What it was like touring the world as one of many first Black Pan Am flight attendants


(CNN) — In the summertime of 1969, Sheila Nutt was certainly one of simply two Black ladies in a crowded Philadelphia lodge, ready to interview for a coveted position as a flight attendant for Pan American World Airways.

Nutt was a 20-year-old school pupil residing in Philadelphia. A few years beforehand, she was first runner-up within the Philadelphia division of the Miss America pageant.

“I used to be the primary African American to be chosen as the primary runner-up,” Nutt tells CNN Journey as we speak. “Though I used to be not chosen because the winner, I used to be very excited in regards to the final result anyway.

“I form of felt like a trailblazer.”

In between rounds, Nutt chatted with the opposite pageant contestants about her life objectives, voicing her desires of turning into a mannequin or an actress. One of many ladies talked about the airways had been searching for flight attendants — the arrival of the jet engine had opened up worldwide journey and airways had been booming.

Nutt was intrigued by the thought of working as a flight attendant. It was a ticket out of Philadelphia and to her future.

“There was a risk that if I grew to become a stewardess, I could possibly be found on an airplane,” says Nutt.

After the pageant ended, Nutt recollects eagerly flipping by the native Sunday newspaper along with her greatest buddy Sandy. They turned to the job itemizing web page and noticed an advert posted by Pan Am.

The position wasn’t open to everybody. Candidates needed to have a school schooling, communicate a second language and be a sure peak and weight, and eye glasses had been banned. However the Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbade discrimination in opposition to candidates primarily based on race, so candidates from all backgrounds had been inspired. The primary wave of Black flight attendants had began flying a number of years beforehand, and Nutt and Sandy had been eager to hitch them.

As she sat ready to be interviewed, Nutt flicked by the Pan Am brochures laid out on the espresso desk in entrance of her. Shiny photos of Rome, Paris, Istanbul and Buenos Aires had been splashed throughout the pages.

“I would solely examine these locations in historical past books,” says Nutt.

The considered visiting these locations was thrilling.

“Oh my gosh, I really need this job,” Nutt recollects pondering.

Not did Nutt see working as a flight attendant as a way to satisfy a bigger dream of appearing or modeling — flying gave the impression of a dream job in itself.

“Historically, African People weren’t touring the world, we had been going from Philadelphia to Atlanta,” she says. “So the entire concept of seeing the world was thrilling for me.”

The interview went effectively. Nutt says she wasn’t thrown when the interviewer requested her to reveal her “stroll.”

“I would been in magnificence pageants, I knew about strolling throughout the room in a method that confirmed a stage of grace and confidence,” says Nutt.

Two weeks later, Nutt obtained a telegram informing her she was in. All that was left was to go a medical examination and to go to Pan Am coaching faculty.

“Once I received the telegram, I ran upstairs to my bed room, I opened it, and I screamed and hollered, and I stated, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ and my mom thought that one thing unhealthy had occurred.”

Nutt recollects her mother and father initially voicing some considerations about her accepting the job.

“They grew to understand and perceive my want to get out of Philadelphia and to see the world. I needed to see these locations that I had examine. I needed to make use of the language that I had studied for 4 years in highschool,” says Nutt.

Nutt’s buddy Sandy wasn’t employed by Pan Am, however ended up working at United. The 2 ladies stayed buddies, and had been quickly swapping tales of their adventures.

A brand new chapter

Nutt was delighted to receive this telegram confirming she was accepted by Pan Am.

Nutt was delighted to obtain this telegram confirming she was accepted by Pan Am.

Philip Keith for CNN

After her closing semester of faculty, Nutt traveled to Miami for coaching in January 1970. She would not recall any pre-training nerves.

“At 21, you haven’t any concern,” Nutt says. “It was simply pleasure.”

Because of the Pan Am home flight schedule in 1970, Nutt needed to journey from Philadelphia to Miami through Puerto Rico. The lengthy journey was her first style of what the subsequent chapter of her life would seem like.

“On that flight from Philadelphia to Puerto Rico, I knowledgeable the stewardesses on Pan Am that I used to be going to coaching faculty they usually had been simply fabulous. They had been so sort they usually had been so encouraging and telling me all the good issues that I might be experiencing.”

Nutt flew to Miami First Class on a Boeing 707. Again then, flight attendants would cook dinner meals for passengers mid-air. Sitting within the in-flight lounge, Nutt overheard one of many crew members discussing how drained she was of consuming steak on the job.

Nutt remembers listening in disbelief. How might anybody tire of consuming steak?

“My eyes had been opened, ” she says. “And I used to be simply very excited — I assume that is the operative phrase, pleasure — and keen to seek out out what the world needed to supply me.”

The Miami-based coaching lasted a month. Nutt was the one Black lady within the class.

Nutt (center row, fourth from left) was valedictorian of her Pan Am training class.

Nutt (heart row, fourth from left) was valedictorian of her Pan Am coaching class.

Philip Keith for CNN

Rising up, Nutt had often discovered herself in areas through which she was the one individual of coloration.

“I developed the flexibility to code-switch, the flexibility to embrace range, fairness and inclusion and justice early on in life,” she explains. “I discovered the right way to accommodate and overcome the prejudices and racism and bullying and disrespectful habits that some individuals tried to impress upon me.”

Nutt grew near a lot of her classmates, a few of whom she stays in contact with as we speak.

“Over 50 years later, we talk, we share our tales,” says Nutt. “I am very joyful to have encountered these ladies. It was a really worthwhile studying expertise for all of us, as a result of a lot of my classmates had by no means seen an African American in individual.”

Nutt says the vast majority of trainees had been “open and receptive and keen to include range into their very own private {and professional} sphere of affect.” She did come nose to nose with some prejudice, and recollects one trainee who was harder, and who subsequently did not go their probation.

“I didn’t enable their issues to have any influence on my capacity to achieve success, my capacity to seek out happiness and pleasure, and fulfill my very own function,” says Nutt.

Nutt describes the coaching curriculum as “very intensive.” The brand new recruits discovered about “meals, language, grooming, wines — we grew to become connoisseurs of which wines had been from what space, which wines went with explicit menus.”

However coaching wasn’t solely about studying to make vacationers comfy.

“Our major focus was the protection of our passengers,” explains Nutt. “So we had very intensive security coaching — we needed to, in fact, go examinations, take checks.”

Flying within the Nineteen Seventies

Sheila Nutt still has her Pan Am uniform and bag.

Sheila Nutt nonetheless has her Pan Am uniform and bag.

Philip Keith for CNN

Nutt graduated from Pan Am coaching as valedictorian of her class, and began flying out of Miami.

“I used to be among the many first to fly on the Boeing 747, in order that was my favourite airplane — maybe you understand that it held greater than 400 individuals at a time. And it was within the vanguard of aviation historical past again within the Nineteen Seventies,” says Nutt.

“The 747 would go to Italy, to Rome, which I actually loved as a result of I beloved the historical past of Rome. I beloved being a vacationer there, I beloved consuming the meals and buying in Rome.”

Nutt additionally loved touring to Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, and staying within the InterContinental Resort. InterContinental was owned by Pan Am, so flight attendants had been normally put up within the glamorous accommodations throughout layovers.

On board, Nutt, who after six months working for Pan Am grew to become a purser, and later a stewardess supervisor, cooked effective meals for passengers that was served on china plates.

“Within the First Class, we cooked every little thing from scratch,” she says, recalling meticulously perfecting roast beef to passengers’ likings.

Nutt loved speaking to vacationers and says she was proud to be a Black ambassador for Pan Am, and for the US extra broadly.

“We had been the de facto ambassadors of America at the moment. When individuals received on the airplane, that is what they noticed.”

Sheila Nutt, former Pan Am flight attendant

“We had been the de facto ambassadors of America at the moment. When individuals received on the airplane, that is what they noticed.”

Nutt and her fellow Black flight attendants would generally face discrimination from White passengers. Nutt recollects one explicit interplay with a White passenger from South Africa, which on the time was racially segregated beneath apartheid.

“This explicit passenger was disrespectful to me, and so I ignored him and continued to do my job,” she says.

Nutt says different vacationers had been “flabbergasted” by this man’s habits.

“He went again to the galley and informed the opposite stewardesses, or flight attendants, that he needed to apologize, however he didn’t have the capability to return and apologize to me. However I understood the place he was coming from, I knew that he had points that weren’t my points.”

Nutt additionally recollects that Black Pan Am flight attendants got particular dispensation to fly to South Africa, granted honorary “White standing.”

“It was very emotional. It was a really eye-opening and academic expertise to have an opportunity to enter South Africa throughout apartheid,” says Nutt.

Making a group

In relaxation intervals in-air, Nutt and her fellow flight attendants would discuss their jobs and lives.

She describes her relationship with different Black Pan Am flight attendants as a “particular camaraderie.”

“We shared tales, experiences and encouragement,” says Nutt.

Pan Am’s peak and weight restrictions weren’t restricted to recruitment — flight attendants had been required to take care of a sure look and had been generally topic to random weight checks. Nutt says such necessities had been tolerated by Pan Am crew due to the journey alternatives the job afforded them.

“We knew the restrictions, and we had been keen to place up with the restrictions, as a result of we felt it was price it,” she says.

“We had been keen to play alongside. I feel we had been keen individuals.”

Put me on file, it was a superb life. I loved it. And when I didn’t take pleasure in it anymore, I left.”

Sharing a legacy

Sheila Nutt is now focused on sharing the stories of fellow Black Pan Am flight attendants and is working on a podcast project.

Sheila Nutt is now targeted on sharing the tales of fellow Black Pan Am flight attendants and is engaged on a podcast venture.

Philip Keith for CNN

Nutt moved on from Pan Am within the Nineteen Eighties. Earlier than leaving, she enrolled on a Pan Am program that allowed flight attendants to review in the course of the week and fly on the weekends. She obtained a doctorate from Boston College, writing a dissertation on flight attendants and occupational stress, and later studied for a Grasp’s diploma in theological research from Harvard Divinity College.

When Nutt left flying, she began working in schooling, and most just lately served for fourteen years because the Director of Instructional Outreach Packages at Harvard Medical College’s Workplace for Variety Inclusion and Group Partnership, earlier than retiring in 2020.

Nutt has been married for almost 4 many years to her husband, who’s from Ethopia. The couple lived in Addis Ababa for ten years.

“I beloved being a stewardess, I discovered a lot in regards to the world and myself touring to international nations,” says Nutt, reflecting on her profession as we speak. “My respect for and appreciation of various cultures has contributed to the success of my marriage.”

Nutt says she additionally sees the influence of her years exploring the world on her youngsters.

“They’re bicultural and like to journey the world,” she says.

Nutt additionally nonetheless likes to journey, however says she’s within the joyful place of not having wherever left on her bucket checklist. When she left Pan Am, the one vacation spot Nutt nonetheless hoped to go to was China, which was closed to worldwide guests by a lot of her tenure within the air. Nutt fulfilled that dream when she had the chance to journey to Beijing with Harvard.

When Nutt does fly as we speak, she marvels at how totally different the touring expertise is, and the way the position of a flight attendant has developed.

“Again within the day, there was the picture of glamor — that performed a significant position in air transportation again within the ’60s and ’70s and earlier than,” she says. “These days, it seems that it is mainly to get you from level A to level B, and have the ability to deal with an emergency.”

On board service, notes Nutt, can be markedly modified.

“It is simply very totally different, and we’re speaking a very long time in the past, instances change,” she says.

At this time, Nutt’s focus is on collating and sharing the tales of her fellow Black Pan Am flight attendants, who name themselves the “Pan Am Blackbirds.”

“These tales of African American women and men are an integral a part of the general aviation historical past, however the American aviation historical past, particularly,” says Nutt.

Nutt is at the moment placing collectively a podcast, referred to as “Pan Am Blackbirds” that may shine a light-weight on these tales. She hopes to create a long-lasting legacy.

“It is the chance to listen to our tales, in our phrases,” she says.

“I felt it was vital for our tales to be saved, to be highlighted, to be revered and acknowledged.”

High {photograph} of Sheila Nutt by Philip Keith for CNN



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