“First Pan American Stewardess Corps”
Exclusive to Clipper Crew
by Romlee Stoughton
I had the opportunity to speak with 95-year old Doris Kinsell who lives in Gainesville, Florida. Full of zest and a good sense of humor, she was eager to talk about her flying days sixty-seven years ago as she remembers them. She was a real delight!
Doris flew as a Pan American Airways stewardess from 1944 to 1947 and she was based in Miami in the Latin American Division. It was a time when WWII was blazing and the men were overseas at the front lines. This mass departure of men from their homes meant that women were naturally the next in position to command jobs here in the U.S. and basically began doing “the mens’ work”, as Doris put it. She was twenty-four years old working in downtown Miami as a manicurist in the only air-conditioned barber shop located in the Urmey Hotel. Doris was also taking flying lessons at the time for the organization of Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The idea was that women could train to fly in non-combat zones to free up a male pilot for combat service. However, the organization was disbanded in 1944. Word was out that Pan American was looking for females for the first time to serve as stewardesses. This was a job that had been exclusively held by men. Pan American had offices in the Ingraham Building, just around the corner from where Doris worked. She applied and was hired as part of the first group of twelve trained Pan American stewardesses. The previous seven women did not receive any training as they were hired from other airlines.
“The company really needed help because the young men were being taken. Mr. Nugent came into the barbershop and sized me up for three days. He decided that I was eligible and asked me to come over to the Ingraham Building where I met the other top men with Pan American.”
Doris was hired and attended five weeks of training at a regular schoolroom in Coconut Grove with eleven other women. Doris didn’t have to share accommodations since she already lived in Miami. Mr. Don McCorquodale, the head of stewardess training school, conducted the training, which consisted of learning about parts of the airplane, aerodynamics, and learning how to swim. In addition to many other subjects, the stewardesses also received instruction on providing a gracious service, first aid, meteorology, radio, handling of mail and baggage, international customs and company forms, and the details of operating a safe, efficient flight schedule. They received immediate pay of $140.00 per month. Doris’ recollection is that the women’s measurements were taken and they were custom fitted for the first Pan American stewardess uniform by famed French designer Christian Dior.
“Even though Dior did the styling, they had them extra-fitted to our bodies which was a little unusual. They were absolutely fantastic! They were a light powder blue color and they held up so well. We traveled right from the snow of New York to the warm weather of Buenos Aires, crossing the equator and never really feeling uncomfortable. They were very easy to clean. Even coffee spots came off easily.”
Becoming a female crewmember for Pan American during this time was seen more as a sense of duty, or civil obligation, to contribute to the war effort like many other jobs that opened up. Women were encouraged to help in any way. Pan American was quickly expanding in Latin America and the Caribbean out of Miami, so the airline was geared up to hire cabin attendants. Doris remembers landing on the beach in Venezuela and on a grassy field in Havana working on the DC-3. Landing in Tegucigalpa, the capitol of Honduras, was particularly tricky because it is located on a chain of mountains and tucked in a valley.
“Tegucigalpa was the most dangerous airport at the time on top of the mountains. It was absolutely tricky. The strip was so short for our DC-3. I mean, when you came out of there that pilot really had sweat balls on his forehead. Throughout Latin America and a few other places the passengers would take a chicken or two along with them in the cabin. Now I didn’t have any of that with me. I think I had a cat one time, a woman slipped it in her purse.”
Pan American was instrumental in the war effort and built some 50 airports in 15 different countries, almost all of them in remote, often hostile areas.
“I really believe the Allies would not have won that war if it had not been for Pan American because they had the foresight to put in these airports. They did many things that were very crucial to the effort. I’m very proud of Pan American.”
Doris worked alone in the cabin of the DC-3 that carried twenty-one passengers and the Boeing 307 Stratoliner (Pan American’s first pressurized airliner) that carried thirty-three passengers. The DC-4 carried forty-two passengers and included two cabin attendants where Doris would sometimes work with a steward, the more senior being the purser. The DC-3 aircraft had individual gasper air-vents that provided fresh-air ventilation once the airplane gained airspeed and it also had a heated cabin. The steam heat system maintained a 70-degree cabin temperature regardless of what the outside temperature was. The use of a hydraulic pump to lower and raise the landing gear freed pilots from having to crank the gear up and down for takeoffs and landings. Cabin noise from the propellers was not a particular problem. For greater passenger comfort, the DC-3 used a sound absorbing material to line the walls. This insulation reduced the sound level to about 55 decibels, making it quieter than a railroad car. In addition, the passenger seats were set in rubber to minimize vibrations. The DC-3 revolutionized passenger air travel and it was a very popular airplane. Pan American operated 90 of them from 1937 to 1948. The aircraft offered greater comfort both domestically and internationally. Doris remembers there were quite a few international customs and company forms to complete and stewardesses were required to count passengers and calculate the weight.
“That was the worst part I had to do because I don’t know how to add,” Doris says as she laughs. “At that time there was a lot of gold being transported to Venezuela on the DC-4. Two hundred pound blocks in the seats of the airplane. Things of that nature that were a little bit different from the passengers. A lot of fur coats were on the planes imported from Argentina. Although I can’t remember their names, I once worked a charter flight to the Dominican Republic transporting two dictators and their entire cabinet who were ousted from Venezuela. We didn’t normally serve alcohol onboard but we did have it on this occasion, however I don’t remember any drinking. They were very friendly and courteous to me and wanted to tip me but I declined. It wasn’t company policy to accept tips. When I got to my hotel, there was a carved mahogany powder box filled with gifts from the airport in my room waiting for me.”
Aircraft seldom flew above 10,000 feet due to reduced levels of oxygen at higher altitudes. Since the planes couldn’t fly above the weather, it could get rather bumpy and it wasn’t uncommon for passengers to become airsick. On occasion, the aircraft door would even swing open. Nothing that a slight turn of the plane and a quick grip of the handle couldn’t correct. Doris frequently flew about eight hours a day consisting of about three flights or “legs”. Schedules could last anywhere from three weeks at a time on longer journeys flying from New York to Buenos Aires, Miami to Rio De Janeiro, or shorter turns to Havana or Nassau. Other flights to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama City, Venezuela, and Trinidad, were common. Doris says she was an active person on her days off:
“When I was a stewardess I could have received discount travel passes but I didn’t want to. One of the people I was flying with went around the world but I didn’t choose to do that. I always had active interests though. I liked to side-saddle horses and jump the hurdles among other things”
On shorter flights the stewardesses served orange juice and Chiclets chewing gum to the passengers to help relieve ear pressure. The service on flights out of New York, Miami, and Jamaica consisted of a set tray and a casserole entree kept hot by an insulated container. Doris remembers the seats were equipped with tray tables for passengers to comfortably enjoy their meal.
“The meals were very good – very delicious and nutritious food. I don’t remember ever running out of things. I don’t remember having any problems with that at all. We served fish on Fridays for our Catholic passengers and I don’t recall special requests. We didn’t have any complaints. We had much nicer passengers”, Doris laughs. “Coffee was boarded in big thermoses and beverages consisted of sodas but alcohol was not served. Sometimes when an extra passenger was boarded we would have to ask the radio officer to call and place an order for ‘lamb chops,’ the word we used for whatever the entrée was. Many people smoked on board but passengers were very well behaved. Air travel is entirely different. I’ve flown on the 747 and traveled on the other jets a great deal because my husband and I did like to travel. It was different from my time. We didn’t have the ‘wrangling’. People dressed up and had their nice manners on the airplane. There was only one class of service because it was wartime. The ordinary person didn’t fly though during my time. They had to have a purpose to fly during WWII. You didn’t just go on a vacation. It was a different world entirely. It was not a happy time. There were a lot of entertainers like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby that went overseas to entertain the troops and they flew Pan American, of course, President Roosevelt flew Pan American.”
Trips to Rio de Janeiro were home base for many of the pilots while the stewardesses returned home to Miami to finish their duty. Doris remembers being introduced to actor Tyrone Power and a group of other actors by a pilot during a layover at the Riviera Hotel Copacabana. The long trips were exhausting so one and a half to two day layovers were welcomed. The crew would enjoy meals together and seeing the sights of volcanoes, pyramids, and beautiful lakes, etc. Pilots gave the stewardesses their spending money for the layovers and often organized things to do. The crew enjoyed playing “peteca” on the Copacabana beach. The goal was to hit a bird-like ornament called a shuttlecock with your hand amongst the group for as long as possible without it touching the ground. Unlike other sports, there was no opponent. The game was played with a partner or a group. Friendly passerbys would often hit the shuttlecock and move along.
“In the Dominican Republic they put us in a lovely new hotel called the ‘Jaragua’ and the dictator there, Rafael Trujillo renamed the city of Santo Domingo to Ciudad Trujillo. Some of the stewardesses, and I included, had dated the son of Trujillo. The crew would be invited to their mansion, Mahogany House, where Trujillo lived up in the mountains. Rio was my favorite layover but all were interesting. I can’t remember a worse one. The company was very good to us. We stayed at the nicest accommodations. The best available in the city or area. We stayed at the Biltmore in New York. We danced at the rooftop garden there. It was really a very luxurious life. Of course we got tired like everybody does but we were young and recuperated quickly. I was eager to see different places. I enjoyed flying. The Canal Zone was one of the most strategic spots in the world at the time because there was a war on both sides, in the Atlantic and in the Pacific. I had brothers and friends on both sides. It was the most crucial spot to be. These were fascinating places. When American planes flew into the Canal Zone, we were intercepted by the army planes 45 minutes out and escorted in. Our pilots were radioed and asked to report their names and the names of the stewardesses. The men at the Canal Zone were eager to meet a stewardess for a potential date more than anything,” Doris laughs.
It’s no wonder with Doris’ good looks and intelligence that she did publicity work for Pan American. She received the following three-page letter from Mr. S Roger Wolin, Press Relations Manager, that included the copy to be used for a Miami Daily News article.
As females entered the ranks becoming Pan American stewardesses, the job began to have a certain mystique. “The look” was quickly established. Pretty, young women were now leaving the ground for the air in high flying machines. The adventure of flying, unknown to the average person, created a sense of mystery, excitement, and glamour. Asked about the perception of the job, Doris explains quite modestly:
“We were just working girls and treated well wherever we went. In some cities in Central America we were there simply long enough to let passengers off and on. Sometimes we didn’t get to do much. Airport personnel were very kind to us and would come out and bring fruit punches and nice things. We tipped a quarter for carrying our little bag when the gesture was offered. Some of these countries throughout Latin America didn’t see as many airplanes as they see now. They probably were not really interested in us but interested in seeing the airplane. Through Honduras, and places like that, people would come out just to look at the airplane.”
Doris says that one of her most exciting and memorable trips was when she found out the war was over:
“On one particular day, the ships were lined up at the Canal to exit the Atlantic. We wondered why there were so many ships lined up at the Canal. I was working on a DC-4 across the north coast of South America by myself with just a few passengers and the Captain rang the bell. I quickly went to the cockpit and he told me the war was over. You can imagine how thrilled I was at that time. Men were being killed by the thousands every day and of course some of them were my friends. On D-Day my very close friend was a paratrooper and was shot down like a bird. We were very happy the war was over! After that, Pan American could ‘turn the lights on’ and have night flying out of Miami. During the war, flights operated only during the day beginning at 4:00 am out of Miami. Flights were required to depart the Canal Zone by 4:00 pm. Night flying was prohibited because illuminated airfields would be a visible target for our enemy.”
Inflight administration wasn’t so structured in the early days. There were no stewardess supervisors per se, just company men. On a trip to Mexico, Doris was unaware of her encounter with Wilbur L. Morrison who was the Vice President of Pan American’s Latin American Division.
“The company men rarely introduced themselves so you really didn’t necessarily know who they were. Nobody said anything to us unless it was a compliment. Mr. Nugent complimented me a time or two for something I did, like putting up a special type hairdo. Once I was in Merida, Mexico. We had about an hour and a half layover there and it was hot, hot, hot. You can’t imagine how hot. There was no air conditioning on the plane. We stayed in the building they were using as a terminal at the time. When we left the building and got back outside, a man said to me ‘take that jacket off!’ I didn’t recognize him and I said ‘I’m sorry but it’s company policy to keep it on.’ He said ‘Well I’m Morrison and I said to take it off!’ Well, I didn’t know Morrison from anybody else. Ends up he was one of the head men of the company under Juan Trippe. I wouldn’t have known if he had been Juan Trippe because I didn’t know him, Doris laughs. The airplane being aluminum and having the heat so hot, it would get to be boiling in there. Before the plane could take off and get any air, you were really steamed. Shortly thereafter, they did have an air-conditioning truck pull up to the DC-3 to pump cold air into the cabin using a large hose.”
A steward introduced Doris to her husband Charles in Trinidad. He also worked for Pan American as a mechanic, radio navigator, and then in Air Transport Command with the Pan American African Orient Division.
“I loved my husband and it was time for me to get married. The timing was so right so I was ready to quit flying. It’s a normal thing. We both resigned. It was company policy at the time that females were required to quit flying when they got married. I don’t think Pan American would have enforced that but I wanted to quit. The war was over and we believed we could go into the building and real estate business and make a better life. We didn’t want to fly separately and be out of town and not with each other at night and all those reasons. We did go into the building business and did really well. We built houses and then sub-divisions and then we were into developing motels and land in the Florida Keys. We made a good life out of real estate for fifty-six years. We retired very young and traveled the world over. We enjoyed flying on the jets and had a forty-four foot yacht and would cruise the Bahamas every summer and travel the Mediterranean. We spent a lot of time in the mountains of North Carolina. We had a very good life without airline passes! I’ve had a great life.”
I asked Doris if there was anything else she would like people to know about being a Pan American stewardess living and working in that era. Her response was quite adamant:
“Yes, I would like to let people know that we were not toys. We were not sex things. The books written about sex and male and female get togethers are ridiculous. I haven’t read any of them. We were hard working people, and some of us intelligent,” Doris laughs. “That’s the way I would like for it to be portrayed in history because this is history and we were doing the work of men and it should come over that way. The men respected us, especially the men who were respectful to their mothers. There was only one occasion when we were dining out as a crew and a man wanted to dance with me, but he was being rude. Our Captain let him know that he was out of order and to get away from us. He was just disrespecting me and wanting me to dance with him and I wanted to eat my dinner.”
Doris stayed in contact with Captain Bill Nash who flew for Pan Am for thirty-six years and retired in 1977. She and her husband Charles moved from Miami to Gainesville in 1981 where Doris currently resides in an assisted living community. Charles passed away last year at the age of 90. Doris and Charles had three children who are now in their sixties, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. Doris had to return her uniform to Pan American when she quit flying, but her granddaughter has her wings and other memorabilia which she’s made into a collage. Doris’ last vacation trip with her husband was twelve years ago to Madrid. She flew on a 747. With her blanket and pillow in hand she found a good row of seats and had a nice rest across the ocean. From her early days of flying as a Pan American stewardess on propeller aircraft to flying as a passenger on the swift jumbo jets around the world, it’s evident that Doris has had a memorable and rewarding life and continues to enjoy it each day.
Here is a link to Doris’s video on U Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEUZpyugLDw
Clipper Crew Note: Our thanks to Doris Kinsell for providing many personal phototgraphs and to Romlee Stoughton for the photos used from his private collection.