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Pan Am Takes Flight -- Again

Posted: 09/25/11 10:29 PM ET

As a former Pan Am stewardess from 1965 to 1986, I have eagerly -- yet ambivalently -- awaited tonight's debut of the new ABC series, Pan Am, on Sunday nights at 10:00 P.M. My ambivalence is a mixture of feelings of hope and dread.

My fervent wish has been that the show can bring alive the glamour, excitement, and amazing historical significance of our Pan Am world. My dread has been about the show deteriorating into a sexy soap about "mean girls." And so, after having just watched the first episode, it is with feelings of happiness and relief that I sit down to write this review.

In my opinion, there are three elements that we Pan Am'ers want to see: (1) the incredible feeling of "family" and intense bonding among all Pan Am employees, which to this day inspires great loyalty and pride (2) the feeling of bold expansiveness, excitement, adventure, and endless opportunities that we all shared, and (3) Pan Am's profound influence on the aviation world, and its place in America's history in the 20th Century. It's a story that to a large degree is unknown to the American public because for most of Pan Am's history, we only flew internationally (see my Pan Am history blogs: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/helen-davey/)

At this early stage, I would say that the producers, writers, and actors are off to a good start in portraying a romantic era in aviation history that no longer exists. Those of us who experienced it first hand are extremely grateful for our good luck. What many Americans don't understand is that whatever was happening in world news at that time, Pan Am was there, often rescuing Americans. Much of our work involved helping traumatized people, and we were on the front lines of most of the breaking news of the day. We all have amazing true stories.

The first scene, set in Pan's Am's World Port Terminal at JFK International Airport, transports me back in time to the excitement of the hustle and bustle of our passengers who are eagerly looking forward to their experience on our Pan Am Clippers, and to the feeling of camaraderie among the Pan Am crews. I remember so well walking as a group through admiring crowds that would part to let us through, and hearing the whispers of, "Oh, they're Pan Am!" And there were always the little girls with that look on their faces that telegraphed, "I want to be you someday!"

Another scene that is guaranteed to warm our Pan Am hearts is the one where the pilots and stewardesses are ready for takeoff. One stewardess reminds a newly hired stewardess to "Buckle up. Adventure calls!" and as the airplane lifts off the runway, the look on the pilots' faces says it all. We all felt that we had the best job in the world. And then, our beloved Pan Am emblem flashes on the screen, and for us, I don't think there will be many dry eyes.

Now, of course, there are many details that will stand out to former Pan Am'ers as just plain wrong. Pan Am blue was a tunis blue shade, grey-blue and very sophisticated. The bright blue of the stewardess uniforms jars me, but I'm sure it was decided that bright blue was better for television. Our hair had to clear our collar. Captains were all middle-aged, having waited a long time to claim that left seat, and Boeing 707's required at least three pilots but usually also needed a navigator. The configuration of the airplane is very different, but my guess is that it's probably because of difficult camera angles in small spaces.

Girdles have been a topic of much discussion about the show. The fact is that in this time period, everybody wore girdles, if only to hold up stockings. Pantyhose had not yet been invented, and garter belts have never been practical. I remember hearing stories about a particularly difficult grooming supervisor in New York (who is portrayed in the series), but I never personally experienced any rudeness from supervisors. I find it interesting that while girdles are equated with suppression of women, the recent and astonishing success of companies like "Spanx," which are simply girdles by another name, are never put in that category.

Pan Am was a no-nonsense company when it came to being on time -- one minute late and you were sent home. No excuses! Our weight standards were enforced, for sure. The rules had nothing to do with bone structure, so for me who is small-boned, I never had to worry about reaching my maximum weight. Women who had larger bones weighed more but could still look perfectly slim, and they were the ones who suffered the most from the restrictions. Later the policy was revised.

By the time I was hired in 1965, I flew with many married stewardesses who followed a "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and nobody was ever fired for it. There was also no rule that stewardesses must quit by a certain age. The other career choices for women were teaching, nursing, or secretarial work. We stewardesses were well-paid, respected, and able to travel anywhere in the world and take our families as well. I remember thinking that more exciting things were happening each month in my new life than had happened in all of my prior 22 years.

I'm happy with the casting of Pan Am. The stewardesses and pilots strike me as people I would have wanted to fly with, and they are believable. The storyline has opened up many possibilities for plot twists and turns. The scene with the runaway bride and her complicit sister is delightful and fun, and their complicated relationship promises to get more interesting. The CIA theme might seem unbelievable to many viewers, but in fact, because of Pan Am's close relationship with the State Department, there were quite a few Pan Am'ers who also worked for the CIA. It actually was the perfect cover, but we only knew about this after the company went out of business.

I enjoyed watching the scenes that convey a sense of what our lives were like -- the beautiful hotels, our luxurious Pan Am service, the adventures that could turn dangerous, the close bonding of our Pan Am "family" as we traveled our world and had each other's backs. When we arrived at our luxurious hotels, we were handed packets of money in the currency of the country, which felt like allowance from Daddy. And we always knew that if we needed assistance, we could call on Pan Am to help us.

Comparisons of Mad Men to Pan Am have been greatly exaggerated. Unlike the women in Mad Men, Pan Am stewardesses enjoyed an amazing freedom within a company that revered, protected, and respected us. They never sexualized us in their advertising. Instead of ads like "Hi, I'm Barbara. Fly Me," or "We shake our tails for you," Pan Am's advertisement when I first started flying was, "Pan Am stewardesses know their way around the world better than most people know their way around the block." For all of us, that ad quickly became true, because we shared an inner wanderlust, curiosity about the world, and desire for adventure and knowledge. And one of the good things about our job is that we never really had a "boss," unlike the oppressed women with the chauvinistic bosses of Mad Men.

So, at first glance, this show holds the promise of telling our largely unknown Pan Am story in a respectful way. If, in fact, the plot becomes oblivious to the real lives we were all privileged to experience, then I'm sure all of us Pan Am'ers would prefer for Pan Am to remain tucked away in our hearts, and not be defiled by a glitzy show that doesn't portray its excellence accurately. But so far, I'm hopeful that viewers will be enamored of the depth and breadth of stories that are waiting to be told.