The Way We Were

Posted 11/16/03

From Donna Eaton

(This 2001 article by Ed Lowe was originally published by a Chicago suburban newspaper. It is reprinted here with the permission of Mr. Lowe and Inside Publications)

No contemporary newspaper is complete without at least one reference to airport overcrowding or airline scheduling flaws. And now, there’s the additional problem of airport security. That’s not the way it used to be. Donna Eaton knows that. She began flying for TWA in 1947 when their fleet consisted of sturdy DC-3 planes. The crew was a pilot, a co-pilot and a stewardess.Donna was one of those pioneering air hostesses -- even before they changed their designation to "stewardesses" or "flight attendants."

Those years after the war saw a lot of changes in flying. Planes were to become the transportation of choice over the next few decades, but then, passengers were dressed well, drank very little. Flying was a prestigious way to go anywhere and Donna was one of those people who helped create the glamorous image of commercial flying. She pursued what might have seemed like an impossible dream. She was born in Flint, Michigan and when she was a seventh grader, she got an A+ on an essay titled "Why I’d like to be an Airline Hostess."

In September 1947, she actually saw that dream come true when she won a job with TWA -- those letters then stood for Transcontinental and Western Airlines -- owned by the fabled Howard Hughes until 1960. Training took eight to 10 weeks and her class was the first that required only two years of college and no designation as a registered nurse. Requirements for hostesses were stringent. The salary was about $230 a month. Hostesses had to be unmarried and between 21 and 25 to apply for a job, they had to be between 5’2" and 5’6" tall and weigh no more than 120 pounds. In addition, they had to wear the company-supplied lipstick and nail polish in a color called TWA Red. Girdles were required items of clothing. If she were to go into a place where liquor was sold while in her flight uniform, she had to cover her insignia so that no one would know she worked for the company.

During those early years, she flew on the 21-passenger DC-3. Flights were from her Detroit base to such exotic destinations as Toledo, Cincinnati and Dayton. "To me it was just as exciting as it was for the hostesses flying the longer runs. We were called air hostesses. The title ‘stewardess’ was a marketing term that came in as the airline industry began to grow up. When we were on the plane, we were told that our passengers were to be treated as if they were in your own living room. Passengers had good manners and wore dressy clothes. There were almost no problems on board.

"I was an alternate delegate to the meeting in Chicago that set up the first union for stewardess in about 1948. I was very much a company person, but the abuses we suffered were so bad that something had to be done. Now, most of the problems we had [then] are covered by Federal Government regulations. I remember a flight from Kennedy in New York to Shannon that stopped in Boston. We got out over the Atlantic and then went back to Boston because of mechanical difficulties. The passengers weren’t told about turning around until we landed. I was required to get the same plane ready. I wasn’t relieved from duty and I had to work 36 straight hours. I was exhausted.

"That’s when I realized we needed help because there was no union. I didn’t want to do that again and I sure didn’t want someone else to have to go through that kind of flight. It was too bad that, in a profession you really enjoyed, the companies took advantage of their employees.

"Larger planes came along and I was able to fly the piston-powered Lockheed Constellation to Europe. We might have had as many as 130 passengers on board. A purser was assigned to every flight although he was doing the same job as I was and the two of us served the passengers during the 13- hour flight to Shannon, London, Paris, Lisbon. During that time, passengers were allowed only two drinks and there simply were no drunks on board. I flew for only six and a half years and then was assigned to office work in Detroit and in New York where I worked on the desk planning international tours for 14 years."

Now, Donna, after 38 years with TWA, is an active member of the "Clipped Wings," an organization of retired flight attendants -- there are 14 members in the Chicago area. She’s active as a volunteer at the Art Institute, an associate at the Newberry Library, a life member of the Eastern Star and a member of a group called Friends of American Writers.

Actually, Donna has never landed. She’s as active and vital as she was during those pioneering days of commercial aviation when "air hostesses" hung passengers’ coats in available space and served meals alone on 21-passenger, twin-engine planes.

(Donna Eaton (1947 – 1985) served TWA as a flight attendant and tour-planning specialist based in DET and NYC)

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