Ellen Church: The Flying Nurse

Iowa’s Pioneers of the Air

Early airplanes were crude and often unreliable. Flying was dangerous, but many saw the air as a new American frontier. These pioneers of the air were willing to take the chance. Out of their adventures and inventions the science of aviation was born.

An Iowa woman proved to be a pioneer of the airways when she used her medical experience in an unusual way. Ellen Church, from Cresco, Iowa, became one of the country’s first flight attendants and performed heroic duties during World War II. But it took some convincing to get airline owners to hire a woman!

As you board the airliner, a flight attendant checks your ticket. Before takeoff you learn what to do in case of an emergency. During the flight an attendant serves refreshments and makes sure that you are comfortable. What would flying be like without flight attendants on the job? We now know, on some airlines now have no-frills flights.

Copilot Serves Lunches

When airlines in the United States began passenger service in 1926, there was no one to provide such extra attention. The small planes carried the pilot, a copilot and about twelve passengers.

During the flight the copilot would leave his controls and come back to the cabin to care for the passengers. He handed out the box lunches. He took care of those who became frightened or airsick.

Airsickness was common in those days. Planes flew at about 5,000 feet and at that altitude, the air is often rough and bumpy. Sometimes the bouncy ride made people sick. It also alarmed first-time travelers.

In 1928 a German airline added a third crew member, a steward. His main duty was to care for the passengers. This allowed the copilot to stay with his job of helping to fly the plane. In 1930 Boeing Air Transport decided to add a third crew member on passenger flights too. But something happened that changed that plan a little—Ellen Church asked for a job.

It All Began in Cresco

Ellen Church grew up with the air age. She was born at Cresco, Iowa in 1904—one year after the Wright brothers' successful flight. While Ellen was a young girl she watched aeroplanes perform at the county fair. Sometimes one landed in a nearby Cresco farm field. Ellen decided that when she grew up she would learn to fly.

After graduating from Cresco High School, Ellen studied nursing. Then she went to San Francisco to work in a hospital. In her free time she took flying lessons. Every day as she walked to and from work she passed the Boeing Air Transport office (a forerunner of United Airlines). Companies like Boeing were starting to fly cargo and passengers all over the nation. One day Ellen stopped in at the Boeing office and asked whether there was any chance she could get a job. Steve Stimpson, the manager, told her the airline was planning to hire stewards, like those on some European airlines.

Ellen thought she could do that sort of work very well. In fact, a nurse was just what the airline needed! Wives would not worry so much about their husbands traveling if there was a nurse aboard. Surely the plane must be safe if a woman dared to fly in it every day!

The Pay’s Good, But Parents Say, “No!”

Mr. Stimpson agreed, but convincing Boeing headquarters was another matter. After some argument, Boeing decided to give Ellen's plan a three-month trial. Ellen was hired as head stewardess and told to find seven other nurses to work on planes. This was not easy. The job paid well, $125 a month, but often a young woman's parents objected to their daughter taking a job in flying.

Ellen found seven trained nurses who met the rigid qualifications. The early planes could not carry much weight, so a stewardess could not weigh more than 115 pounds. The planes had narrow aisles and low ceilings, so the women could be no taller than 5 feet 4 inches. The age limit was 25.

Ellen and her seven nurses worked hard to prove women could handle the job. They cared for airsick and frightened passengers. They took tickets, passed out lunches, served coffee and hot soup. They cleaned inside the plane, and tightened the bolts holding the seats to the floor.

Oops! Wrong Door!

The stewardess was responsible for passenger safety. This included keeping an eye on the emergency exit which was right next to the washroom door. She did not want a careless passenger stepping out into the wild blue yonder!

Passengers liked the service and soon other airlines were hiring stewardesses. Ellen, however, was forced to quit flying after eighteen months, because of an auto accident injury. But this did not end her career in the air.

Ellen’s a Hero

Ten years later the United States entered World War II. Ellen joined the Army Nurse Corps, and helped evacuate wounded soldiers from Africa and Italy by airplane. Because of her experience working in hospitals and organizing the stewardesses, Captain Ellen Church was called to train evacuation nurses for the D-Day invasion of France in 1944. For her "meritorious achievement in aerial flight" she received the Air Medal, the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with seven bronze service stars, the American Theatre Campaign Medal, and the Victory Medal.

Ellen Church created a new career in the new industry of flying, at a time when many men thought the idea of a woman working on a plane was a joke. It took a pleasant and determined young woman from Iowa to change their minds.

Adapted from original article in The Goldfinch 2, No. 1 (September 1980). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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