Obit of the Day (Historical): Ellen Church (1965)
It was Ellen Church’s dream to fly, so in 1930 she applied for a job as a pilot with United Airlines. The president of the fledgling passenger company, Steve Stimson, however, would not hire a woman pilot. Instead the two decided to give Ms. Church the position of stewardess - the first-ever in aviation history*.
Ms. Church, who was a registered nurse, had convinced Mr. Stimson that having female nurses on airplanes would alleviate many of the concerns passengers and their families had about flying. At this point, the planes flew at 5,000 feet, which created for some very bumpy rides. In addition, the planes were unpressurized, unheated, and stopped numerous times for fuel and other necessities on long flights.
With the support of Mr. Stimson, Ms. Church recruited the first staff of stewardesses, or “sky girls,” finding seven other women to join her. According to sources, the women selected had to be 115 pounds or less in order to make sure that the then-fragile planes were not too heavy. The low ceilings also forced all the new hires to be shorter than 5’4”. The original group of Boeing stewardesses were Ms. Church, Jessie Carter, Cornelia Peterman, Church, Inez Keller, Alva Johnson, Margaret Arnott, Ellis Crawford and Harriet Fry.
Ms. Church was on the first flight, from Oakland to Chicago, and was responsible not only for passenger health and safety, but also distributed box lunchs and helped to re-fuel the plane - all while wearing a traditional nurse’s uniform to give added reassurance. The first flight took 13 stops and 20 hours. (You can now fly non-stop between the two cities in 4 hours.)
Ms. Church only worked for United for 18 months before a car accident ended her career.
However more than a decade later her nursing skills were once again in demand with the outbreak of World War II. She spent the duration of the war in southern Europe and North Africa helping evacuate military casualties by air. Prior to D-Day, she was assigned the task of training all the evacuation nurses for the invasion of Normandy. For her service she earned the Air Medal (given “to anyone who, while serving in any capacity in or with the Armed Forces of the United States, distinguishes himself or herself by meritorious achievement while participating in aerial flight.”) as well as several campaign medals including the European-African-Middle Eastern medal with seven bronze stars denoting sevice in seven different military actions.
Ellen Church, who also designed the stewardess uniforms seen in the photo accompanying this post, died on August 22, 1965 at the age of 60. She succumbed to injuries from a horsebackriding accident. To honor her contributions the citizens in her hometown of Cresco, Iowa named the local airport for her.
Sources: Iowa Pathways, Workingnurse.com, and Wikipedia
(Image of Ellen Church, circa 1930, is courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution National Air and Space Museum, A-45935-C, part of their America by Air online exhibit.)
* The role of air steward was created decades earlier by a German airline in 1912. Heinrich Kubis is the first person, male or female, to serve in that position.