I was trailing out of my H.Dip. lecture one January evening that winter. It had been a rough day in school with my classes more than usually strenuous and I was low. Flashing past me up the stairs came Maureen – a fellow-graduate but this was a graduate with a difference. Maureen was beautifully turned out with make-up and a stylish short hair cut. She also had a certain air of assurance and confidence that I hadn’t remembered when she had been crouched in the library in a duffle coat like the rest of us. “Haven’t you heard Aer lingus are looking for Air Hostesses? I’ve been flying for three months. Just back from Amsterdam. It’s fantastic! Why don’t you apply?”
It was such a fanciful idea at first she might as well have said did you think of making a career on Broadway? But yes, Aer Lingus had just set up Ireland’s first passenger airline with a dozen Dakota aircraft. They wanted a dozen or so Irish girls educated enough to give a superior gloss to the new airline and to fit into the trim green uniforms which had been designed to go with the new aircraft, be neither too tall nor too short and no glasses please.
The company had been casting an eye on university graduates as a desirable source of recruitment. University graduates however had not been flocking towards such an untried occupation, with no academic air to it at all: although the starting salary was seven pounds a week – more than twice my existing salary! – with bonuses, uniform and free travel as far as Aer Lingus could carry you. I had my application in by the next day, my head in a whirl. I had never been in an aeroplane in my life, never even seen one except in films. When I had made it through the interviews at Dublin Airport and was offered the job I felt exuberant but fearful.
My parents were aghast. My father asked the ceiling if this was what he had put me through the university for. My mother nodded loyally in chorus with him and contributed a lot of useless speculation about air-crashes which might leave you either dead or worse, hopelessly maimed. (In a little while, though, the honour of my being ‘selected among hundreds’ as the publicity went, got to her. And the prospect of my dropping in on the overseas relatives was appealing. Her thinking was nearly as volatile as my own.) Conservative friends were scathing about it being a ‘mickey-mouse’ job and nothing more than a waitress in the sky. But the superior salary and the guaranteed increments disposed of any real objections from anybody. In I949 there were few subtleties about when a job was worth taking. Automatic termination on marriage of course, but that applied to every public service job, teaching included. If you felt the urge to marry, regardless of how satisfactory your service had been, it was Goodbye with a free flight for yourself and your partner
With fourteen others I was kitted out in the emerald green uniform. It had the glengarry cap worn with a tilt to the side, sheer nylons (my first!) and high-heeled court shoes with wings on our lapels. We were trained for two months and they worked us pretty hard: First Aid, geography, basic flying technology (for all those nervous passenger enquiries) Irish trade and tourism, how to put out a fire, how to expel a rubber dinghy into a heaving sea, deliver a baby on board, make lightning currency calculations, deal tactfully with non-English speakers, heart attacks or drunks. We were taken up in the Dakotas which were still lined with the sliding parachute hooks of their wartime service and jounced around to determine the stability of our stomachs. You were allowed to be sick twice. If it happened a third time, they would switch you to ground hostess work, no hard feelings but a lot less prestigious.
Apart from whether my stomach could pass the test, actually climbing into the sky for the first time in my life was a big event for me. Of course I was afraid but when the sickening swoosh of take-off was over and I was able to open my eyes (unaware that I had been reciting ‘Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep’) it was riveting. The carpet of identical houses in North Dublin was tilted on its side in quite a playful way. When the huge flat sea at Malahide was in turn tilted up, I expected it to wash down through the narrow roads between the houses but it stayed put. Our training ended in a flurry of exams, in which I was a front-runner. My tough apprenticeship in the matter of exams served me well. This was kid stuff compared with Old English and Mediaeval History. We were awarded our “wings” by the Minister of Transport as if he was giving out the DSO (Aer Lingus was not backward in the publicity department) and we were photographed for the evening paper grouped around the nose of a Dakota, uniformed, smiling, each left leg artistically pointed in the same direction.
The flights of the ‘baby’ airline as it was called, were all short haul, (Paris and Amsterdam were the only points further than England} with a single hostess aboard. The planes were tiny with no kitchen, so there could be no hot meals to serve, but there were flasks of tea and coffee and an extensive bar at enticing duty free prices. Most of the passengers were first-time flyers so the hostess function was largely a welcoming, put-their-minds-at -ease one. There was no canned music to soothe them, we did it instead. We shook hands with everyone as they poked their heads cautiously through the little oval door, we tucked away their parcels, we explained over and over again that the little sparks coming off the end of each wing did not mean we were about to burst into flames. Although there were lifejackets under the seats only a discreet little card announced this and there was no demonstration of how you got into one. I think that was the public relations department taking precedence over the safety policy.
We would give little lectures on what kept us in the air and how the pilot knew how to navigate in the dark. It felt a little bit like taking a class, a very compliant and well-behaved class. We smiled a lot, and patted arms reassuringly. We had to bend over each pair of passengers with our snippets of information as we had no microphone and the noise of the piston engines was deafening. Their heads would be swivelling anxiously in anticipation as they saw us working our way down through the cabin.
Since very few of the passengers had ever flown before, they were mostly terrified but putting a good face on it. There would be requests for large brandies before we had left the ground. Everyone would investigate the sickbag stowed in the pocket of the seat in front. Pre-pressurised planes lurched and bucked in patches of heavy cloud, even without the strain of an apprehensive stomach.
In the summer season the work proved to be punishing, crack of dawn departures, two flights a day , packed planes stiflingly hot. The ventilation was primitive and a “sickbag” incident could stink the place out, scented sprays or not. Thankfully the Tourist Season was short and the winters were marvellous: three or even four days a week off and flights cancelled if snow or fog came down. Aer Lingus could do nothing about our winter weather.