For many Cabin Crew (myself included), the thought of pushing that trolley up and down those narrow aisles, dealing with angry passengers and randy Pilots until we’re in our 80’s is something that nightmares are made of.
But for one incredible lady, this was no nightmare.
Iris Peterson began flying for United Airlines in 1946, at a time when the jet engine was still a mere blueprint, sex was safe and flying was dangerous.
When she retired, 61 years later in 2007 aged 85, she was ranked #1 in terms of seniority.
Iris was born in 1922, ten years after Germany’s Heinrich Kubis became the world’s first Flight Attendant. During the early years of flying, there were no female crew members. Males, known as stewards, were onboard the primitive aircraft to tend to passenger’s needs and for a small amount of safety-related duties.
Then in 1930, a 25-year old registered nurse named Ellen Church was hired by United Airlines. Soon, women would rapidly overtake men onboard aircraft as airlines and passengers alike enjoyed the glamorous ‘air hostess’ imagery that grew throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s.
In 1946, a 22-year old Peterson successfully applied for the stewardess role with United. Although more and more females were applying and recruited, many restrictions were still placed around the job, including age, gender, ethnicity, and weight. Flight Attendant’s (FA) were not allowed to fly and be married or have children. They had to retire by their 30’s, as the airlines deemed them too old. In a still very male-dominated world, conditions were tough.
Peterson recognised the discrimination that existed and hated it, making it her mission to change things for the better.
At United, Iris held various leadership positions in the FA’s Union and often represented her colleagues in grievances and safety issues.
Georgia Nielson, historian and retired FA, stated that Iris was “Often an integral part of advancing her profession through activity in her union”.
Peterson and the Association Of Flight Attendant’s (AFA) founder Ede Lauterbach helped conduct the industries first aircraft evacuation tests in 1952.
An entire planeload of passengers has to be evacuated within 90 seconds, with only 50% of exits serviceable. Today this test is mandatory on all new airliners before they enter service. These first tests led to further regulations, requiring FA’s onboard all commercial flights to be trained cabin safety personnel.
Fight For Equality
In 1953 she became the first official lobbyist for the Airline Stewards and Stewardesses Association. She would regularly find herself the only woman in congress halls and was often patronised by members of Congress and their staff members, but Peterson never gave in.
By 1968 things were slowly changing. In the same year that crew were finally allowed to continue flying if they were married, Iris worked closely with aircraft engineers to develop safety features for the world’s first ‘Jumbo-Jets’. A total of 17 of her suggestions were implemented, including the evacuation alarm, now standard equipment on aircraft worldwide.
In a tribute by the AFA after her retirement, it was said that Peterson and her peers helped to ‘Destroy discriminatory practices, advancing the rights of women and uprooting gender discrimination’.
United AFA President Greg Davidowitch commented,
“There’s no way to celebrate the career of this phenomenal woman without recognising the extraordinary achievements she was part of fighting for throughout her career. Iris led the way in shaping the career we are each so proud to call our own. Iris has been a mentor to all of us who have followed in her steps. She has spent a lifetime committed to her airline and to improving the profession she has loved for six decades. As her fellow crew members, we have been lucky to receive her guidance for 60 years. Iris is an intensely private person, but flight attendants everywhere are the beneficiaries of her dedication and commitment to our profession. She is truly one in a million”
A True Aviation Heroine
In an extremely rare interview before her retirement, Peterson was asked when she would finally hang up her wings? To which she instantly replied, “When my body tells me it’s time!”
For six decades, Iris Peterson flew as a Flight Attendant. During this time, she witnessed enormous changes within the industry she loved, many of which she helped to implement.
She made aircraft safer and destroyed discrimination against the crew community. She watched great airlines come and go, witnessed the horrifying events of 9/11 and made memories for the many millions of passengers she tended to over her 61 years.
For more incredible stories of our aviation heroes check out our Angels Of The Sky category.
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