After I graduated Stew School from Capitol International Airways on June 18, 1971, I got to fly all over the world. It was during the glamour days of flying – little white gloves, shoulder-padded blue skirt suits, coiffed hairdos, and broad smiles. At 22, I was fearless and faced turbulence and unruly passengers without blinking an eye.
Every year Capitol has a big party not too far from Philadelphia where we were based in 1972. I recently joined over 100 former stewardesses and pilots for the 30th reunion since Capitol went out of business. We all met under a huge tent outside the Delaware racetrack property. Horses with jockeys on their backs raced by us every few minutes, adding to the excitement.
Many people are not aware of the intense training flight attendants went through for two months. We had to endure a plethora of minute details and information from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. while we were based in Smyrna, Tennessee, outside Nashville. We had to study from a thick manual, and learn how to administer First Aid—from insulin shock, to heart attacks, to delivering babies in midair. And we also had to learn about almost every nut and bolt on the airplanes. This entailed studying each piece of emergency equipment, including the oxygen system needed for rapid or gradual decompression, and we had to know the various locations according to each aircraft we were flying at any given time; over land and over water evacuation; practicing crash landing and ditching and life raft procedures; putting out fires; and handling serious life and death situations. The training had little to do with serving meals, or handing out blankets and pillows.
I hadn’t seen my old roommates and classmates, and other girls I flew with for over 42 years; you can imagine how seeing everyone again would be a real trip! Our destinations back in the day were amazing; now, I can’t even fly from here to upstate New York without experiencing my 19th nervous breakdown. I figured out that is because I need to be in control; if I worked the flight, I’d be much better off!
I reminisced about some of our trips. Capitol was great because of the long layovers. Aside from one bomb scare, the time we almost crashed in the fog in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the time we had a prisoner handcuffed on a deadhead flight, the military trips were the most thrilling. Capitol was the last commercial airline to fly into Vietnam during the war. But I vaguely recall a quick change of plan while we flew over the Mei Kong Delta headed for Cam Ranh Bay…our pilots were ordered from the base to descend to 500 feet so our tail numbers could be read; we were then told to turn around, and we ended up in Bangkok, Thailand where I saw a giant cobra swallow a rooster whole and, simultaneously saw the fastest jet fighter take off. The military guys hadn’t seen girls in a long time, and made us feel like the Beatles had landed. My crew members and I got to hang out inside the largest plane in the world – a C5A, which could hold 16 Greyhound buses. It amazed me how that monster could get off the ground. I’ll never forget the expressions on the faces of the soldiers we got to take home.
I was a bit apprehensive as I boarded my Amtrak train on the way to the reunion; no longer the free bird I once was. Would I recognize my old friends? How had they changed from the independent young girls I once knew? Sure, our wings may all have drooped somewhat over the years, but I could look past that.
When I saw each of them, one at a time, I immediately recognized our old selves – the sparkle of adventure still in their eyes and their same stew smiles and same laugh. The roomies: me, the introverted writer type, Susie, the cool California chick, Laurie, the “genius” from Ohio; Joanie, the deep romantic from Michigan, and our friends, Carolyn, the motorcycle mama from Florida and Betty, the mischievous, mysterious one.
We exchanged our fading memories, trying to catch up on our lives, some who came through with flying colors after battling cancer, sharing happy stories about raising our own kids, and the joys of grandparenthood. We laughed over our ages and topics of hot flashes and irregularity.
It was bittersweet saying goodbye, after it took so many years to say hello again; and you never know when it’ll be the last time. No matter, in a way, “birds of a feather” will always fly together.