Imagine how surprised you’d be if you were on a long flight and were served coffee by the pilot! That was standard in the early days of inflight service, as the Ford Trimotors that were the early workhorses only had seats for six passengers. Look at this picture of service aboard Nati0nal Air Transport, circa 1928:Behind that rather interesting looking couple is the co-pilot, taking a break from his other duties to hand out drinks and sandwiches. Note the very high ceilings and curved windows – this is what the aircraft looked like from the outside:
Ford Tri-motors kept flying commercially into the 1980’s, and were favored for sightseeing trips over the Grand Canyon, as the slow aircraft with huge windows was perfect for that purpose. The aircraft in this picture may still be flying, as many airworthy examples are in collections around the world. As for National Air Transport, it was folded into Stout Airlines in 1930, which merged with other carriers to become United Airlines in 1934.
My book received another positive review, this time from Juliette Rossant, who wrote the book “Super Chef” and has a blog by that name. You can read it at this link. In her honor, this post will be about chefs who claimed the most coveted of superpowers: flight.
Airline competition across the Atlantic heated up after the Second World War, as state-owned airlines competed with private carriers for an expanding market of tourists and business travelers. Since almost all carriers were flying the same aircraft in substantially the same configuration, none could claim greater speed or comfort, so competition in food service became intense. One of the most effective ads was a series by KLM, which touted their “Flying Chef”:A 1947 ad boasted, “KLM’s Flying Chef performs culinary miracles in his kitchen in the clouds…creating delectable hors d’ouerves and desserts, savory sauces and salads, twenty thousand feet in the sky. He is indeed the world’s top chef!”
You might note that though starters, sauces, and desserts were mentioned, main courses weren’t. This was a coy admission that the era of frozen food was blossoming, and the entrees were cooked on the ground and reheated. The Lockheed Constellation shown in the background of that picture had little room to cook – here’s the galley aboard one of the few remaining aircraft of this type, which is in the Museum of Flying in Seattle:
Photo commissioned from Museum of Flying, used by permission.
There may have been a cabin crew member who had a very limited ability to make a sauce from scratch, but anyone doing that job was mainly a garde manger, making beautiful arrangements of cold food. KLM continued to use the advertising tagline of the Flying Chef late into the 1950’s, but hasn’t deployed it lately. Someone else has – look at this contemporary ad from Turkish Airlines: We’d all like to fantasize that a dedicated professional chef is making the meals we eat aboard aircraft, even as we know that almost everything is made in industrial kitchens hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles from where it is consumed. There are few exceptions, the private corporate jets and government aircraft, but unless you’re aboard Air Force One your chef probably has no greater powers of flight than the rest of us mere mortals.
While the name of the first American stewardess – Ellen Church – is well known to people who are interested in commercial airline history, the first female flight attendant in Europe is not as well known. Nelly Diener started working for Swissair in 1934, and during her brief career she was featured in several news stories. One look at this picture gives a hint about why that might have been the case – look at this great shot of her wearing a rakishly tilted uniform cap:
By all accounts Nelly had a charming personality, and was known as Engel der Lüfte (“Angel of the Skies”). I recently found another picture of her that is also obviously posed, but includes a detail of her profession that I hadn’t seen before:
Note the wicker basket, which was used to transport food and cutlery to the aircraft, and dirty dishes away at the end of each flight. Wicker was the strongest light material available until the invention of plastic, and was used for airliner seat bottoms and luggage racks. I was surprised to see the rigid rather than folding handle on this one, and wonder where in the aircraft they stowed the basket.
Tragically, Nelly Diener’s career was very brief – she started working in May of 1934 and was killed in a crash during a thunderstorm in July. A Swiss aviation history website at nelly.ch is named in her honor.
Zeppelins were the cruise ships of the skies, and offered unparalleled space for passengers to stroll and sightsee, but their competitors the flying boats managed to almost equal them at mealtime. Look at this picture of dinner aboard a Boeing B-314, which was probably taken in about 1939:
Courtesy Foynes Flying Boat Museum
Though the aircraft had cabins and beds for up to 36 passengers, including a deluxe bridal suite, only fourteen people at a time could enjoy the hospitality of the dining room at once. A modern airline executive would look at this picture and figure out how to pack as many people as possible into the space, but in those genteel times it was accepted that passengers would dine in shifts, served by two formally dressed stewards. The tablecloths were linen, the utensils genuine china, crystal, and freshly polished silver.There were no spacious piano bars or lounges as were available on the zeppelins, but the trip across the Atlantic took a mere seventeen hours instead of three days.
Flying Boats circled the world – Imperial Airways flew across Africa, zigzagging between rivers and oceans for landings, and in partnership with Qantas operated services from London to Australia. Qantas boasted about the quality of their inflight meals with this jolly advertisement:
Courtesy Qantas archives
Other flying boat services linked cities in South America, island-hopped across the Pacific, and connected Dutch colonies in Indonesia with the motherland. The flying boat era lasted longer than you might expect – TEAL, the predecessor to Air New Zealand, continued to fly Short Solent flying boats between Auckland and Pago Pago until 1960. It was a quaint way to travel, the first age of international travel surviving into the jet age, and when it ended something wonderful was lost.