Ellen Church: “Sky Girl”

Ellen Church was born in 1904, a year after the Wright Brothers took their first flight at Kitty Hawk. As a young girl, she saw airplanes perform at the country fair near her hometown of Cesco, Iowa. She decided that she wanted to learn to fly.

After graduating from high school, she moved to the Twin Cities, where she earned a degree in nursing. From there, she moved to San Francisco, where she worked as a hospital nurse and finally earned her pilot’s license.*

In 1930, she decided to try to turn her love of flying into a career. She applied for a job at Boeing Air Transport,** which had the contract to fly the mail between San Francisco and Chicago. They turned her down—like other airlines B.A.T. only hired male pilots. During her “interview,”the manager at the San Francisco office, Steve Simpson, told her that the airline planned to hire male stewards—a new idea that some European airlines were testing.

Airlines in the United States had begun offering passenger service only a few years earlier, in 1926. The planes carried a pilot, a co-pilot and twelve passengers. The co-pilot had the job of handing out box lunches and taking care of passengers who were frightened or airsick—both common conditions at the time because plane rides were bumpy. The addition of a steward as a third crew member meant that the co-pilot could concentrate on his primary job and passengers could received more attention.

Church argued that women with nursing degrees would make passengers more comfortable than a male steward. Simpson agreed to give her a three month trial, and the authority to hire seven other nurses to work on the planes. B.A.T. called them “Sky Girls.”

The trial was a great success and other airlines began to hire young nurses to work as stewardesses, or air hostesses. By 1933, 100 women worked as stewardesses.

In addition to being nurses,*** stewardesses had to be single. They could weigh no more than 115 pounds and be no taller than 5’ 4” tall. The upper age limit was 25. In addition to caring for sick or frightened passengers, their duties included taking tickets, handling luggage, passing out lunches, cleaning the inside of the plane, and tightening the bolts that held the seats to the floor.

Church’s career as a Sky Girl only lasted eighteen months, due to an automobile accident. But she entered a second stage in her aviation career in World War II. When the United States entered the war, she joined the Army Nurse Corps. She helped evacuate wounded soldiers from Africa and Italy by air and trained other evacuation nurses in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Captain Ellen Church received the Air Medal,in recognition of her “meritorious achievement in aerial flight,” the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with seven bronze service stars, the American Theater Campaign Medal, and the Victory Medal.


*A generation after the first American women pilots got their licenses.

**A predecessor of United Air Lines

***The requirement that stewardesses have a nursing degree ended with the beginning of World War II, when the military’s need for nurses was more important than the airlines desire to hire nurses as stewardesses.In fact, the military’s need for nurses was so great that Congress debated whether or not to draft nurses in 1945.


  1. Cheryl Hilderbrand on May 14, 2024 at 1:04 pm

    This is so interesting…and inspiring. Thank you.

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