B.A. Walters began her adventures as a Pan Am Stewardess on March 14, 1949. Lynn Lawrence Oberle (also featured on our website) was also in B.A.’s training class, in Miami, Florida and the two remain friends to this day. There were 11 women and two men in the class. Thirteen new hires reported for three weeks of training to a very tiny building near 36th Street in Miami Springs, Florida.
B.A.’s childhood home was in Jacksonville, Florida. She attributes her interest in flying to her father, William. As a youngster, her father would take her flying in his open cockpit “flying machine.” B.A.’s father owned a lumber company in the Jacksonville area and stunt flying was his favorite hobby. B.A. was hooked on flying and very, very independent. She attended college at Stetson University in Deland, Florida where she majored in English and Sociology.
B.A. says “I was planning on being a stewardess the entire time. My father was a pilot, and yes, as a woman you could learn to fly but not as a career. I knew you needed a college education and being a stewardess was what I always wanted to do.” Upon graduation, B.A. promptly called Pan Am and they said to come down to Miami to interview.
“There was not a particular focus to the interview,” BA notes. “They asked about college and my education. I had long hair at the time and they asked me if I would be willing to cut it, and of course, I said yes. They wanted to know if I spoke Spanish, and they questioned me a little in Spanish. I found out I was hired that day but they said there was no class, so I had to wait until the following March, a break of about six months. Sure enough, they called me for a March class.” When asked “How do you think your life would have been different if you had not chosen to work for Pan Am? ” B.A. answered, “I would have worked in some capacity for an airline.”
Pan Am promoted B.A. to Check Purser. “I checked the stewardesses, and not just the stewardesses, but the entire flight service crew on board. I took flights everywhere and even did some training of new hires, two classes. Much of the work as Check Purser was in the office, so they made me a supervisor too. I did grooming checks. I remember one time a stewardess had just cut her hair, but really short, just like a boy, and it wasn’t regulation, so I sent her to the main office. They took her off the roster. I caught a bit of backlash for that, some of it from the pilots (I think she dated pilots), but c’est la vie, I was just doing my job. ”
Her flying career in Miami began on the Convair 240, DC-4s and the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser. B.A. said “the Convair route was across the north coast of South America, we would go down through Kingston and Montego Bay, Jamaica, then to Barranquilla, Columbia. The Stratocruiser was wonderful at the time, it was only first class. There wasn’t a separate section for economy or tourist service. The compartments had upper and lower berths and most of the famous people would book them.”
In April 1952, a Pan Am Stratocruiser crashed into the jungle en route from Rio to Trinidad. B.A.recalls “We lost a Boeing 377 (double-decked Statocruiser) over the Brazilian jungle and it took them ten days to find it because of the heavy jungle canopy. The story was covered in Life Magazine. My favorite pilots were on board. Al Groshart and Lou Penn were very good friends of mine and I had flown with them to Trinidad from Rio a few days before. They were both excellent pilots. Lou and I drank a little rum in Trinidad playing table tennis there. The Stratocruiser had hollow props which had a habit of breaking. In this crash, when they broke, it created an imbalance that resulted in the engine and the wing ripping off. ” Another good friend of B.A.’s, Pan Am pilot Robert Wisenbaker, was involved in the crash investigation and we believe trekked overland to the crash site from newspaper reports. Because of conditions in the jungle the passengers were buried in a common grave. The remains of the crew were interred in the large cemetery you pass as you drive from Rio to the airport. The memorial and grave are close to the cemetery entrance. B.A. also remembers that Pan Am had to switch equipment to DC-6 B’s due to the superstitious nature of the Brazilian culture at that time. Galeão International Airport in Rio was also the setting for one of her most frightening landings due to weather. The cockpit crew attempted to land twice because of heavy turbulence and severe lightning.
Curious about how the job was before and after the Boeing Stratocruiser, we asked B.A. about work routines and emergency procedures.
“We had emergency training every six months whether you liked it or not. It was required in order to be qualified for our job. At first, we did not demonstrate the masks or life jackets in the 40s, but we did later in the 50s and on. I can’t remember the year we started demonstrating those things. Oh yes, I remember the masks. They were soft yellow rubber, 3 1/2 inches in diameter and 3 inches deep, like a cup with a plastic bag attached to see your breath in and out. It had an elastic band attached to put over your head to help hold it on. The pressurized cabins did not feel any different. The Stratocruiser was not the first aircraft to be pressurized. The Convair-240 could be pressurized, though it was not a normal occurrence. Pressurization was used on one of B.A.’s flights when the cockpit crew decided to re-route over the Andes for a little unscheduled sight-seeing, since the airplane was ahead of schedule from Maracaibo, Venezuela to Barranquilla, Columbia.”
As for the Stratocruiser, though she was not on the flight, B.A. remembers that a passenger was lost and a steward almost lost when a door blew open shortly after takeoff from either Uruguay or Brazil. “I guess the door was not locked properly,” she observes. The female passenger was sitting in the aisle seat forward of the door when this happened and she was blown out. After that incident a much stronger locking system on the main door was created. Until the repair of the locking system, B.A. was “apprehensive,” to put it mildly, about working between the props and the doors.
“I have a movie of me deplaning from a Stratocruiser in Trinidad where I am pointing to the aircraft and holding my nose , meaning I did not want to fly it, right after we lost the one over the jungle. It was quickly replaced by the DC-6B.”
Aside from these incidents, the Stratocruiser represented the ultimate in airborne comfort and elegance. It offered berths and possibly the first sleeperette seats. There was one galley, located in the rear of the aircraft, and the configuration was for 32 first class seats. Beautiful china and very heavy silver were used for the extensive first class meal service. In turbulence, the rear galley could be a safety hazard. The restaurant-sized coffee urns were held in place with only a strap. It was a very comfortable airplane for both passengers and crew.
In 1955, B.A. and her roommate, Polly Spillis, transferred to the Pacific Division and San Francisco base. They shared ownership of a Dodge De Soto, now a defunct part of Chrysler, and drove across country together. The De Soto logo featured a stylized image of a Spanish explorer “Hernando De Soto.” A perfect image for two world travelers! “We rented an apartment on Telegraph Hill, very close to Coit Tower. Our apartment was on Stockton Street. I used to walk my dog every night, and I was sure I was on the night club tour, because every night the night club bus would be coming down from their tour at the same time I was walking my dog and I was convinced the driver was telling the passengers “There is that lady that walks her poodle every night.”
From 1955 until 1957, B.A. flew to destinations such as Bangkok, Sydney, Tokyo and Fiji. B.A. did not like Fiji because the crew slept in a dormitory with a six-foot divider that provided no privacy for the women. Thanks to a typhoon, the crew found themselves grounded there for seven long days. They were bored so they all met at the beach for a game of volley ball. However, because of the winds, the ball kept blowing out to sea.
In 1957, B.A. returned to the Miami base and home, with her little dog Bassompierre de Spouquis in tow. We all knew that returning to Miami was never a problem because “Who wants to be based in Miami” when one could fly to Europe or Asia and live in New York or San Francisco?” Upon her return though, she found she was not needed due to a scheduling error! Miami now had one flight attendant too many and she was reassigned back to San Francisco! She left Spouquis with her sister and temporarily went back to the San Francisco base, eventually returning to Miami.
“An interesting story about dating, I dated a pilot for a long time, I wasn’t in love with him, but it was a nice relationship and we were very good friends. Anyway one of my friends, Pilar Roeloffs, thought he was the cutest thing so I said let me introduce you to Larry Clark. We were down in Trinidad. He was waiting for me to eat lunch and I just grabbed her, brought her over and introduced them. They ended up marrying and naming their first child after me.”
In the late 1960s, there were rumors circulating that President Nixon would award Pan Am the coveted Miami-London route. The CEO of National Airlines, Louis “Bud” Maytag (of the Maytag washing machine family) donated one million dollars to Mr. Nixon’s campaign and politics intervened. The route went to National Airlines and B.A. didn’t get her favorite London layover. However, she enjoyed 23 more years of flying for a Pan Am that was familiar and fun.
In the late 1970s, Pan Am began downsizing the Miami flight attendant base to prepare for the acquisition of National Airlines. When B.A. retired in January of 1986, the Miami base consisted of only 60 original Pan Am flight attendants and approximately 300 former National Airlines flight attendants. She had 37 years of experience with Pan Am.
During those years, B.A. recalls several famous people on board. Her favorite celebrities were Nat King Cole and his lovely wife, and her least favorite was Joan Crawford. She recalls, “Joan Crawford was not pleasant- she thought everyone had to kneel down to her. Nat King Cole and his wife were a lovely couple, both very well-educated. I think she had her masters degree. They were pleasant in every way, and striking as a couple because both were tall, stately and attractive. “
After retiring from Pan Am, B.A. became a professional Book Binder She said “I always loved books. My sister in Miami knew this and found out a bookbinder was exhibiting his wares. I had already bought a book on bookbinding but it looked complicated so I went to meet him and asked if he could teach me. He said I had to be an artist. I replied immediately said ‘Would you like to see some of my paintings?’ But he told me he was not teaching anymore. There was a stool to the side, so I said ‘If I paid you, can I sit on the stool and watch you?’ He said he wouldn’t mind that. I sat on the stool for an hour and he finally allowed me to come to the bench and I learned from him. He was a famous bookbinder, dead now, but he used to make folders for Queen Elizabeth and did work for the former King of Italy. His name was Ricardo Cini, he is world-famous. His father was a bookbinder on the Pontevechio and his daughter became a book binder. I even went to Italy and had some tools made, the fancy ones, and the wheels. We got to be the best of friends. When I was no longer bookbinding I sent all my bookbinding equipment to the Penland School in North Carolina but I kept my stamping machine because sometimes I like to put my name on something. ”
B.A. now resides in Florida in the winter and North Carolina in the summer. She is still the proud owner of a white MG (perfect for a fly-girl) which she purchased new in 1952, and which she still drives today. She had the car restored in 1995 with 119,000 miles on it. She states” I traveled so much for work and for vacation I don’t care to travel much anymore. I have a place in the mountains. I am very independent. I almost got married a few times, but you know I was so independent I thought I would make the man miserable so I backed out of getting married. I had a great time with Pan Am.”
Interview by Terry Foster
Photos courtesy of B.A. Walters, The Richter Library and open sources.