First Flights

Snow Covered Alps, Rome-Zurich Flight, 1964. Photograph by Donald T. Nelson

Snow Covered Alps, Rome-Zurich Flight, 1964. Photograph by Donald T. Nelson

It’s difficult to imagine now, but back in the 50’s and 60’s airplane travel was the preserve of the wealthy or for businessmen—interestingly enough, the same people who travel first-class today. Most middle-class families couldn’t afford the cost of air travel. On the rare occasions they flew, it was for special trips painstakingly planned and saved for. Flying anywhere was a special event for most people.

Joan didn’t take her first flight until the spring of 1968 when she was seventeen years old. Her dad had flown on several business trips earlier in the 1960’s at company expense, but Joan’s family had never flown anywhere together. Joan remembers her dad taking pictures during one of his flights to Italy in 1964 to show the family. In one photo you can see the wing of his airplane and below, through the cloud cover, the snow-covered Alps. This photograph, taken high above the clouds, amazed a young girl who had always had her feet firmly planted on the ground.  Joan still has the photographs of her father’s trip to this day!

Joan’s first flight was precipitated by a birth. A cousin had been born in December 1967, and Joan had been chosen to be her godmother. Joan’s aunt helped pay for a flight from Pittsburgh to Atlanta where the baptism was to take place. Back then passengers dressed for air travel, and for Joan that meant a skirt or dress, stockings, and her Sunday-best shoes.

As there were no security procedures to go through, Joan didn’t have to think twice about anything she carried in her purse. Joan’s parents took her directly to her gate at departure and were waiting at the gate on her return. After leaving her at the gate, they probably went up to the observation deck to watch her plane take off. Driving to the airport and watching the planes land and take off was at one point a popular pastime for families on Sunday afternoons, even if no one we knew was flying anywhere!

Unlike the tightly-packed flights of today, Joan remembers several empty seats on her flights to and from Atlanta. In fact, she had a row of seats all to herself, with no one next to her. Most of the passengers were businessmen in suits. Meals and drinks were served, and smoking was permitted (smoking was permitted most anywhere back then, including the doctor’s office).

Since baggage was included as part of the airfare, no one brought ridiculous amounts of carry-on luggage with them. There was no insane competition for places in the overhead storage compartments. It certainly seemed like the seats on the flights were roomier and had more leg space than today. Part of this was a consequence of fewer people flying, but it sure seemed like the seats themselves were more spacious. Was that an illusion? Pure nostalgia on our part? We would love to see if there are any statistics on seat size to back up our recollections.

Because she had never flown before, Joan didn’t know that the meals were included in her ticket. She turned down the meal offered by the stewardess (oops, we guess that is “flight attendant” now), thinking she would not have enough cash for the whole trip. Joan didn’t find out until she got home that the food was included in the fare. Of course, now food costs you extra on almost all domestic flights.

The stewardesses on the plane were pretty, glamorous young women in smart, stylish uniforms and high heels. Only single women were hired as stewardesses, and they had to meet certain age and physical requirements for height and weight. They couldn’t even wear glasses. Only the beautiful need apply! It was a coveted profession for girls Joan’s age back then and had been glorified in some movies of the era. A girl who lived up the street from Joan fulfilled her dream of becoming a stewardess. She had been a high school cheerleader and clearly was pretty enough to make the cut.

Before that first flight Joan could only imagine what it was like to be thousands of miles above the earth. Actually experiencing it as a young teenager was exhilarating. She has no recollection of being the least bit frightened on that first flight. She still has little fear of flying itself but has developed a real distaste for the security-crazed, fee-grubbing, crowded, and uncomfortable conditions of modern air travel. Fewer people, less stuff to carry-on, more leg room. The whole flying process was less stressful and more pleasant. Airplane travel has certainly changed quite a bit over the last fifty years, and not always for the better!

Greg, his sister, and his mother had flown as a family before, in 1957 and 1961, to meet Greg’s father in Germany during his two tours of duty there. They had flown propeller-driven planes across the Atlantic, on both occasions arriving at Frankfurt Airport. The planes, as he recalls, were not commercial airliners but part of what was then called MATS (the Military Air Transport Service). The family didn’t fly home on the return trips from Germany but took ocean liners like the USS Patch. Greg remembers being fascinated by the propellers and amazed by the sun glinting off of the wings and the clouds so thick one could almost imagine walking on them.

Greg was living in Pittsburgh when he took his first solo flight in September 1968. He had been accepted to Arizona State University and had to get to Phoenix, Arizona to start college. For Greg the trip represented an escape of sorts. He couldn’t wait to be away from home and on his own. He doesn’t remember many details of that first trip except that at the airport they thought he was on the ASU football team and gave him a ride to campus on a bus carrying other (real) football players.

Today Greg and Joan are seasoned air travelers. Indeed, we enjoy travel, or more, specifically, being in new, exciting, and exotic places. What we don’t enjoy so much anymore is the getting there. Over the years government regulations and airline greed have eroded the experience for the average flier. While “being there” is great, “getting there” is no longer half the fun!

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