How Pan Am stewardesses became the 'playgirls of the air'

EXCLUSIVE: Seducing passengers, skinny-dipping with expats, and partying in between flights: How Pan Am stewardesses became the ‘playgirls of the air’ during the Golden Age of Travel

  • Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan-Am, published on March 2, explores the lives of flight attendants during the Golden Age of Travel
  • Author Julia Cooke, the daughter of a former Pan Am executive, speaks to three stewardesses, who told how flying for the airline was ‘an honor’
  • Pan Am – officially known as Pan American World Airways – was the largest international air carrier that saw mass success in the 1960s and 70s 
  • The airline, which went bust in 1991, became famous for its modern fleet and commercializing transatlantic routes
  • It was also known for its airline stewardesses, most of whom were young college graduates that were recruited for their physical appearance 
  • The book reveals how some stewardesses would compete to see who could entice the most attractive men on board a jet headed for Hong Kong
  • In one occasion, eight flight attendants attended a party at the African beachfront home of a UK accountant where they went swimming nude 

Nearly three decades after going bust, Pan American Airways remains one of the most famous cultural icons of the 1960s, recognized by its famed blue globe logo and naval-style crew uniforms that became a symbol of luxury during the Golden Age of Travel.   

The now-defunct US airline, was the largest – and arguably the most successful – international carriers during the jet age thanks to its modern fleet and commercial transatlantic routes that revolutionized the industry.  

Pan Am’s rise to prominence came at a time when traveling by plane was considered almost a formal event or even an exclusive party in the sky.  

In addition to being pioneers of the modern air travel industry, the airline became famous for its flight attendants, back then referred to as stewardesses, who were trained to provide top-notch service on board. 

‘Stewardess Wanted. Must Want the World’, a Pan Am recruitment advertisement read in 1967.

The world famous airline was offering young, unmarried – and mostly white – women a chance to become globetrotters with a position that allowed them to explore foreign cultures, nightlife in exotic cities, and sexual encounters overseas.

Come fly with us: Aside from helping revolutionize air travel, Pan Am was also famous for its flight attendants – or stewardesses – who were trained to provide top-notch service on board 

Pan Am stewardesses are considered cultural icons of the 1960s and 70s. Pictured: Three Pan Am flight attendants pose in their uniforms at London Airport in September 1971 

The world famous airline had offered young women a chance to see the world by advertising  opportunities for easy international travel on six continents in the 1970s (pictured)

It was an enticing offer for sophisticated young women yearning for something more than graduate school, staid jobs after college where career options were limited or marriage and a family. 

The jetsetting lives of these women are documented by Julia Cooke, the daughter of a former Pan Am executive, in Come Fly the World: the Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan-Am, published on March 2.  

‘The game wasn’t about love or even always about sex. It was about adventure, desire and power. And no shame if it was about sex,’ Cooke writes. 

‘Pilots had lovers in various ports. Why shouldn’t she [stewardesses]?’ 

The jetsetting lives of these women are documented by Julia Cooke, the daughter of a former Pan Am executive, in Come Fly the World: the Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan-Am, published on March 2

There was a big new world out there for young women who met the airline’s criteria.

There were games between stewardesses to see who could entice the most attractive men on board a jet headed for Hong Kong, to de-board in Tokyo for a wild night on the town with women in the crew.

Topless bars, boisterous parties, rounds of drinks, games of liar’s dice or dancing in the warm night air was a thrill some stewardesses pursued.

One stewardess boasted of having five dates in one day in Hong Kong and dancing until the sun came up.

There was the lure of Liberia’s capital city, Monrovia, for the crew on an African flight, safaris in Nairobi, jazz bands at the Equator Club and uproarious parties unlike anywhere else – along with ‘worms as big as snakes and snakes as big as tree trunks’.

Just landing at a sandy airstrip was a thrill with the promise of what would follow.

Parties at the African beachfront home of one English accountant where eight stewardesses and expats stripped down to go swimming promised pleasure along with fear when one girl almost didn’t make it back with the strong outgoing tide.

There was excitement and danger along with the thrills.

In Johannesburg, bullets penetrated the plane. 

When flying out of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, with an American diplomat on board, stewardesses were advised not to stand near the door.

The life of a stewardess promised new encounters overseas and thrilling experiences. One stewardess boasted of having five dates in one day in Hong Kong and dancing until the sun came up. (Pictured: Pan Am stewardess Karen Walker sits in the engine of a Boeing 707 in the 1970s)

The call to come on board had strict requirements that included a college education, age 21-27, height 5’3′-5’9′, symmetrical features, clear skin, hair above the shoulder or pulled back at nape of neck. Pictured: Lynne Totten fills baby bottles en route to Saigon for Operation Babylift.

Round faces, close-set eyes, scars and moles and being married were undesirable in an industry that prized youth and beauty

Pan Am was the US’s largest – and only – international airline, making it one of the most exclusive forms of travel back then 

In West and Central Africa, hijackers had seized civilian aircraft.

The Nigerian army was stationed at the end of the runway in Lagos and fired at the plane in liftoff but ‘few stewardesses considered anything hazardous enough to ruin their fun.’

They knew how to party hard and ‘crews rarely said no to a dare’.

There were also grand hotels, exotic foods like dried octopus and seaweed in village markets.

There was the Taj Mahal to visit in Agra, India and a snake charmer hypnotizing a cobra with a mongoose in New Delhi.

In Bangkok, the Siam Intercontinental Hotel had a petting zoo and a pet gibbon that sat on your shoulder for hours.

Whether it was a gibbon or feeling young, alive and moving passionately, dancing until dawn – that was the life some women were seeking, according to the author.

They were all hungry to see the world.

Pan Am was the US’s exclusive international airline and when the doors opened after a flight, stairs descended into a new country.

It was the first and only commercial airline to circle the globe for decades and ‘it was the American flag for all practical purposes, an extension of the US government’, a CIA officer told the author.


As a Pan Am stewardess, there was excitement and danger along with the thrills of traveling all over the world. Pictured: Tori Werner’s training photo, 1966, (left) and Hazel Bowie (right) in her training photo, 1972

Karen Walker, left, and Tori Werner, right, assemble and arrange bassinets for babies onboard

By 1966, Boeing 747s were added to Pan Am’s fleet after combat in Vietnam brought in lucrative government contracts. The addition of the new plans were a turning point in the industry but ultimately led to the downfall of the airline 

‘Company offices served as a shadow State Department.

‘Even before there was Coca-Cola in some places, there was Pan Am’.

With Pan Am’s New York to Paris route, the first jet age had begun in October 1958 with the purchase of the Boeing 707 aircraft.

By 1966, Boeing 747s were added to the fleet after combat in Vietnam brought in lucrative government contracts.

One of the three stewardesses the author extensively interviewed believed ‘Flying for Pan Am was an honor, the best job in the world with a paycheck that made her pinch herself’.

She ignored her parents when they said, ‘You’re nuts! We’ve just paid for four years of college’.

The perks were insurance, free air travel, paid vacation and stipends on layovers – along with a winter tan, shopping in Italy and Paris for the latest in anything, Beirut for jewelry, a pearl necklace in Hong Kong or knee-high boots in Tokyo.

The call to come on board had strict requirements that included a college education, age 21-27, height 5’3′-5’9′, symmetrical features, clear skin, hair above the shoulder or pulled back at nape of neck – as well as femininity and sophistication that stooped just short of sexual availability.

Flight attendants played a vital role in Operation Babylift at the end of the War, when President Gerald Ford initiated the airlifting of orphans left in Vietnam fathered by US soldiers. Pictured: Karen Walker carries an infant aboard

Bassinets and cardboard boxes are seen on and below the seats of one of the babylift flights

President Ford greets the first load of infants at San Francisco International Airport 

Undesirable were round faces, close-set eyes, scars and moles and being married in an industry that prized youth and beauty.

Diplomacy was key and that included preparing Passover meals as well as knowing the meaning of Passover.

The women had to prepare fluffy scrambled eggs as well as mix an excellent dry martini.

A special issue of the company newsletter shows off both the new 747 and the new stewardess uniforms, 1969

Grooming lessons included how to apply lipstick for a ‘more beautiful smile’, proper posture, skin-care techniques, makeup, and acceptable haircuts.

Any change in looks required management approval and there were weigh-ins every six months and fanny pat downs for a girdle check.

The first uniforms were a skirt falling one inch below the knee with a white blouse tucked neatly that wouldn’t inch up when reaching into an overhead compartment.

There was the blue pillbox hat with white piping, a jacket that resembled executive suits on Madison Avenue, a square blue shoulder bag and navy blue high heels.

First-aid training necessary was mandatory as well as the ability to have control over the cabin and passengers should any violent conflict erupt on ground.

With the arrival of the second jet age in mid-60s, and the addition of Boeing’s 747s to airline fleets, tourism to foreign cities increased by 200 per cent.

Frank Sinatra and Brigitte Bardot frequented Beirut so all major airlines started stopping there and it became known as ‘the city that aviation build’.

Bangkok’s flowing canals were made into streets and became choked with Toyotas and Buicks after aviation had increased tourism by six-fold.

The early 70s ramped up sexual implication that stewardesses were ‘playgirls of the air’.

Now sex was overtly implied with stories of stewardesses having detailed sexual exploits with ‘swarthy foreign men’.


By the mid 1960s, flying Pan Am became somewhat of a status symbol. Pictured left is Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco, standing outside a Boeing 707-321 airliner, circa 1960. Right, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr is seen boarding his Pan Am flight to Europe in 1965

Pan Am stewardesses are seen presenting the gold wings to a grinning Bill McNichols, the mayor of Denver, after he was made an honorary Pan American Airways 747 jet pilot in July 1970

The book, ‘How to Make a Good Stewardess’ offered illustrations of naked, uniformed stewardesses.

One Playboy bunny on learning what was going on with the stewardesses said the life of the bunny couldn’t compare to the swinging in the sky and on the ground.

Airlines capitalized on the male fantasy with seductive advertising: ‘Skirts were up, prudery was down’.

Southwest Airlines stewardesses wore red hot pants and white go-go boots while walking through airports between flights where ‘love potions’ and ‘love bites’ were served rather than drinks and snacks.

Black vinyl pants could now be worn under their mini-dresses for that ‘wet look’. Jersey knits that clung to the body were introduced.

Stewardesses were suddenly made into vamps.

Advertising campaigns screamed, ‘Fly me’, ‘Take the world by the tail’.

The 1970’s book, Coffee, Tea or Me? along with the bestselling sequel, implied sex in the skies.

The Super-Jet Girls book also promised ‘a mile-high frolic with the playgirls of the air!’

Often overlooked is the dramatic role that Pan Am and its stewardesses played in the Vietnam War.

Class of 1969: Air stewardess Karen Walker,is seen center row, second from the right, in her training-class photo

The scene on the tarmac upon landing at Tan Son Nhut

In 1966, the Department of Defense instituted the R&R program, a ‘Pipeline to Paradise’ that sent thousands of soldiers on five days of rest and recuperation during their 12-month tour of duty.

Pan Am flew 1,800 military passengers from Vietnam to Hong Kong and back, along with 1,200 to Tokyo and back for $1 a month.

Every stewardess on a flight into Vietnam carried paperwork designating her as a second lieutenant in the US armed forces.

They also carried their Geneva Conventions ID card that ensured they would be treated as a prisoner of war if captured by enemy forces.

But they are little recognized for their role in Operation Babylift at the end of the War.

In 1975, President Gerald Ford initiated the airlifting of orphans left in Vietnam fathered by US soldiers.

South Vietnam citizens panicked on hearing stories of communist brutality toward the biracial children of American solders and left their babies in orphanages in Da Nang and Saigon.

They believed that the North Vietnamese fighters and the communist government were going to massacre anyone who had collaborated with the Americans.

Rumors had spread that the new regime would slit open a child’s belly and eat the liver.

The orphan airlift brought 2,242 children, many biracial, to the US over a three-week period with stewardesses keeping the terrified children under control.

‘The din and scent of the frightened children was unbelievable’ and many had hepatitis, meningitis and chicken pox, the author writes. 

‘It was the most incredible scene of deprivation and illness I’ve ever seen’, stated the medical director of the orphan center in San Francisco.

‘The staff of some fifteen were so exhausted that many of the women could barely stand’.

Pan Am’s final flight out of Saigon marked the last commercial American airplane to enter and exit the city for three decades.

Airline flight, once the province of the rich and businessmen, now had a growing economy class traveling around the world.

But by the 1980s, with the hike in interest rates and fuel prices, airlines were in trouble.

The Intercontinental Hotel Group, owned by Pan Am went on the auction block as did the one-time Pan Am building on Park Avenue and East 45th Street – the last New York skyscraper displaying its brand name in large letters.

It was sold to Met Life.

Pan Am declared bankruptcy in 1991 and its last flight landed in Miami in December that year.   

These stewardesses were brave, barrier-breaking women in the ’60s and ’70s. 

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