Pride, Progress, Pie in the Sky


Extraordinary Service

There are only two emotions in a plane: boredom and terror.

- Orson Welles

Motor cut.  Forced landing.  Hit cow.  Cow died.  Scared me.

- Dean Smith, telegraph to his chief, quoted by Amelia Earhart, The Fun of It, 1932

by Bill Garvey and Elizabeth Kaye McCall

Lillian Kinkella Keil has earned a very special place in the annals of flight and the history of serving others.  Widely considered to be the most decorated woman in U S military history, Keil was a pioneering flight nurse during World War II and the Korean War as well as one of United's first generation of stewardesses who set the model for today's flight attendants.

But back in 1938, when her mother suggested that Kinkella might like being a "stewardess," the young nurse didn't even know what the word meant - United had invented the profession less than a decade before.  In fact, she'd never even seen an airplane.  She ventured over to United Air Lines' Oakland base, just across San Francisco Bay from her home, and saw glistening planes gathered there.  She was hooked.  Within days, she was tending to passengers with the same care she had given her patients.

When the United States entered World War II, Kinkella and many other United stewardesses joined the war effort as flight nurses.  By the summer of 1943, she was in England pulling wounded and frostbitten crewmen out of B-17s returning from bombing raids over Europe.  It was a time she will never £orget.  She scrambled for cover when the bombers roared overhead, witnessed the first buzz bomb attack on London, and in June 1944 climbed aboard a C-47 crammed full of gas, oil, rations, and medical supplies.  D-Day had come, and she was heading for Normandy to collect the fallen.

Once the wounded were secured in the two dozen litters, the airplane took off.  En route to England, Kinkella moved from one man to the next, stanching the flow of blood, bandaging wounds, checking IVs, giving medicine and comfort.  After the patients were delivered to hospital units, the C-47 headed back to the front.  Kinkella made 250 evacuation flights - 23 of them transatlantic - during the war.

At war's end, she returned to United as an assistant chief stewardess based in Los Angeles.  A highlight of that posting came on 1 May 1947, when her DC-6 took off from Honolulu on the airline's first flight from Hawai'i to the mainland.  Although happy to be back with United, Kinkella's return was short-lived.  With the outbreak of war in Korea, there was a sudden need for experienced flight nurses.  In 1950, Kinkella boarded another United flight, this one bound for Japan, and her uniform was that of a U S Air Force officer.  Captain Lillian Kinkella was heading to the front again.

Over the next 16 months, she flew 175 air evacuations out of Korea, logging 1,400 hours of flight time.  Her wartime service with the 801st Medical Air Evacuation Transportation Squadron was the basis for the 1953 film Flight Nurse, on which she consulted.  In 1954 she married Walter Keil, a former Navy officer, and left the service for good.  She devoted herself to raising her two daughters.  In 1961, her appearance on the popular television program This Is Your Life garnered one of the 10 highest mail responses in the show's history - with many of the letters from wounded veterans she had helped.

Today, Keil retains the same spirit that took her into the air so many years ago.  For her selflessness, she has been awarded 19 medals, including a European Theater medal with four battle stars, a Korean service medal with seven battle stars, and four air medals.

bulletQ: What was it like being up in the sky for the first time in 1938, near the dawn of aviation?
bulletA: When I got on my first airplane - a Boeing 247-B - I just loved it.  I had never even been on an airplane when I went to apply for the job with United.  The supervisor of service, Pat Barnes, said, "We need you right now.  Can you get away?"  And I said, "Well, I'm in pediatrics at St Mary's Hospital."  And he said, "How soon can you get away?"  I came back a few days later.
bulletQ: Everything about flying was new to you?
bulletA: Yes.  On the first flight, the pilot called me up and told me to go back and find the prop wash [wind "turbulence created by a plane's spinning propellers].  He said, "You'll find it in that little room in the back near the restroom.  "I went back there, and I looked all over and couldn't find anything that had "prop wash" on it.  I said I couldn't find it, and they laughed.  They teased me like that.  But it was wonderful because it brought me out of myself.  I'd been raised in a convent, I was very shy, and I didn't know a lot of people.  I had been in nursing for only three years.  Then I started flying, gaining more knowledge, and having fewer jokes played on me.
bulletQ: There were no stewardess schools then.  How did you know what to do?
bulletA: We just did what had to be done.  The trays were under the seats.  We had to go up to the passenger and say, "Excuse me, get your feet out of the way."  Then we'd reach down and pick up the trays and ask, "Coffee, tea, or milk?"  They'd tell us, and we'd go back and get the hot casseroles and arrange the tray and bring it back to them.  In those days, very few people flew.  Sometimes we'd have one or two passengers, sometimes 10.  It was beautiful up there.  I enjoyed the excitement of greeting the passengers.  Most were celebrities flying toward their next commitment; some were businessmen.
bulletQ: Which celebrities do you most remember from those days?
bulletA: One of my most important passengers was Eleanor Roosevelt.  We were grounded in Livermore, California, and she got off the plane and sat on the steps by the lounge and started knitting.  All the reporters came to interview her.  And, of course, she was lovely to everybody.  My most famous passenger was Cary Grant, and I ended up having a date with him.  He drove us all over San Francisco.  He picked me up, would you believe it, at the beauty parlour, in a cab.  I couldn't believe that he would do that.  We went to Chinatown and St Mary's church because it was Good Friday.  And we stood outside because it was very, very crowded.  All those people were paying more attention to him than they were to what the priest was saying.
bulletQ: Were you ever afraid?
bulletA: Never.  I knew we had the pilots up there to take care of us.
bulletQ: How did the passengers react to flying in those days?
bulletA: They were more or less afraid.  They weren't sure whether they wanted to be on the airplane.  There were a lot of men who didn't care too much about flying, especially if we didn't have very many passengers aboard.  In those days, if we had a passenger like that, we would contact the pilot and he would come strolling back and talk to the passenger.  It made the passengers feel a little easier about flying.  In those days [before pressurised cabins], passengers sometimes had ear problems because they weren't used to the pressure changes.  We had them blow into a wooden nozzle to blow up a balloon, and that took care of the pressure in their ears.  Also, one of the first things we did was pass out chewing gum.
bulletQ: How did you decide to become a flight nurse during World War II?
bulletA: It happened on a flight to Santa Barbara.  We had a passenger who was sitting in the rear, and he said, "What are you doing on this plane?  You're a registered nurse, and we have a war going on.  You belong in the Air Force as a flight nurse."  I said, "What is that?  I've never heard of a flight nurse."  So he told me that it was a nurse who is there for the evacuation of the wounded out of combat.  When I got home I wrote to the School of Evacuation at Bowman Fields.  Within two weeks I was told that I'd been accepted.  The military, without any hesitation, took nurses who were airline stewardesses.  They were the first ones who were grabbed up.
It was something that I just felt I should do.  My brother John was in the Army, and I had another brother in the Navy.  I was in the Army Air Corps and became a flight nurse right away.  I went straight to the school of Air Evacuation, and then I was sent to Europe.  I was on one of the few transport ships, and we were in the largest convoy to have crossed the Atlantic at that time - 88 ships.  Many times we had to cut off the engines because there was evidence of a submarine in the area, so we had to wait until we didn't hear their motors anymore, and then we'd start off again.
bulletQ: You were a nurse on many flights in combat areas.  Were you frightened about being on the planes then?
bulletA: We never thought anything of being on an airplane.  You knew that you had patients, you knew that they were in critical condition, and you knew that they needed attention.  You just kept going as though you were in the hospital.  You never thought about the fact that you were on an airplane.  There was only one flight nurse and one medical technician on every plane.  The planes were always sent off with supplies - gasoline, oil, 101 mm shells, blankets, K-rations - whatever it took to keep the troops going.  When we landed, workers would come aboard and offload the cargo.  Once they were done, we would put the straps down and clean up the airplane and wait for our patients to come aboard.  We would get them boarded and get out of there as fast as we could.
bulletQ: After World War II, you went back to work for United, and you were on the first flight from Hawai'i?
bulletA: Yes, I have it on my flight log.  There was only one stewardess on those flights, but at that time they had these huge buffets, these beautiful set-ups.  And for the first time they provided cocktails.  It was a beautiful flight.  We'd have all these flowers of Hawai'i surrounding the buffet service.  At that time, we wore white summer dresses.
bulletQ: How long did it take to get from Hawai'i to the mainland?
bulletA: I think it was about nine, 10, or 11 hours, depending on the weather.
bulletQ: You went back to serve as a flight nurse in combat zones in the Korean War.  Why?
bulletA: Taking care of patients is what I like to do.  I never had any fear about the firing.  I wanted so much to take care of the wounded ones - to get them shots, change their dressings, make their bandages, make them comfortable.  And then they started to talk to you.  They'd talk about family, about who they left behind, where they were going to go now.
bulletQ: Do you think there were a lot of little girls who saw you and decided to follow in your footsteps?
bulletA: I have no idea.  Every time I talk about the military and the wonderful career I've had, the minute I bring up the fact that I was an airline stewardess, people want to hear all about being a stewardess; they don't want to hear anything more about being a flight nurse.
bulletQ: This is United Airlines' 75th anniversary.  Did the people you knew, United's presidents and the key people in the company at that time, seem like people who had a vision?
bulletA: They weren't ordinary.  They were very spectacular people, some of them.  The beautiful part of it is that they wanted to talk to you, to find out things from you.
bulletQ: Did you ever have an inkling that United would be such a dominant player in the airline industry?
bulletA: I never did.  I am so grateful to United.  Every time I hear "United Airlines," my heart just pounds.  They were the ones who gave me an opportunity in life.  They were the ones who started me on my wonderful career, my wonderful life.
bulletQ: What kind of advice would you give to young women today about living their lives?
bulletA: They have to accept every moment and try to be happy with everything and everybody.  And dream for other people; try to be close to somebody who might need you.  You can tell if somebody needs a word.  Be kind to someone; help someone.  Don't just pass them by.  I think you have to extend yourself, your warmth to the other person.  You have to do that in any profession.

Source: Hemispheres Magazine

The Flying Laboratory

The most common phrases in airline aviation are "Was that for us?", "What'd he say?", and "Oh, shit!"  Since computers are now involved in flying, a new one has been added: "What's it doing now?"

- Great Aviation Quotes

Safety led the list of corporate goals that United's early president, Pat Patterson, called his Rule of Five (safety, passenger comfort, dependability, honesty and sincerity).  Patterson's United invested heavily in research that enhanced the entire aviation industry - a commitment that has made United a leader in aviation technology throughout its history.

One of the earliest efforts to increase safety was the establishment, in 1929, of the industry's only communications laboratory.  The lab developed the first practical two-way radio that would permit pilots to speak with people on the ground.

An outgrowth of the communications lab was United's "flying laboratory" - the twin-engine Boeing 247-D, registration number NX13365, that contributed more to the technological development of commercial aviation than any other plane.

For almost a decade, the 365 was used by scientists and engineers to test an extraordinary variety of equipment intended to make flying safer and more comfortable.  Engineers tested the first gyro-controlled automatic pilot in the 365.  Other 365 assignments included the development of wing and propeller de-icers, variable-pitch propellers, radio direction finders, compasses and various kinds of communications antennas.

The radio altimeter was tested on the 365.  It used the bounce-back time of radio waves to determine clearance above the ground rather than using air pressure to compute altitude above sea level - a key advance for flying over mountains.  The "flight analyser", precursor to the "black box" or flight data recorder, was developed on the 365.  The original flight analysers recorded aircraft heading, speed and altitude, and United was the first airline to install the devices on its entire fleet.

Boeing 247D Began service in 1934; wingspan 74'; Length 51' 4"; Cruise speed 161 mph

In 1942, the 365 was drafted into military service.  United engineers were developing an automated instrument landing system, and that work continued throughout the war.  The 365 made thousands of landings to test what became standard military equipment and was later installed at airfields around the world.

By the conclusion of the war, the 365 had logged tens of thousands of miles.  The research performed on that airplane had saved more lives than anyone could then appreciate.  In an appropriate irony, the technology the 365 helped perfect eventually made the plane obsolete.

Source: Hemispheres Magazine May 2001

Food for Flight

It looked like Taco Bell after an earthquake.

- Karen Breslau, reporter for Newsweek,
describing Air Force One after hitting severe air turbulence while serving Mexican food, 1996

Early airlines considered passengers a nuisance.  Even after airmail carriers went into the passenger business, perks were usually limited to playing cards and a so-called "burp cup" for motion sickness.

Dinner on United Airlines in 1927 was a ham-and-cheese sandwich, an apple and coffee, or creamed chicken in a thermos, rolls and coffee - which the copilot handed to passengers when they boarded the airplane.

United revolutionised inflight service by hiring eight young female nurses to tend to passengers.  In 1936 United opened the industry's first flight kitchen, complete with European chefs.  Three days later, the first hot meal - a choice of fried chicken or scrambled eggs - was served aboard a DC-3 Mainliner.  United's engineers had designed an electrically heated compartment to keep food hot.  Meals were packed in a papier-mâché box that doubled as a lap tray.

In the late 1930s, United took a leading role in the design of the 4-engine DC-4 and moved the galley from its traditional location at the front of the plane to a spot near the rear doorway.  The more spacious galley was easier to load and for the first time included equipment for warming food in flight.

By the middle 1950s, United chef-supervised flight kitchens had launched a culinary tradition.  Mainliner meals were the best aloft.  A monthly recipe from a United chef was a highlight of the inflight magazine.  For "25¢ in coin" you could mail order "Favourite Recipes of Mainliner Chefs" whose resumes included the best U S restaurants.

Today, food preparation is done to specifications by caterers, but United chefs still create and test recipes in the airline's kitchens.  The commitment to good food goes beyond the dozens of meals designed to fit an amazing array of special dietary needs.

Since 1994, dishes inspired by famous restaurants have brought culinary distinction to United routes.  Since 1997, celebrity chefs have crafted regional meals with Asian, Hawaiian, Southwestern and other flavours, including specialties from participating eateries in the Chicago food fair.  Also available are Mrs Fields cookies, Eli's cheesecake, and Starbucks coffee.  United's commitment to cuisine would have made the Mainliner chefs proud.

Source: Hemispheres Magazine May 2001

To view other articles related to flying including history, unusual flying machines, hot air balloons, skydiving, gliding, problems, airports, turbulence, pilots, crashes, the Paris Air Show, the future, blimps, space travel, solar sails and more, clicking the "Up" button below takes you to the Table of Contents for this section on Flight.

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