Flying the friendly skiesMar 25, 2020 10:52AM ● By Diana Barnett
Betty June Harbig, left, relives the glory days with DeAnn Piper.
Local women recall their pioneering careers as stewardessesBetty June Harbig was fresh out of college in Greeley in 1946. Graduating with a liberal arts degree, Harbig could have done anything, but chance led her to a career as an airline stewardess.
“A friend’s brother was a pilot, and we decided to apply to become stewardesses,” said Harbig, 94.
Stewardesses—flight attendants as they’re known today—was an emerging profession even in the 1940s. Though passenger air travel began in the 1920s, the responsibility of assisting passengers with their luggage and seeing to their needs was originally held by men, then-known as “couriers” then “stewards,” until United Airlines hired nurses as the first pioneer stewardesses in the late 1930s.
During World War II, the nurses left to help the war effort and the airlines hired young, single females to attend to passengers, serve them meals and make sure they behaved. Back then, the qualifications were strict. Women had to be at least 21 and unmarried. Because Harbig was 5 foot 3 inches, she couldn’t weigh over 119 pounds.
“My friend and I starved ourselves and played tennis all summer to get there,” she said.
Starting out with Western Airlines—which later merged with Delta—Harbig attended training in California for one full week and then was assigned to Los Angeles.
“I was the youngest in the group to go through the training,” she said.
Compared to today, post-World War II airlines didn’t have much business. Additionally, air travel was far riskier. Even though she already had her assignment, Harbig was put on furlough—a blessing in disguise since what would have been her first flight as a stewardess crashed in the Grand Canyon with no survivors.
Pioneer stewardessesHarbig signed on with United Airlines and trained for a week in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She learned all about the Douglas DC-3, the most common passenger plane at the time, including the aircraft’s safety features as well as how to best serve guests. With 21 passengers, stewardesses were expected to learn every name and bid them farewell when they deplaned.
Back then, flying was a novel experience. Those pioneer stewardesses kept their hair short, skirts a certain length, and weren’t allowed to wear slacks. People dressed up to travel and expected an attractive and attentive stewardess on their trip.
“You could even tell where people were traveling from because of how they were dressed,” said Harbig. “Passengers that were traveling from Los Angeles looked sporty while those from San Francisco wore suits.”
The experience of flying was quite different then, too. Plane cabins weren’t pressurized, so stewardesses would pass out gum so passengers could keep their ears from plugging up. “We also gave out these small wooden balls with a hole that could be held up to the nose to breathe through in order to clear the ears,” Harbig said.
Meals were the real deal. Dishes containing delicacies like salmon from Portland or chicken pies were delivered steaming hot to the plane just before take-off and were kept in warmers. Stewardesses would carry them to each passenger without any carts.
“We used to tease each other about being bow-legged because we had to brace ourselves with our knees against the aisle seats to keep our balance walking up and down the aisles with food,” said Harbig.
Seeing the worldHarbig’s friend, DeAnn Piper, began her career as a flight attendant 30 years after she did.
Growing up on an isolated ranch in northern Idaho, Piper was ready to see the world. Her father had been a pilot and owned a small Cessna aircraft, which he used to take her flying in.
“I dreamed of flying with the big airlines, but I was just too short,” Piper said. “I couldn’t have reached the overhead bins.”
Instead, Piper got in on the ground floor with the fledgling SkyWest Airlines in 1986. Headquartered in St. George, Utah, SkyWest—a regional airline—contracted with larger companies to provide service to shorter destinations throughout the western states.
“We had nine days of training at Dixie College in a pretty primitive setting,” Piper recalled. “Classroom chairs were arranged as if they were in an airplane. The primary focus was safety, safety, safety, and not so much about how to take care of the passengers. Of 30 women who began the training, only 12 of us completed it.”
Shortly thereafter, SkyWest’s business exploded. Palm Springs, California, became the hub, and new connections were added on a regular basis.
“Because our group of 12 was the first trained, we became the experts who were sent on flights when a new connection was created and were often involved in promoting the airline,” said Piper.
There were no overnights on most connections, and most flights had one or two stewardesses. On these short flights, the women scrambled to get all passengers served drinks and snacks and have everything prepared for landing.
‘Til marriage do us part
There were perks to working for an airline. During Harbig’s day, a stewardess could take a personal flight at half price, and if it was a vacation flight, she paid only a quarter of the regular fare. Flight time could not exceed 85 hours a month, and all employees were required to track their time in a logbook.
Harbig lived in Beverly Hills with five other women. Flight schedules took her from LA to San Francisco, Seattle, Reno and as far east as Chicago. However, this lifestyle was limited only to single women.
“One of the girls met and married Henry Kaiser, Jr.—the industrialist—and, of course, resigned because you couldn’t be a flight attendant and be married,” Harbig said.
That time eventually came for Harbig. After three eventful years as a stewardess, she also got married and resigned. She said a lot has changed since then.
“You can now work if you are six months pregnant and 60, and of course you don’t have to be female,” said Harbig.
Piper said she had many memorable experiences during her career as a stewardess.
“I met a lot of celebrities,” she said.
As did Harbig. Back then, smoking was permitted on flights, but alcohol wasn’t.
“We could ask inebriated passengers not to board the plane and could confiscate liquor if people brought it on board,” Harbig said. “[Actor] George Jessel boarded one flight, proceeded to get his bottle out, and I took it away very graciously.”
But things could also be stressful.
“We lost an engine once, but we could keep going with a prop,” said Piper. “The winds out of California were just terrible on a few occasions. We had a lot of turbulence and the plane was just bouncing. It was awful!”
However, for her, the perks outweighed the difficulties.
“I got to travel to many amazing places, thanks to employee discounts,” she said. “My parents were able to travel for low rates as well.”
Eventually, she met her husband—a pilot—on the ramp while she was working. Today, their daughter, Candace, keeps flying in the family by ultimately becoming a flight attendant with SkyWest as well.
“We recently attended the 30-year reunion of our first SkyWest flight attendant class, and I was the only one who could still fit in my uniform!” said Piper