Jul 28th, 2020

My First Flight – 50 Years Ago

Doctor Aviation has had the privilege to be on many a flight.  Often at that controls.  But it all started in July of 1970.  My first flight, 50 years ago – below is a reflection.  There are similarities as I look back and some significant differences.  In some ways passenger airline travel has changed little and some ways it has changed a lot. 

The Attire

The occasion was the family vacation.  We were on our way from Northern Kentucky to Phoenix Arizona.  There, in the Valley of the Sun, we were to rendezvous with Aunt Liz.  As a young nurse she had been pulled by the allure of a “hip and up and coming city”, quite the draw for a young, single, professional woman.  There was excitement and a lot of other young singles.  Not to mention the winters were a lot warmer than Cincinnati’s.  However, the summers were another story.  Almost unbearable heat – until the advent of widespread air conditioning.  Air Conditioning had changed everything and that invention alone, if nothing else, led to the boom of building in Phoenix as well as the rest of the southern United States.

However, as it often does, the glamour and glitz began to fade into the day to day world of nursing.  It was time to come back to the Midwest and family.  My family was to fly out to help her move back.

Those were the days that people got dressed up to fly.  Dad snapped this picture of me, Mom, and my sister on our way to the Greater Cincinnati Airport (now known as the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport). 

Arrival and Boarding

As we pulled into the airport, we got out with our hard case luggage.  I had my book about Willie Mays as my carry on.  We handed the counter agent our paper tickets, which my Dad had purchased at a Travel Agency in downtown Cincinnati.  The agent pulled out destination cards labeled PHX and secured them around the handles of the case with string.  We proceeded to the gate.  No screening, no metal detector, we just walked to the gate.  The idea that someone would want to harm or hijack the flight, never entered our minds.

Time to board, we walked out of the terminal out onto the tarmac.  We climbed the stairs up to the entry door.  Our seats were not together, but a kind man in his 40s with salt and pepper hair and a purple tie, offered to change seats to I could sit next to a family member. 

The First Leg

The stewardesses (as flight attendants were then called) gave the preflight departure instructions.  They told us about seat belts, exit doors and oxygen masks.  Then, as now, they never let those “elastic bands” on the oxygen masks, touch their hair.  They were all fairly young, female and attractive.  They were also trim.  Airlines would keep those weight standards into the 1990s before they were pushed aside.  I would also add that they were friendly and courteous, especially to an 8-year-old boy. 

TWA Boeing 727

To be honest, I do not know the exact plane type.  My best guess, given the industry (and the seating configuration), it was either a Boeing 707 or 727.  However, I do remember the airline: Trans World Airlines, TWA. At the time, they were a giant along with Pan Am and Eastern. Now they are gone.

It was less than an hour and we were on the descent to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.  Named for Olympian and aviation pioneer, Albert Lambert.  However, its close association with the noted aviator Charles Lindbergh was its real claim to fame.  I can still see the green domed roof on the terminal. 

The Second Leg

We disembarked and headed to the terminal, again walking across the tarmac.  A similar routine followed as we boarded the flight for the longer leg to Phoenix.

This leg was over two hours, so here was the real treat.  The inflight meal service.  The stewardesses pushed the metal carts down the aisle.  Out came the trays, with compartments.  There was hot food and real silverware that we took from plastic pouches.  A meat, potatoes, a vegetable, fruit and dessert.  Plenty to fill an 8-year-old boy.  The bonus for this mainly milk drinking youngster was the free sodas – my choice was Canada Dry ginger ale.  It has been my beverage of choice, in the air, ever since. 

As we passed different landmarks the captain came over the intercom pointing them out to the passengers.  “If you will look out of the windows to the left, you will see…”  His voice is best captured by Tom Wolfe’s description in The Right Stuff, taken from an inflection Wolfe claims that finds its roots with Chuck Yeager. 

Then came an event unheard of now.  Well into the flight, the captain appeared.  Tall, distinguished, handsome, with a dark suit highlighting his silver hair line beneath his dark hat.  He was greeting the passengers, shaking hands, ensuring their flight was comfortable—in a phrase showing genuine care and concern.  My Mom considered it a high privilege to meet the captain and told Aunt Liz so upon our landing.  I, of course, was sporting the flying wings presented to me by the stewardess.

Although I was excited to be reaching “Phoenix Arizona”, or was it “Arizona, Phoenix”, it was hard to keep straight as an 8-year-old.  I was sad that the flight was ending.  I was not used to be treated with so much luxury (ironically in the coach section) as a boy.

There was one more surprise.  Upon landing and parking the stewardess opened the door.  When we emerged, I learned what it was like to be in a furnace.  It was July in Phoenix, late afternoon, and cooking at almost 110 degrees.  “It is a dry heat” as they say, yes like the dry heat of a furnace.  The walk across the tarmac and back into the air-conditioned terminal, brought a welcomed embrace from Aunt Liz (almost all passengers were met at the gate) and cooler air. 

As we stood near baggage claim to get the hard-cased luggage which cost us nothing to check, I looked down.  There in the white tile was written, “Phoenix, Arizona”.  Ah, that is the order I thought.

Lessons Learned

A major airline.  A pressurized jet aircraft, two wings, flight attendants, pilots.  Some things have remained the same.  An airline that no longer exists, paper tickets (called an agent the night before to confirm our reservations) no security, no jet bridge, friendly all trim female stewardesses, inflight hot meals, no baggage fees, a pilot who acted as a tour guide and showed genuine care for the passengers.  Some things have changed. 

At the time, I had little idea that aviation would hold a future career for me.  But I am not surprised, my first experience was a very positive one. 

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