For my master’s thesis project, I interviewed women who had worked as flight attendants for Pan American Airways.  My case study centralized around the theme of amalgamating women’s social history with aviation, proffering a new persepctive of how gender issues and flight interrelate.  To complete the project, sixteen interviews were conducted with prior Pan Am women flight attendants, the oldest having worked in 1951.  The study determined that popular culture exaggerates the stewardess image as sex icons, and thus depreciates the contribution of these women to the aviation community.  In an era in which women were not allowed to fly aircraft, they found another means to fulfill their desires.  From the time of the last woman Airforce service pilot of World War II to the first female commercial pilot in 1973, the stewardess successfully preserved the women’s presence in the aviation industry and she did so with grace, style, and dignity.

To emphasize some of the amazing accomplishments of the women who served the skies, I have pulled an excerpt from one of the interviews.  Ingrid tells the story of the mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam to the U.S., France, Canada, and Australia otherwise known as “Operation Babylift”.  It took place at the end of the Vietnam War from April 3-26, 1975.  A total of approximately 3,300 infants and children had been flown out of Vietnam in hopes for a better future for these children.  I have included a few photos from Ingrid’s collection.  Apologies for the photo quality as they are pictures of her pictures and were not taken in the best lighting.  However, they do give an idea of how the flight attendants cared for these children on the airplane.  Please enjoy this excerpt and keep in mind the next time you are on a commercial flight, thank your flight attendant for all that they do for their job.

photo courtesy of vietnambabylift.org

photo courtesy of vietnambabylift.org

It is 1975 and Pan Am stewardess Ingrid sits in her hotel room watching the news about a rescue attempt on behalf of the U.S. government. A military cargo airplane carrying more than 240 South Vietnamese orphans crashed during takeoff from Saigon.  Only half the children survived.  Meanwhile, Ingrid hears a knock at the door. It is the bellboy delivering a telegram sent from the Pan Am crew desk.  It read: “Scheduled pattern canceled.  Depart April 5 for Saigon to pick up orphan charter.  295 infants, 100 children ages 2-12 years old.  60 escorts, 5 doctors, 10 nurses.”  Ingrid is immediately frightened.   Pan Am expected her to fly into a dangerous place.  She is also three months pregnant unbeknownst to Pan Am.  The airline rule stipulated that if any stewardess were pregnant, they were to be grounded for maternity leave and Ingrid wanted to acquire as much paid flying time before then. She thinks, “Now what do I do?”  She attempts to reschedule with her flight coordinator but is told she has no choice; either she went or she may lose her job for not complying.  Ingrid did not want to jeopardize the job she loved, so she packs her bags.

photo from Ingrid's collection

photo from Ingrid’s collection

The plane is scheduled to depart at one in the morning for a pre-dawn arrival in Saigon.  Ingrid and her colleagues are briefed that there will be fourteen more children who had survived the flight that crashed the day before and will require additional assistance for the injuries.  In addition, they are warned that their aircraft would be parked far away on the runway, thus limiting the time to extract the children.  The Boeing 747 aircraft had been outfitted for the mission: stocked with several hundred baby bottles, thousand of diapers and bassinets stacked to the ceiling and the upper deck converted to an intensive care unit to accommodate the extremely sick orphans.  Putting all fears aside, Ingrid and the crew are ready to depart.

photo from Ingrid's collection

photo from Ingrid’s collection

The airplane lands in Saigon and the buses with the orphans are nearby.  Ingrid is in charge of getting the orphans from the buses onto the airplane.  One by one, she carries them up to the plane and hands them over to another stewardess who places the infants in the bassinets under the seats and the older orphans in two or even three in a seat.  Ingrid chokes back tears as she takes the orphans from their caretakers promising that she will take good care of the children.

Twenty-five years later at a reunion, a young Vietnamese woman rescued in Operation Babylift befriends Ingrid.  Through their correspondence, the young woman writes a letter as if her mother had spoken to her.  She shares with Ingrid:

“Today I give you up because Vietnam is no place to stay.  I give you love and hope, for a chance in America where I hope you’ll stay with a nice family there who can love and provide, give what I cannot give, a chance to survive.  I will miss you dearly and mommy will miss your face, but sacrifices have to be made to ensure you live in a nice place.  Mommy will never forget how she held her baby girl, but I’m giving you a future and a fresh start in this world.  Life is full of decisions that are sometimes hard to make, I will never regret this decision or think it was a mistake.  As I am not able to care for you, as this country is at war, my baby girl you are so precious you will understand one day, what mommy did this all for.   So with all my heart I’m wishing for your, grow up strong, and remember me too.  As I’ll always remember my baby girl, and I’ll know in my heart you have the chance to make a difference in this world.”[2]


[1] Story reconstructed from author’s interview with Ingrid.

[2] “Dear Baby Girl” written by Carol Schuler-Culver in correspondence with Ingrid

For more information on Operation Babylift:

Operation Babylift: The Lost Children of Vietnam

Vietname Babylift Images