Posted on February 10th, 2013
“…on my very first flight I was stuck in Sydney for 5 days. They put us up in a really nice hotel, gave us a per diem in the currency of the country and said, ‘As long as you’re in uniform 5 days from now, you can do whatever you want!’” -Pat Smith
In 1963, a very ambitious 22-year-old Pat Smith took a pilot’s advice and applied to work for an international airline. She got the job, and for 3 years Pat circled the globe living the notoriously glamourous life of a 1960s Pan Am flight attendant! Luke and I were thrilled that Pat was willing to answer some of our questions, and with CATCH ME IF YOU CAN opening on Tuesday (2/12), the timing was perfect!
How old were you when you became a Pan Am flight attendant?
I was 22 years of age, 2 weeks out of graduating from the University of Oregon. It was 1963.
What made you decide to apply for the job?
First of all, my dad was in real estate in California and he was selling beautiful lots right outside of San Francisco with a group of Pan Am pilots. In my senior year at school I had met a bunch of these pilots and they encouraged me to join Pan Am. I was not familiar with it but they told me you fly internationally and it just kind of sounded terribly exciting to me! So that’s how I was introduced to it. I Interviewed and was accepted, and then unbeknownst to me there were 5 other girls from the University of Oregon that were accepted with Pan Am and we all became roommates in San Francisco.
What was Pan Am’s training program like?
We had to have a foreign language. I spoke French so I passed that test. For me, the toughest thing was the swimming test. Even though I could swim, I’ve always been afraid of water, and the application questionnaire asked if you could swim, so I said yes, not realizing that part of the training was jumping in a large Olympic sized pool to prove it! So all 30 of the people jumped in the pool except for me. I’m still standing on the side of the pool thinking, ‘how bad do I really wanna do this??’ So I didn’t dive in, I gently climbed in and did the sidestroke to the other end of the pool.
We also practiced with life rafts, we did customer relations, we had the white gloves and silver trays, we were told never to take a silver coffee pot out into the isle without having it on a silver tray with cream and sugar on the tray. And in 1st class we cooked! I mean, we literally cooked. And that was hard because it was like a 7 course meal. They’d start off with a beautiful fish course, they’d have caviar, a salad course, the roast with vegetables, and then cherries jubilee. One of my biggest nightmares was when I forgot to take the ice cream out of the dry ice and it was hard as a rock. It was easy to forget when you’d have 20-25 people in first class and you’re preparing food for all of them.
Did you fly with the girls you were living with?
A couple of times, but very rarely because we were junior. I don’t know if you saw the Pan Am series where those girls all flew together, but it wasn’t like that. Pan Am hired a majority of their flight attendants outside of the U.S. because they had to speak the language fluently to operate a foreign flight carrier. They hired a lot of French, German, Japanese, and Chinese gals – they’d hire a lot of Icelandic gals because they were so multilingual, which I thought was interesting. So in most cases I was the only American girl on a flight crew of 6. To me, at 22 years of age right out of college, this was a totally new experience to be talking with all of these girls from Norway and Germany and Tokyo….
What was the average pay for a Pan Am Flight Attendant in the 60s?
I think when we started… I wanna say, annually maybe like $7,000 or $8,000 dollars
Did Pan Am pay for your living expenses in San Francisco or NY?
No, you had to pay for all of that on your own. In New York, the apartments were so expensive that there were 5 or 6 of us in a 1-bedroom apartment! So we had bunk beds in the bedroom, and another little twin bed, and a rollaway in the living room. You didn’t really want people to come in and open the kitchen drawers because they wouldn’t find knives and spoons and forks, they’d find all of our clothes! But with our different flight schedules we were never there at the same time so it worked out.
Did they always put you up in the nicest hotels?
Yes. It wasn’t ever second rate. And at that time Pan Am owned the Intercontinental Hotel chain, which was a very first-class hotel, and if we got into a city that didn’t have them we stayed somewhere of that same caliber. They took very good care of us. I mean, here we are all over the world, you couldn’t read this in books, it was just a marvelous experience.
When you made the choice to become a flight attendant, did you realize what you were getting yourself into?
I had a goal. My goal was to see the world. And I flew for 3 years because I was pretty ambitious and I had other things I wanted to do, but I knew I couldn’t pass this up. I was hardly ever home when I lived in San Francisco and New York because I’d be gone for 2 weeks at a time. I’d bid, I chose to go on these trips. I wouldn’t always get my first bid but I knew exactly what I wanted and that was to get as much travel as I possibly could.
Who were some of your most memorable passengers?
I had Yul Brynner – he was very nice, and very quiet.
Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.
Jean Simmons, the movie star – she and Mayor Joseph Alioto were on my flight from Tokyo to San Francisco. It was November 22 1963, and I’m in the first class galley cooking eggs when the pilot came on and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we’re about an hour outside of Honolulu, but I wanted to let you know that President John F. Kennedy has been shot.” And that’s where I was.
I had the Rolling Stones! They were in coach where I was working and they were so entertaining. They were up and down the aisle, one of them – I don’t remember who it was because I don’t think they were really famous yet – came back and asked for my sweeper, and he swept up and down the aisle. He kept coming in and actually bothering me because I was trying to get the scrambled eggs out, but they were hysterical!
Did you know anyone at Pan Am who crossed paths with Frank Abagnale, Jr.?
My friend Sylvia’s roommate actually knew Frank, and he arrived one night in uniform and asked to borrow $200 from her. She gave it to him and never saw it again!
Frank Abagnale, Jr. was not a trained pilot, so when he made it on to the plane, what would he do?
He’d come on and posed as a deadhead, so he was never actually flying the plane. His whole imposter was wearing the uniform and riding as a passenger, that’s how he traveled. One time they told Frank he could sit in the jump seat because the plane was full, and he walked into the cockpit and couldn’t find the seat because he had no idea that you were supposed to pull it down.
How is flying today different from when you were a flight attendant?
Oh, so much! The food especially. We’d pride ourselves on the presentation, I mean we had orchids on all the displays, and the best champagne and best wine. But I think #1 would have to be customer relations. We were told those passengers were like our family. Smiles, how can I help, if there was a baby on board we’d warm their milk, it was all about being proactive – not waiting until someone asks for something.
But we also had height and weight restrictions, your hair couldn’t touch your shoulders, you reported an hour and a half before your flight and your grooming supervisor would weigh you, and check your uniform, and if you didn’t look right they’d pull you off the flight! But I loved the quality – I think that’s what made Pan Am so special – we were hired, but by golly we better live up to that Pan Am image.
Do you still keep in touch with the girls you used to fly with?
They’re my best friends. 8 of them were just here a couple years ago. They’re in San Francisco, Connecticut, Arizona, etc… but I keep in touch because they are my best friends. There’s definitely still a bond.
Today, Pat Smith owns her own trade show management company. She is also President of the DFW chapter of World Wings International. Currently, there are 40 chapters all around the world, and they each support a local charity. Pat and the DFW chapter work hard selling cookbooks and calendars, and doing annual fundraisers all to raise money for the local charity, SafeHaven.