First flight attendants | National Air and Space Museum


Flight attendants improve the flight experience for passengers by ensuring their safety and comfort. How did this role start? Who were the first flight attendants? Discover their stories.

Church of Ellen

In 1930, Ellen Church became the first flight attendant. (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, A-45935-C)

A nurse from Iowa, Ellen Church wanted to become an airline pilot but found that was not possible for a woman in her day. So in 1930, she approached Steve Simpson of Boeing Air Transport with the original idea of ​​placing nurses on airliners. She convinced him that the presence of nurses would help ease the traveller’s fear of flying. Church developed the job description and training program for the first flight attendants.

Church first flew as an air hostess between Oakland and Chicago. It had only been in use for 18 months when a car accident pinned it to the ground. After her recovery, she graduated from college and returned to nursing.

Jean Harman

In 1934, Thelma Jean Harman became the first flight attendant for the TWA (National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

Jean Harman became the first flight attendant for Trans World Airline (TWA) in 1934. She joined TWA after graduating from the Bethany Hospital School of Nursing and teaching government courses on the hospital. domestic hygiene and care of the sick. Harman was hired by TWA to design a hostess program. She helped interview the first registered nurses who became the first class of TWA flight attendants, and she assisted in the selection of the first uniforms. Before the flight attendants, the co-pilots fulfilled a dual function: flying in the cockpit and assisting the passengers in the cabin. The hiring of women as flight attendants allowed the co-pilots to stay in the cockpit. Passengers may also have been more comfortable with women in this role because women primarily performed babysitting and hospitality duties in American society. Harman later became a regional chief hostess and flight instructor. She was the founder and vice-president of Clipped Wings International, an organization for former TWA hostesses. Harman’s career began in a 14-seat Douglas DC-2 and ended in the jets of the 1960s.

Ruth carol taylor

Ruth Carol Taylor was a flight attendant for Mohawk Airlines in 1958; she was the first African-American flight attendant.

Taylor graduated from the Bellevue School of Nursing in 1955. She wanted to use her training and skills as a flight attendant and applied for a job with Trans World Airlines (TWA). At the time, TWA only employed white women as flight attendants, and they turned down her job application. Mohawk Airlines, however, “has expressed interest in hiring minority flight attendants,” explains Black Past. Taylor was selected from 800 applicants.

Six months after starting her aviation career, Taylor married and was forced to resign due to a sexist policy that required flight attendants to remain single.

Taylor pursued a career as an activist, founding the Institute for Inter Racial Harmony in 1977 and publishing The Little Black Book: Black Men’s Survival in America in 1985.


This content was migrated from a previous online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of women featured at the Museum in the early 2000s.


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