Skip to main content

The First Stewardess: Ellen Church

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
Ellen Church as the first Stewardess

Ellen Church as the first Stewardess

Early Commercial Flying

Early passenger planes were crude and not too reliable. Commercial flying was a new frontier and often considered dangerous. It was also an industry dominated by men. Ellen Church was a licensed pilot and nurse, but knew she would never be hired to fly a commercial aircraft as a pilot.

In 1930, Ellen Church was in San Francisco and walked into the office of Boeing Air Transport (B.A.T) determined to find a way to be part of the fledgling commercial aviation industry. She pitched a manager at B.A.T with a unique idea. Church told him a nurse could provide important care during flights for passengers. They could take care of any passengers that were sick or scared to travel by air. This would make it possible for pilots to only focus on their flying and not worry about such things. He liked the idea, but it would take time before she got approval.

Early Years

On September 22, 1904, Ellen Church was born on a farm located near Cresco, Iowa. As a child, she was fascinated by the airplanes that flew over her family's farm. At an early age, Church decided she would not become a farm wife. Tending to kids and farm animals didn't appeal to her. Church wanted to do something that provided her with adventure. After finishing high school, she attended the University of Minnesota. She earned a nursing degree there in 1926. After graduating, she was able to obtain a job teaching nurses at a hospital in San Francisco. Church worked at the hospital for the next few years. During this time, she also took flying lessons and was able to become a licensed pilot.

Inside 1930s passenger plane

Inside 1930s passenger plane

Early Commercial Flights

Airline passenger service started in the United States in 1926. The planes were small and passengers didn't get much attention. Each flight had about twelve passengers as well as a pilot and copilot. During the flight, the copilot would leave the front of the plane and hand out box lunches. He was also responsible for any passenger who was frightened or airsick. This was a time when airsickness was common. Planes flew at around 5,000 feet. At this altitude, the air is often rough. The bumpy ride often made people sick. First-time travelers were often terrified. In 1928, a German airline added a steward to care for the passengers. This made it possible for the copilot to help fly the plane and not worry about the passengers.

B.A.T Manager

When Church went to the B.A.T office, she was able to meet with Steve Stimpson. He was a manager at the airline. She discussed her idea about having a female nurse available to care for passengers during an airplane trip. Church believed the presence of a female would steady the nerves of the passengers. If they saw a female handling the flying, then the passengers would believe they could also handle it.

First Stewardesses chosen by Boeing  Air Transport

First Stewardesses chosen by Boeing Air Transport


Stimpson felt that Church was on to something. He passed the idea along to his superiors. Initially, they didn't like the idea. Stimpson was persistent and the executives eventually changed their minds. They agreed to have women care for the passengers aboard their planes during a three-month trial period. During the late spring of 1930, Church and Stimpson screened applicants for the position of stewardess. No stewardess could weigh more than 115 pounds. They could not be taller than 5 feet 4 inches. A stewardess could not be older than 25. All of them had to be nurses. At the end of the process, eight women were chosen to be stewardesses. Church was one of the eight. When the trial period was over, it was considered a huge success. The airline then hired more women to be stewardesses. B.A.T eventually merged with two other small companies. This business group eventually formed United Airlines.

Stewardess working on Boeing Air Transport flight

Stewardess working on Boeing Air Transport flight

Being a Stewardess

On May 15, 1930, Church was the first stewardess on a 20-hour flight from San Francisco to Chicago. There were 14 passengers and the plane made 13 stops. Church and the seven other girls worked hard to show the male-dominated aviation industry a female could handle the job. They provided important care for passengers who were frightened or sick. The stewardesses would take the passenger's tickets and pass out lunches. They also served hot soup and coffee. The stewardesses would clean the inside of the planes and even tighten the bolts that held the seat to the floor. They would even help with refueling the plane when necessary. Passengers really liked the service provided by the stewardesses. Other airlines started hiring them. After 18 months, Church was forced to quit her job because of injuries she experienced from an auto accident.

Ellen Church in the Army

Ellen Church in the Army

World War II Hero

When World War II started, Church joined the Army Nurse Corps. She helped to evacuate soldiers wounded in Italy and Africa by airplane. Because of her experience as a nurse and stewardess, she was asked to help train evacuation nurses for the D-Day invasion. For her efforts, Church was awarded the Air Medal. She was also given the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal. It had seven bronze service stars. Church was also given the Victory Medal and the American Theatre Campaign Medal.


Ellen Church died on August 27, 1965. She fell and experienced a severe head injury when riding a horse. Church was immediately taken to Union Hospital. About six hours later, she died from her injuries. She was buried in Terre Haute, Indiana at Highland Lawn Cemetery. The municipal airport in Cresco, Iowa, has been named Ellen Church Field in her honor.


Iowa PBS

World History


Time Magazine

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Readmikenow


Readmikenow (author) on December 03, 2020:

Liz, thanks. I was impressed at what the women did willingly to be part of the airline industry.

Liz Westwood from UK on December 03, 2020:

This is a fascinating biographical and historical article. It's interesting to find out where the flight attendant concept first came from.