the ground I also met Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Mia Farrow and Yul Brynner. Appearance was very important.

We had to be well groomed at all times — light make-up, no perfume and no nail varnish, in case it chipped and went into someone's food.

We also had to be slim, above 5ft 4in and with short hair and perfect eyesight — glasses weren't allowed on board.

We wore a grey and maroon fine-checked jacket, white blouse and a little jockey cap, designed by the wife of our chairman, who was a keen horse-lover.

When the jacket and gloves went on, it was all glamour, but when they came off on board, it was hard work.

There was great cam araderie among the staff and plenty of affairs going on between the pilots and air stewardesses. It was a rule that once an air stewardess got married, she had to leave.

One of my favourite memories was dancing with Gene Kelly to Singing In The Rain down the ramp at 3am on the way out to an aircraft; one of my not-so-favourite is sitting on a long-haul flight with two stewards and six horses on the way out to the Olympics in Mexico.

Let's just say we cleared the airport when we landed!

We were always considered the snobby airline, because we all walked so straight-backed and upright. Little did the others know, it was because we were smuggling half bottles of spirits in those jockey hats of ours!

I had a great time at British Eagle and when it closed in 1968 I was offered a position with Pan Am. My father was ill at the time and I didn't want to relocate to the States, so I turned it down.”

Interview: Maureen Coleman

‘When you’re in the air it’s all about teamwork’

Kelley O’Donnell (36), who gets married to fiance Hugh next year, is from Newtownstewart but now lives in Magherafelt. She is a senior cabin crew member and customer sales specialist (Belfast) for Jet2.com. She says:

I have worked for Jet2.com since 2006 having previously worked as a beauty consultant for Medicare Pharmacy.

I have always wanted to be a flight attendant. When I was at home I would look out the window and see planes flying past, and think, ‘I want to be like that’.

Then when I turned 29 I decided to take the plunge and apply to an airline. The minimum height is 5ft 2in, and as I am just over 5ft 7ins there was no problem with that. The minimum height is so that all cabin crew can reach overhead lockers.

My first interview for Jet2.com was a bit like the X Factor — although obviously you don’t have to sing! There were 30 of us in the room and we had to take part in a day-long series of teamwork exercises that we were assessed on. I had to stand up in front of everyone and introduce myself and talk a bit about my background. When you’re in the air, it is all about teamwork.

We were tested on how we deal with different people — people you have never met before. Difficult situations happen when you fly and it is stressful. They asked me would I be prepared to leave behind family and friends. I told them I was determined to do the job to the very best of my ability.

After this stage I had to sit exams which were a mix of English and maths. The operational system on board is computerised, but sometimes it has glitches so you have to be able to deal with this. I had a final interview to attend and as I was 29 at the time, the panel asked me how I would feel being older than most of the senior cabin crew. But I made it clear their experience was more important, and that I was there to learn.

After I received my acceptance letter I began five weeks of training on the ground in Manchester which includes all the safety aspects, including wet drills in case the plane lands on water. Then I had my supernumary flight, which is essentially a training flight, then you go ‘live’.

I really love my job as no two days are the same. You get to meet characters you just wouldn’t anywhere else. I also feel flying is such a safe thing to do. Safety is the top priority. In an emergency your training just kicks in.

There is a still a slight hangover from the past that cabin crew are just ‘trolley dollies’, especially when they see us walking through the airport in our uniforms and looking so smart. It’s more prevalent among some mature customers.

But to younger people you are just there to make sure they get to their holiday destination. My age-group know that airlines are so competitive these days. We have to do exams every year which you have to pass, as well as refresher courses on all aspects of safety.

At Jet2.com we are encouraged to wear as natural a make-up look as possible — except for the red lipstick that is! I work on international flights, including routes to Malaga, Ibiza and Toulouse. Sometimes I get to spend time at the destination and I will be spending three weeks in Dubai soon.

Jet2.com flies to over 50 destinations worldwide

Fasten your seat belts ...

  • Sony Pictures Television, which is producing Pan Am, has bought the licensing rights to the defunct airline’s trademark, logo and its products, which means if the show is a success millions will be made from clothing and memorabilia
  • Pan Am executive producer is Jack Orman, the man behind hospital drama ER — which made a global star of George Clooney
  • Orman says scores of women who worked for Pan Am as hostesses were interviewed about their role, and it was ‘intimated’ that some of them were asked to take part in work for the secret service as they were all |attractive, highly-educated and multi-lingual
  • Christine Ricci, Kelli Garner, Karine Vanasse and |Margot Robbie all star as the sassy air stewardesses
  • Pan American, under the leadership of the charismatic Juan Trippe, was one of the pioneers of commercial transatlantic service

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