One of Delta's First Flight Attendants Reflects on How Flying Has Changed Since the 1940s
Flight attendants do so much for us travelers. They work long hours under stressful conditions just to ensure our comfort when we fly, so it’s important to pay tribute and thank them whenever possible.
And there's no better time than now, because one of the first Delta Air Lines flight attendants ever turned 102 on July 9.
Sybil Peacock Harmon, an original Delta flight attendant (then called stewardess) from 1940 to 1943, was born in Minden, Louisiana on July 9, 1916. She’s one of the first women to work as a flight attendant and has experienced commercial flight practically from its inception.
"I was nine when I said, 'I'm going to go all over the world,'" she said. "And I did."
Harmon recalled her time with Delta in a 2014 interview with the airline’s flight museum, offering some insights on how travel has changed over the years.
“Most of the customers we had in the beginning were businessmen and you got to know them real well because you would see them over and over. But this was the beginning, really, of people flying. An emergency would come up ... people would get on a flight ... But this started people to flying because they realized how quick it was. It was quick for those days, anyway,” she said.
Harmon said in the interview that back then, air sickness bags were actually quart ice cream containers that fit under the seat. Air sickness was fairly common since planes often had little air conditioning and were not pressurized, so flight attendants would also give chewing gum to passengers to help them swallow so they wouldn’t have ear issues.
Harmon marked her 102nd birthday with a party on Monday, which was attended by Delta's senior vice president of in-flight service, Allison Ausband, and two of the airline's newest flight attendants. Ausband presented Harmon with her second set of Delta wings; a U.S. flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol on Dec. 7, 2017 as a show of gratitude for her military service as a nurse in World War II; and orchid, a Delta tradition started by founder C.E. Woolman, who grew orchids and gave them to female employees on special occasions.
“It’s an honor to be here and celebrate Sybil. People like her made Delta into what it is today. She’s part of our Delta family,” Ausband said.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian filmed a birthday message to Harmon, and her party was decked out with special decorations like a display of Harmon’s original flight log books, an authentic 1940 flight attendant uniform, and a life-size cut-out of an iconic Delta photo featuring Harmon when she participated in a marketing photo shoot in the early 1940s.
At her party, Sybil reflected back on the early days of her career, when families would line up outside the airport to watch the flight crew board the plane.
"As a stewardess, you felt like a celebrity. People would come out to the airport with their children and they would say, ‘Look, that’s the stewardess!’ They even asked for our autographs,” she said.
After Delta, Harmon became a special duty nurse to U.S. Air Force Gen. Hap Arnold from January to April 1945, according to NBC 11. Harmon was then promoted to first lieutenant and joined the 830th Medical Air Evacuation Squadron in Stockton, California. She was discharged May 1946 and became an obstetrical nurse and supervisor at Baylor University Hospital in Dallas, Texas. She officially retired in 1985.
Harmon certainly has done a lot for the people around her, whether it's passing out chewing gum, keeping them safe in the air, or nursing them back to health. She deserves a great, big happy birthday.