Ellen Church, Nurse-Flight Attendant

Profiles in Nursing

Ellen Church, Nurse-Flight Attendant

Duties included calming nervous passengers in unpressurized cabins and refueling the plane

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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The producers of TV shows like Mad Men captured the heyday of air travel with their retro look at the lives of what we used to call “stewardesses.” Pretty, thin and well-groomed, these attendants were the envy of many a young girl who dreamed of flying to distant places, meeting successful men, and living happily ever after. Did you know at first they were all nurses?

Reasons to Be Nervous

Nurse Ellen ChurchThe idea was the brainchild of Ellen Evalyn Church, the first to serve in this capacity. Church graduated from the University of Minnesota  School of Nursing in 1923. Later she went back to earn a bachelor’s of science degree. Over the years she worked as a school nurse, office nurse, and as a nursing instructor at French Hospital in San Francisco.

She also took flying lessons and became a licensed pilot. When she learned that Boeing Air Transport (one of the companies that merged to form United Airlines) was thinking of hiring men as attendants for passengers, and after the company refused to hire her as a pilot, she lobbied Steve Stimson, the head of the San Francisco office, and convinced him that female nurses on board would calm nervous passengers.

And nervous they were. The cabins were unpressurized and flights had many stopovers in isolated areas. Church was responsible for finding the first eight nurses employed by the company, and they started with a three-month trial on May 15, 1930. The first trip, from Oakland to Chicago took twenty hours and had thirteen stops. Although the nurses, as women, were first resented by other employees, they soon gained the respect of everyone, especially airsick passengers.

Extended Scope of Practice

For $125/month, they handled luggage, checked tickets, served meals and offered tour guide-type commentary. They also fueled the plane and helped the pilot push the aircraft into the hangar at the end of the trip. They had to be unmarried registered nurses, under 25, no more than 115 pounds and less than five foot four inches. The height and weight restrictions were because the cabins were so narrow and ceilings so low. They were also unheated. At first the nurses wore standard nursing uniforms, including caps. Eventually the uniform evolved into a tailored suit and cape designed by Church.

By 1935, flying had become so popular and there were so few jobs open to women that in that year alone, 2,000 nurses applied for 43 jobs with Transcontinental and Western Airlines.

Back to the Skies for the War Effort

After being grounded due to injuries from an automobile accident, Church left her post as stewardess and worked for years in a variety of jobs. Eventually, with the outbreak of World War II, she joined the Army Nurse Corps and became one of the first flight nurses. She spent the war evacuating by air the wounded from North Africa, Sicily, France and Belgium. For this service she won the prestigious Air Medal. Her last months of military service were spent teaching at the evacuation school at Randolph Field in San Antonio, Texas.

The era of nurses as flight attendants on commercial aircraft ended with the onset of the war because nurses were needed in both civilian and military hospitals. To this day, though, the primary function of attendants is to ensure passenger comfort and safety.  

In 1965, Church received the Amelia Earhart Award for her contributions to aviation. United Airlines dedicated an addition to its stewardess-management training center in Chicago in recognition of her service to the country and to aviation. The airport in her hometown of Cresco, Iowa, is called Ellen Church Field in her memory.

Church remained active in nursing. Her last post was as hospital administrator of Union Hospital in Terre Haute, Indiana. She died in 1965 from injuries suffered while horseback riding.  

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN is a Working Nurse staff writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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