Flying in the Golden Age of Air Travel

Memories of a TWA Air Hostess of the 1940s

Glamorous, smart, and sophisticated — that’s how I’ve thought of my Aunt Violet, my dad’s sister, ever since I was a young girl. She has always made an impression on the people she meets with her fashion style, engaging conversation, and interest in what is happening in the world. Her time as an air hostess (or stewardess, as flight attendants of the late 1940s were known) with TWA (Trans World Airlines – the now defunct, but once major airline) represented a lifestyle of travel that I yearned for even as a grade school student. Although her days as an air hostess ended several years before I was born, Aunt Vi’s flight career still came up in family conversations and I listened intently.

"TWA Air Hostess, Vi Ward, on Lowe Aveneue, Chicago"

Aunt Violet in front of the house on the South Side of Chicago where she dreamed of flying

I’ve loved talking to her about her first dreams of travel, how she became an air hostess, what commercial flights were like in those days, and special experiences she had. I’m happy that she agreed (and was very pleased) to let me share a part of her story on Traveling with Sweeney.

She dreamed of Africa

Aunt Vi grew up on the south side of Chicago, the 5th of six siblings, including my dad (he was 2nd). As far back as she remembers, she wanted to travel. She remembers sitting on the front porch steps on Lowe Avenue (shown above) as a young girl. Even before she’d ever heard of stewardesses, whenever a plane flew over on its way to or from Midway Airport, she wistfully looked up at the sky, and thought, “Someday… I’ll be doing that.” She imagined a journey anywhere around the world, but especially to those places that seemed most exotic to her. It was Africa that really grabbed her imagination, and she dreamed of seeing zebras, giraffes, lions, and elephants in the wild.

Ready for take-off

Aunt Vi’s flying career started in a simple way. On a Saturday morning in 1947, her mother suggested that she visit a cousin who was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. So Aunt Vi took the streetcar to his home at 80th and Justine. Fatefully, he had been reading the paper recently and told her that TWA was advertising for air hostesses in Chicago and that she should go for an interview.

She replied that she didn’t qualify for the job, but he countered asking, “But isn’t that what you always wanted to do?”

As she was leaving, he said, “Promise me you’ll go to the Drake Hotel for an interview on Monday.”

Aunt Vi took his advice and had an interview with the head executive managing TWA air hostesses.

At the time Aunt Vi was applying to TWA, the official job qualifications for air hostess included a nursing degree, a college degree, or four years practical business experience. Aunt Vi’s job as a private secretary in Chicago met the last requirement. She also recalls that one had to be at least 5’2; fall within an approved weight range; have good grammar and diction; and be poised and self-confident.  Most importantly, an air hostess had to SMILE! Meeting all of these criteria and having a beaming smile, she got the job right away and she was soon on a flight (her first flight ever) to Kansas City, the location of TWA headquarters and the McConnell School for training. This young woman was now on the verge of realizing her dreams as a young girl.

Unfortunately, as luck would have it, as soon as she finished the training, the pilots went on strike so she headed back to Chicago to work at Western Electric. Then in 1948, she got a telegram that the strike had ended and so she flew back to Kansas City to begin work with TWA. How excited she was!

On the job as a TWA air hostess

"Portraint of Vi (Sweeney) Ward, TWA Air Hostess 1948"

Violet (Sweeney) Ward, TWA Air Hostess 1948

The crisp light blue suit in a “cut-out” design (because of the cut-out TWA logo on the right shoulder), navy blue blouse, jaunty hat, classic pumps and a big smile characterized the appearance of TWA air hostesses of the late 1940s. No jewelry could be worn, and the hat and high heels had to be worn at all times. Perceived by outsiders as a dream job, the air hostess’s duties were quite demanding. For my Aunt Vi, her time with TWA as an air hostess and later as an instructor were happy days filled with experiences that became lifetime memories.

Fasten your seat belt

Beginning as a junior air hostess, she was based in Newark, New Jersey for her first year and she flew on the DC-3, a two-propeller “tail-dragger” aircraft which carried 21 passengers and one air hostess. There were many ups and downs (takeoffs and landings) on those trips because each flight was composed of several legs lasting about one-half hour each. So a trip from Newark to Kansas City, a route that Aunt Vi flew often, might take off at 5 a.m., and land in Kansas City at about 4 p.m. after 11 interval takeoffs and landings. With no air conditioning or oxygen, these flights never went above 9,000 feet and pilots were often maneuvering over and under clouds to get around storms, lightening and rain, hot thermal winds, and other rough weather. No wonder that many passengers would need to use the “burp cups” located beneath each seat which were specifically noted in the air hostess’s pre-flight announcement (no microphones on these planes). During her first six months on the job, Aunt Vi also found the burp cups very useful.  Smoking was allowed which added to the discomfort.

From the start to the finish of every flight, an air hostess was very busy. At each stop along the itinerary, passengers deplaned, and new ones came onboard. Before each leg’s take-off, air hostesses were responsible for checking the manifests; making announcements; taking orders for coffee, tea or milk (the only in-flight beverage choices aboard airlines of the 1940s); getting the food on-board; and handing out pillows which served double duty as tables for the food trays.

With less advanced technology, meal service was a challenge, and Aunt Vi and I both had good laughs as she described what it was like on the DC-3. Cardboard boxes to be used as trays were delivered to the plane along with a thermos jug, plastic dish with salad, casserole dish, bread and dessert. Despite the short ½-hour duration of most legs, as soon as they were in the air, the hostess began to prepare the cardboard trays with full meals each of which included a salad, an entrée, and a dessert. Aunt Vi said that with the short time available, the co-pilot would often come back to help distribute the trays. It was rare that anyone ever actually finished a meal before the seat belt sign went on for the descent.

Upgraded to the Constellation

Aunt Vi was thrilled when she was transferred from Newark to LaGuardia in New York City. With other hostesses she shared an apartment on Long Island from which she could enjoy easy access to Manhattan, but it also opened opportunities for her for longer-range, including coast-to-coast flights. She would also now be flying in what was a larger, more advanced and luxurious aircraft, the Constellation (affectionately nicknamed “The Connie”). The design of this four-propeller plane was strongly influenced by TWA owner Howard Hughes and made its first commercial flight in 1946. The Connie carried about 45 passengers and had a separate lounge behind the cockpit that might be considered “First Class” today. Meal service was a step up in quality from that on the DC-3 and was not as frantic due to the longer flight legs.

Sky Tourist Service begins on TWA

Reviewing the manifest for an inaugural Sky Tourist Service flight

Flying was very expensive, so nearly all passengers on domestic commercial flights were celebrities, business people, or those traveling to seek specialized health services, or attend funerals.  Not many people were flying with the family to vacation destinations. But on February 6, 1949, TWA introduced “Sky Tourist Service” on reconfigured Constellation aircraft. The Connie could now carry considerably more passengers (about twice as many) at lower fares. This was a significant event as air travel became more accessible and affordable for leisure travelers. In the publicity photo above, Aunt Vi is reviewing the flight manifest (which is clearly a long one) on an inaugural flight of the new service.

No fear

Aunt Vi was a fearless air hostess — the kind of flight attendant you hope to have on your flights. I asked her if there were any scares during her air hostess days. She said there were definitely exciting events and lots of turbulence, but she was never afraid. She had confidence in the pilots because she trusted that they were professionals, trained to know exactly how to handle difficult and unforeseen situations. One such instance was the time when her plane, flying in a thunderstorm, had to circle over Chicago because the landing gear failed to go down. That’s a rather scary situation that still occurs even in our current, more prevalent air travel, but I can imagine that in those younger days of commercial air travel, passengers needed even more reassurance than now. When the flight finally landed, Aunt Vi was greeted on the tarmac by her father (my grandfather) who had come to meet her at the airport for the first time since she’d been flying. Everyone on the ground at the airport knew about the airplane’s troubles in the sky, and she remembers how he was absolutely proud and relieved to see her safely on the ground.

On another flight when she was strapped in her hostess seat in the back of the DC-3 for a descent, the exit door popped open inward. Of course, all the passengers turned around to look at Aunt Vi trying to assess their level of danger. She gave them a smile and the sign, “It’s OK” and thus a calm atmosphere was restored in the cabin.

On one of her DC-3 flights, Aunt Vi witnessed a rare occurrence that was most likely the phenomenon known as “ball lightning” after the plane had been struck by lightning. In the blink of an eye, electrical currents that she described as a spherical “rainbow of colors bigger than a baseball” came hurtling down the aisle toward the back of the plane where she was sitting, then continued directly out through the tail. That certainly would have scared me! But after the plane had passed through the storm, Aunt Vi got up and calmly proceeded with her work — business as usual.

A chance to explore

In cities like New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles and San Francisco where she was either based or on long layovers (often a full 24 hours), she took every opportunity to explore. During layovers in New York City when she was based elsewhere, she often stayed at the Prince Hotel on 38th Street near 5th Avenue which was convenient for taking long walks to Central Park. She soaked up the energy and excitement of the city, browsing in Saks Fifth Avenue and other high-end department stores, and stopping for lunch at restaurants that looked inviting. The Prince Hotel had many international guests, and she loved being among people from all over the world.

She recalls her first layover in a big, new city when sitting in her room she summoned up the nerve to go out and about and dine on her own. This quickly built her confidence, stoking her enjoyment of exploring new places.

Special Assignments

When Irish Eyes are Smiling

In the photo below taken in 1949, Aunt Vi’s beautiful smile was captured by the local Zanesville, Ohio (near Dayton) press during a major publicity event in which she was a key participant. To emphasize the amazing capabilities of modern air travel, shamrocks had been flown from Ireland to Newark, where they were entrusted to Aunt Vi’s care. From there, she flew with them to Zanesville where she was greeted by a priest on the airplane stairs of the DC-3. In the photo, she is presenting him with the shamrocks — just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.

"Aunt Vi as TWA air hostess delivering shamrocks from Ireland to a priest in Zanesville, Ohio"

Delivering shamrocks from Ireland to a priest in Zanesville, Ohio

The reluctant beauty queen

I wish I could show you a photo of Aunt Vi winning the Miss TWA Chicago pageant, but nobody in the family has one, and that’s the way she wanted it because any photos that once existed showed her on stage in a bathing suit. A TWA station agent had entered her in the contest without asking her first, but convinced her that she must participate. Walking around in a bathing suit on stage was embarrassing for her, but she even more vividly remembers something else about the pageant. I’d also heard an eye-witness account of this from my dad who was in the audience with another of his sisters, my Aunt Lorraine, and my grandparents. Aunt Vi was announced the winner and just as the emcee was handing her the prize — a beautiful red purse — someone sitting behind the Sweeney clan started to boo. Grandpa Sweeney turned around and grabbed the guy by the collar. Fortunately, my dad intervened and a fight was avoided. Aunt Vi was quite aware of what was happening in the audience, but kept her cool as she accepted her prize.


Aunt Vi flew with many movie stars and other celebrities, and recalls that on one occasion Frank Sinatra was on her flight. Part of the air hostess pre-flight routine was to instruct the passengers to fasten their seat belts and ask if they would like a Chiclet (to help keep the ears clear during take-off). But her usual spiel got turned around a bit after Frank looked into her eyes and said, “Oh, you’re pretty!” She was flustered and thinks her words actually came out something like “Fasten a Chiclet, would you like a seat belt?”

After one year with the airline, Aunt Vi was asked to be an air hostess instructor, but declined. She later accepted a second position based in Kansas City which required her to travel to various bases two weeks at a time to train new attendants. She was also assigned to flights as a “check hostess” to observe and evaluate crew service.

While in this position, she received a special assignment to accompany a Hollywood movie mogul and his entourage on a flight from New York to Los Angeles. The VIP had reserved the lounge area of the Constellation where Aunt Vi made sure they were comfortable and entertained. Her natural sociability and pleasant conversation led to an invitation from the mogul to join him and his guests at his home in the Hollywood Hills for dinner that evening. Of course, she accepted!

Upon landing in Los Angeles, the mogul was greeted on the tarmac by press as well as associates and friends who had arrived in limousines including the actress, Dorothy Parker, who would be part of the dinner party. The mogul rode with Aunt Vi and another hostess (who was based in Los Angeles and had a car) to his mansion in the hills for a memorable dining experience. Along with the Hollywood elite, she was served dinner at an enormous table in a huge formal dining room. It was a night to remember!

Aunt Vi spent the night at the home of her friend, but the fun in Los Angeles wasn’t over. She had the next day free and was delighted when an airline publicity agent called her and asked to show her around city. It was a great day she remembers fondly that included having her very first Caesar’s Salad at the prestigious Chasen’s Restaurant which was famous for the salad.

This Hollywood assignment remains one of her treasured memories.

Love, marriage, and “clipped wings”

While flying a regular Chicago to Kansas City route, she met and fell in love with a young, dashing, and charming TWA captain, Harry Ward. Uncle Harry was considered quite a catch. Handsome and with a southern drawl, he was also the youngest pilot ever to become a TWA captain. Aunt Vi says that 1949 was a year in heaven – she was enjoying her dream job and had fallen in love. Uncle Harry would meet her on the tarmac in his blue Oldsmobile convertible with an ice bucket containing a bottle of sparkling Burgundy (obviously a scenario that couldn’t happen with today’s air travel security regulations). After just a few weeks of dating, he proposed marriage but she turned him down because she didn’t feel she knew him well enough. They continued dating and just about a year later she accepted his second proposal, although she knew it would mean the end of her air hostess career, including an imminent promotion to superintendent as well as the potential to fly internationally after four years of service.

Before unions influenced policy, TWA hostesses (and those of other airline companies) could not be married. Once they wed, they were required to leave the position. Later, when the air hostesses were unionized, this constraint was eliminated. The new rule was retroactive and Aunt Vi was invited to return to her job, but by then she was happily raising her children and declined the offer.

When she got married and for decades longer, Aunt Vi belonged to TWA Clipped Wings, an international organization of  TWA flight attendant alumni of all generations.

Ageless class

Aunt Vi has taken every opportunity to travel and in the 1970s she got to fulfill her dream about Africa by taking a private safari tour with a girlfriend — it was a trip of a lifetime. Now 92, she still travels to visit friends and family in Chicago, Atlanta, Colorado, and anywhere else whenever she gets the opportunity. I love the times that I’ve gotten to visit her in Arizona and get together in Chicago for family gatherings. I’ll be making another visit to Phoenix soon and I’m looking forward to seeing her as well as other family members.

"Former TWA air hostess, Vi Ward in Chicago"

At lunch with Aunt Vi in Chicago

Aunt Vi is an inspiration to me. Although she has the challenges of macular degeneration (which has severely diminished her sight), she makes the most of every day and is ready to hop in a car or on a plane whenever she gets the chance. She is always eager to hear about my travels. She already may have been to some of the places herself — about others, she may still be dreaming.

Thanks Aunt Vi, for letting me share a part of your TWA air hostess story.

Note to our readers from Aunt Vi: ”If I’ve had any errors in my recollections, please remember that it was a long time ago and I’m 92 years old!”

Aunt Vi died on November 11, 2019 at the age of 97. Her stories and her influence on those who knew her live on.


Violet Sweeney Ward reviewing the manifest for an inaugural Sky Tourist Service flight, February 1949

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55 thoughts on “Flying in the Golden Age of Air Travel

  1. Michelle

    Fascinating and wonderful story. Your aunt sure has had an interesting life that so few ever get to experience then and even now. Very pretty lady then and now. Thank you Aunt Vi for sharing your life with us!

  2. Jackie Smith

    Oh good heavens! While I LOVE Aunt Vi’s story – her life and career – I am most impressed with Aunt Vi now: please tell her she is absolutely gorgeous and I would never have guessed her age!

  3. Anita

    What a story! I can see what an inspiration your Aunt Vi has been for you, and probably many others. How lucky you are to have such a wonderful example for all your explorations. Thanks for sharing her story with us.

  4. Sophie

    What a fabulous story – and aunt! I would love to travel back in time and fly in the early parts of the 20th century. Seems so romantic then. Today, it’s more like taking a bus, isn’t it… especially the budget airlines.

  5. Leigh

    Fasten you chicklet – I love it. I love the adventurous spirit of your aunt, her coolness under pressure and the photos of her are absolutely gorgeous. This is a beautiful post Cathy and hats off to Aunt Violet.

  6. Patti

    What a wonderful story, I love her photos as well. She was/is a beautiful woman and definitely stylin in her suit. My sister was a flight attendant for years with Pan Am. She had to wear a pink suit with a pink pill box hat, it was really something. She loved the work, the travel and the lifestyle but she hated (with a passion) that they required her to regularly weigh in. Imagine?! She stopped flying when Pan Am went under, but back in the day flight attendants were seen in a very different light, very stylish, very sophisticated.

  7. Jools Stone

    ‘Fasten your chiclet’ I love that! Lovely story Cathy. I suspect the glamour of being an air hostess has faded since a little she her time, but this nicely reflects the golden age.

  8. Kay Dougherty

    I love everything about this story – Aunt Vi obviously being the best part! Flying in planes that didn’t have oxygen? Serving food on half hour flights? And of course having to quit when you got married – tales from the past that are fascinating! Thanks so much for sharing your aunt’s fascinating story!

  9. Marcia

    Thanks for sharing this story, Cathy. Your Aunt Vi is quite an inspiration. We’ve come a long way in commercial flying. I wonder what it must have been like flying at only 9,000 ft or taking off and landing every half hour. But I love that they distributed Chicklets.
    I hadn’t even considered how expensive travel must have been back them. One thing I’d like to ask you aunt, how much would a ticket from LA to CA cost and what was her starting salary?
    Please thank her for sharing her experience with us. Forget Hollywood, you have your own Sweeney Star! Thanks Cathy and Aunt Vi!!!

  10. Tatiana

    Thank you so much for sharing this! Being a flight attendant myself I always think of this golden era in aviation, where flying was really something special. How exciting it must have been for your aunt – and I’m very happy for you that you have such a fabulous aunt!

  11. Suzanne Fluhr

    Aunt Viv was a pioneer. I’m glad she let you share her story with us. I hope some some Millennials will read it so they’ll understand better how it was for women in the “olden days”

  12. Mary {The World Is A Book}

    This is one of my favorite post from you, Cathy. I loved reading about your Aunt Vi’s adventures and I also felt like I got a lesson in aviation and flight attendant history. It’s amazing to hear what rules they had to follow back then. Please thank her for sharing such a fascinating part of her life. I love seeing all the vintage photos.

  13. Ellen

    What a wonderful tale about Aunt Vi. Cath, you told her career story so well. It was so terrific growing up with this lady. It was such an adventure to go to her home and experiences things that we southsider little ones never knew! All of us nieces wanted to be just like her. I wanted so badly to follow her footsteps that I checked out all the books in the library about how to become a stewardess. Never worked out! Not as pretty as she! Yes…she looks that beautiful today at 92! She’s witty, smart, beautiful and worldly. I just pray I have her Sweeney genes! Happy travels dear cousin and keep up the great stories! Love you.

  14. Francesca (@WorkMomTravels)

    What a wonderful story and tribute to your aunt, Cathy! I can’t imagine how uncomfortable those “up and down” flights were back then. I was growing uneasy just reading about no air conditioning and that smoking was allowed. Aunt Vi had to be a strong, determined woman to get through that – all while wearing heels! And of course I love that she (and your dad) is from the south side of Chicago 🙂

  15. Penny

    What a delightful and inspiring story.! You are fortunate to have had the experience of having such a classy lady as your aunt, and your Aunt Vi is fortunate to have a niece that not only appreciates her accomplishments, but can tell her story so well. Thank you for sharing your Aunt Vi with us.

  16. Mike

    Ya know Cathy, I’ve read a lot of your posts for over a year now and the beautiful travel adventures you and Mr TWS have gone on and shared with us. But, this is very likely my all time favorite post of your’s. I grew up flying from a small little boy that I will have to share more about someday. Ironically, I have a fear of flying now and still am looking for the courage to get back on a plane. I wish your Aunt Vi was available to go with me because I know she would calm my nerves. I just LOVED this post so much and thank you for sharing it. Btw, she’s as beautiful today and she was in her flying days. Give her a big hug from this reader friend of your’s. All my best, Mike 🙂

  17. Loretta Simmons

    Kathy, you made Aunt Vi’s day and more. Wonderful story. I mailed Aunt Vi a copy to read and see
    the wonderful photos and great people who returned such kind remarks and interest. As you know
    she uses a special magnifying machine to see and read. Yesterday I called and read each and
    every response from wonderful people who had such a great response . She was thrilled as I
    read and sometimes even wanted to cry. Wish my mom, Aunt Vi’s oldest sister, were still with us.
    I am 78, and Aunt Vi definitely looks much younger than 92 and sharp as a tack.
    Something in the Sweeney genes. Thanks you Kathy

  18. Dukie McCarrell

    Thanks for sharing your blog. Very interesting. I didn’t know all that stuff. Aunt Vi is a fantastic women and still going strong.

  19. Nancie

    Hi Cathy. What a lovely read. Your aunt and my Dad are almost the same age. He’ll be 91 next week. What an adventure your aunt had! I would have had trouble speaking too, if I was looking at Frank Sinatra. Good to hear that her safari dream came true.

  20. Linda

    Had this tab open forever, meaning to read it, and just sat absolutely transfixed. It’s a lovely, lovely post and a wonderful tribute to your aunt, who still looks gorgeous. Admit to a lump in my throat when I read about how she met her husband and the courtship. This is how I imagined a stewardess’s life would be when I was young! I actually applied to PanAm, but you had to be 21 and I was 19 at time, but when my 21st came around I thought I was in love and abandoned my plans. How silly. One of the best blog posts I’ve ever read!

  21. Lorraine Gerardo

    Cathy, you captured Vi’s life so perfectly; such an interesting read. Vi and I have been friends for over 70 years and speak to each other by phone at least twice a month & always have so many good laughs and yes, even tears together. In fact Vi was a bridesmaid at my wedding in October, 1944 in Toluca, IL. She celebrated her 70th birthday here in Daytona Beach with me & what a wonderful time we had. We have visited back & forth through the years and it is always so much fun. How many friends can still keep the friendship glowing at ages 92 and 91? We are both so fortunate to have had each other in our lives since we were both young ladies working in Chicago. —–and as we say, “Still have all of our marbles”.

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  23. June O'Hearn

    This was such fun to read. I, too, was a TWA hostess back in the 1060’s flying out of Kansas City. I did meet my husband who had been on the flight (hate to admit it though as I didn’t interact with most passengers). We had such “tight” regulations on job and appearance back then…your aunt’s references to such brought back so many memories. They were wonderful years to fly…people so polite and happy to perhaps be on a special trip of their life! I belong to Clipped Wings and treasure all the happy days I spent in the sky. I also had the opportunity to go back some years after I retired and be a “spy in the sky” in TWA’s Quality Assurance Program. What fun! I was also Miss Kansas City (thanks to my roommates entering me in a contest I knew nothing about) and enjoyed passenger questions as to if I was the gal in the newspaper picture the day after the contest. It was such a fun time and experience I am so happy I chose. My best to your aunt…and, yes, she is still beautiful!!!

  24. Jean | Holy Smithereens

    What a wonderful, inspiring story! If I had an aunt like your Aunt Vi I would probably be tied to her hip all the time asking to regale me stories of her adventures the entire time 🙂 It’s so interesting that the requirements for being a flight attendant , especially in terms of appearance still exists in a lot of Asian airline requirements today. I’d love to see your aunt’s flying life recreated in a movie , that would be so interesting 🙂

  25. Liberty Aviation Museum

    Hello! I love this article! The Liberty Aviation Museum would be interested in using some photos and we’d like to share this store with our TWA and historic airliner display that we are currently working on. If you are interested and would allow us to use images of your Aunt for display, we would be delighted to add them! Feel free to contact me at Thanks! Connie

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  27. Judy Westwood

    Thank you for blogging such a wonderful story about your Aunt Vi. She was a remarkable woman in so many ways. She will always be remembered by those of us who had the pleasure of knowing her. She was very proud of you and all that you and your husband have done.

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