A Flair for Flying

BA High Life Magazine December 2009

BA High Life Magazine December 2009

Libbie Escolme-Schmidt looks back on her heady days as an ‘air hostess’ in the golden era of the 1960’s

I became an airline stewardess by chance. As a young university student in Brisbane, I used to watch the TAA aircraft fly over my grandmother’s house in Clayfield. About an hour later, I would see a very glamourous TAA air hostess walk past the house to her accommodation next door.  I found it incredibly exciting to think that just an hour before she had been up in the skies in that aircraft.  She looked so confident, elegant and mysterious.  I wondered, where had she been that day?

That was in the late 1950’s. Like hundreds of other Australians in the early 60’s, once I graduated, I joined the exodus to Britain. It was an exciting time to be young and free, but everything came to a halt after I had spent all my money seeing Europe.  I was flat broke.  In a quandry, I applied to BOAC, a predecessor of British Airways, to become an air hostess.

Fortunately fo rme it was a time of expansion for the airline and within three weeks I was being interviewed in a borrowed grey Chanel suit and my only pair of heels. The interview was a terrifying experience.  While I thought I would be questioned at length about my knowledge of BOAC and its routes, my expressionless interrogators asked questions about my life and my career so far. I also had to walk and sit down in fron tof them. I thought htis was somewhat demeaning, but I was so desperate to get the job and silently thanked my mother, who had sent me on a finishing course as a gift when I graduated from university.

Within two months, I was on my six-week training course with BOAC.

Ever day involved copious note-taking on topics such as menu definitions, cabin service routines, air-sea rescue and jungle survival. Air-sea rescue was a great day as we all donned our bathers and experienced the life rafts and life jackets. I hadn’t been in a swimming pool for a couple of years and thought it was heaven.

The day we receieved our Wings was such a relief.  At last I was going to be an airline stewardess. I was about to have the best time of my life. The excitement of opening those brown paper envelopes sent in the post by crew scheduling to tell me where I was assigned for my next trip never waned. I was going around the world for 18, 21 or 24 days at a time.  What a lifestyle! I used to go to my tailor and jeweller in Hong Kong and pick up my goods on the next trip. I visited the Taj Mahal, wandered the avenues of New York, explored Bangkok, Tokyo, Singapore and Delhi, went on safaris in Africa, basked in the sun on the beaches of the Carribean and Waikiki, climbed Machu Picchu, watched the animals from treetops in Africa.  Those were just a few of the wonderful experiences. I loved the peripatetic existence of going to exotic locations and the countless opportunities to meet so many interesting people.

The passengers were such a pleasure, elegantly dressed and so polite.

We welcomed them in our white gloves and smart hats as if they were special guets coming to dinner. We would escort them to their seats, address them by name and help them put their hand baggage and their coats (neatly folded) in the overhead racks. The slogan was ‘BOAC Takes Good Care of You’ and we did.

My most romantic moment with a passenger was when I had a very charming and inebriated Trevor Howard on board. He thoroughly enjoyed every morsel of his food and the Chateauneuf-de-Pape. As I went to clear away, he took my hand and said he wanted to give me a little gift. He then generously presented me with the red rose I had initially placed there, and kissed my hand.  I couldn’t keep the kiss but I still have the rose, crushed and ried. A true brief encounter!

Th emost alarming incident was when a snake escaped from its basket (it was travelling with a snake dancer) on the way to Nairobi. Being a coward, I hardly looked for it but sent the passenger on her hands and knees to find it, but guess who did eventually find it…me! It was curled up around the base of the lavatory ‘getting cool’ she said.

My greatest thrill was being allowed to sit behind the captain for take-off and landing. My favourite was Kai Tak, the old airport at Hong Kong, which was a famously difficult place to land.

Crew life was enormous fun. The job created a strange social phenomenon in which a group of ten or 12 total strangers would meet and almost immediately become a team for the length of a trip.  We would become very close: work together, eat togetehr, go on excursions together, shop and swim together and do a whole lot of other stuff together, if the spirit and body were willing.

Flying suring the Swinging 60s gave our lives an extra panache.  For a while many of us were guilty of rolling up our waistbands to shorten our skirts. Airline competition was fierce and the stewardesses were the faces of the airline, so a new uniform designed by Clive had us all wearing minidresses, boots and Wolfonavy blue tights. And it didn’t stop there. For the Carribean run, we wore paper dresses. These were a disaster if a spillage occurred.

I am often asked if I would do it all again. Oh yes of course I would, but only in the Golden Age.

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