If you watched the Sunday night premiere of “Pan Am,” you might be wondering if the idyllic version of 1960s air travel matches the reality of those who worked for the iconic airline.
Msnbc.com’s Overhead Bin wondered, too. So I asked two former Pan Am flight attendants to watch the show and tell me if their experiences were anything like those portrayed on-screen.
Bronwen Roberts in a 1958 Pan Am graduation photo.
Bronwen Roberts was hired at Pan Am in 1958 shortly after graduating England’s University of Leeds with a degree in French. She flew until 1989 and kept in a scrapbook the advertisement listing the 15 qualifications required of flight attendant applicants. “You had to have a pleasant personality and speaking voice, excellent health and you had to be single,” said Roberts. “Really single. Not widowed, divorced or separated.”
A weight between 110 and 135 pounds was another qualification. Roberts said the pre-flight weigh-ins and grooming inspections depicted on the show were true-to-life.
“When you checked in for a flight you’d go into the office and there’d be a grooming supervisor on duty all the time,” said Roberts. “She could say, ‘Your hair is too long’ or ‘You are overweight’ and send you home until you fixed it. Just like the TV show, you could get grounded for uniform violations.”
Helen Davey also found the on-screen grooming checks familiar. Now a psychotherapist in Los Angeles, she was hired as a Pan Am flight attendant in 1965 at age 21 and flew until 1986.
Helen Davey in an undated photo from her days as a Pan Am flight attendant.
“Yes, we had to wear girdles,” said Davey. “And if you were one minute late for a trip, they’d send you home.”
In the first episode, a child is escorted into the cockpit mid-flight to visit the pilots. Passengers are also offered ashtrays so they can smoke. Roberts and Davey both said that those in-flight activities were once very common.
“We definitely took children into the cockpit so they could sit in the pilot’s seat,” said Roberts. “And in terms of smoking, we’d have little packets of cigarettes and matches that we’d go around with.”
“Even flight attendants could smoke,” added Davey. “But when they did, they had to be sitting down.”
In the episode (spoiler alert), two of the flight attendants are shown doing work for the CIA. If this seems like the least plausible story line, Roberts and Davey both said it was realistic.
“That is definitely a true story,” said Roberts, who during her tenure heard rumors that at least one flight attendant was involved with the CIA. “At one point she just disappeared. No one knew what happened to her.”
In fact, Nancy Hult Ganis, an executive producer for the show and a former Pan Am flight attendant, told wired.com that her research turned up stories about the airline’s involvement with State Department operations on behind-the-scene missions in dangerous locations.
The TV program also shows flight attendants with plenty of time to chit-chat, and at least one crew member involved in an off-duty affair with a passenger.
“Some of those flights were quite long – 15 or 20 hours – and there were fewer people, so you could get to know them,” said Roberts. “People weren’t glued to their laptops like they are now. And some people did end up marrying passengers they met on flights.”
Roberts and Davey had only a few quibbles with the first episode. Both said their uniforms were a warmer, more subdued shade of blue than those worn by the TV actresses and that flight attendants in their day would never be allowed to have hair touching their shoulders.
But there’s one moment that Davey said was spot on. “I liked the scene when they were ready for take-off and one flight attendant says to the new hire, ‘Buckle up. Adventure calls.’ That’s how it was. We all thought we had lucked into the best job into the world.”
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