Recently I heard yet another speaker gush about the golden age of flight. The glamorous days of travel when your mother wore pearls and everybody dressed up. Contrast this with today, she expanded, when people stumble on board in pajamas or (shudder) sweats. I have 73 years of flying experience that says–think again.
Okay, I did wear pajamas on my first flight. I also wore diapers. I doubt my mother wore pearls. It was 1945. My mother and grandmother were taking me from my birthplace in Champaign, Illinois, to grandma’s house in Redlands to await Dad’s impending discharge from the Air Force. Cabins weren’t pressurized in those days. Planes flew lower, slower, and noisier. They frequently had to stop and refuel. There was a storm over Arizona. The combination of take-offs, landings, and turbulence led to abundant use of those little paper bags. Grandma told me later that I was the only one on the plane that wasn’t sick. It may have been a DC-3, but at this point I can only guess.
But that was before the “golden age.” This phrase usually refers to flying in the 1950’s and 1960’s, decades which I remember quite well.
On August 19, 1954 we did dress up because flying was something rare and special for a family like ours. Accompanied by family and friends, we walked across the tarmac to board the plane on a mobile staircase. We were headed to Washington, D.C. en route to Tehran. I remember Dad praising the pressurized cabin. The stewardess passed out candy and gum before takeoff to help our ears adjust. My little brother and I thought that was great.
Two years later we returned to Los Angeles for home leave, flying aboard “Pan American Flight 10, a luxurious DC 7B” from Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, according to my mother’s detailed letter. “Fortunately we were seated on the left side of the plane,” she added, “so we could see our friends and wave to them.” It was almost like seeing someone off on a train. The people waving to us were close enough to recognize.
In addition to ladies in pearls, flight in the fifties and sixties is known for its grand meals and ample legroom. No one mentions boredom. I took legroom for granted in those days, but I found the flights incredibly long. Sometimes the flight attendant would take us up to visit the cockpit and see the control panels. Then we got our “wings,” junior pilot pins for boys and junior stewardess pins for girls. We filled our flight bags with toys and coloring books to pass the time. As I grew older I packed books and asked for airline postcards to write to my friends because there was really nothing to do in the air.
The flight crew managed to stretch out mealtime by passing out menus, then towels, and plenty of food to fill the empty hours. For the adults, drinking and smoking probably helped as well. Every seat had an ashtray. (Smoking on planes wasn’t prohibited until the late 1980’s.) The alcohol only impressed me once, and that was in 1960 when we flew in an Air France jet on its inaugural “over the pole” flight, nonstop Paris to Los Angeles. I was fourteen and there was champagne all around, much to my delight.
Flying was expensive in the golden age and not many people did it. We flew then because Dad was working abroad on a government contract so our transportation was provided. By the seventies and eighties, I had children of my own and we rarely flew at all. If you remember the seventies, however, you may recall the constant headlines about airplane hijackings. More flights, political turmoil, and lack of security checks brought increasing uncertainty to air travel. International flights began using metal detectors and x-rays for carry-on luggage in the late seventies.
At the same time, with deregulation, flight routes expanded and prices became competitive. Soon it was common for people hop on a plane to visit their families or see new places. Today I can even take my grandchildren on an occasional adventure. Entertainment is one improvement I really appreciate. We’ve advanced from nothing to one in-flight movie for everyone to individual seat-back video screens with games and children’s programming. How Billy and I would have loved that!
Don’t get me wrong. I loved flying then. I still do. I miss the leg room but not the smoke. I can put up with the security lines. On the bright side, flying is safer and more affordable than it ever was. The flights are faster and smoother. I would rather travel in jeans than in pearls. I love to take my grandchildren on trips. From their viewpoint, not only are the seats comfortable, but the entertainment is great.
For more about the “Golden Age:”
Huffington Post: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/air-travel-1950s_n_5461411 Dec. 6, 2017. “This Is What Your Flight Used To Look Like (And It’s Actually Crazy).”
https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/30/world/middleeast/airline-hijacking-history.html “Why Airline Hijacking Became Relatively Rare.” By Nicola Clark, March 29, 2016
https://blog.thetravelinsider.info/2016/09/history-airline-classes-cabins.html The Travel Insider, “The History of Airline Classes and Cabins.” Sept. 29. 2018.