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Pan Am flight attendants had the most glamorous jobs in the sky. Here’s what happened when the airline vanished

<i>Courtesy Linda Reynolds</i><br/>Reynolds is now a novelist and writes spy thrillers.
Courtesy Linda Reynolds
Reynolds is now a novelist and writes spy thrillers.

Annita Thomas, CNN

(CNN) — Ever wondered what happens when a jetsetting flight attendant swaps life in the skies for life on the ground? If the experiences of former Pan American World Airways crew are anything to go by, life takes off in a completely different direction.

Pan Am has always been synonymous with glamor, and its flight attendants lived their opportunities to the max. It was a career filled with luxury and international intrigue, going to Rome one day and Rio the next.

It was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn more about people, places, and cultures worldwide.

“My experiences with Pan Am helped shape the global perspectives and understanding of the human experience that I hold to this day,” says former flight attendant Camille Lewis. Pan Am flight attendants doubled as ambassadors for the airline. They brought diverse viewpoints to the skies, and valued inclusion.

When the airline folded on December 4, 1991, a grand era in aviation history came to a close – but those who once called a Boeing 747 their office, and the world their home, found unique ways to take their lives to new heights.

What happened next? How do you harness all those experiences to take your next step? Seven former Pan Am flight attendants tell us where they ended up.

Camille Lewis

Growing up, Camille Lewis’s plan was to finish college and work in corporate management. However, she traded in the office for wings. “Flying gave me an uncommon, global perspective and extended education,” she says.

“There were unique exposures, social experiences, and a global perspective that could not reasonably be obtained any other way for the average young American. I remember riding camels in Pakistan, [enjoying] the hotel pool in Rio de Janeiro, bargaining with shop vendors in Nairobi, eating, drinking, and laughing all day at Caesar’s Beach in Liberia, and making trips to Saudi Arabia on my favorite airplane, the 747SP” – a shorter, longer-range 747.

“The memories are vast and have lasted a lifetime. I only traveled a little on vacations. My job, in many ways, was a vacation.”

Her most memorable passengers were Mother Teresa and primatologist Jane Goodall. She also played her part in history – one of her passengers was Michèle Bennett, the wife of Haiti’s dictator ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier of Haiti. She and her entire entourage were on their way from New York to Paris after the first family had fled the country.

Today Camille is a retired school principal in Los Angeles, following a 30-year career in education. Her career as a flight attendant made her familiar with many cultural aspects of the diverse community that makes up California schools, she says – giving her an advantage in her new career.

Phillip Keene

Actor and philanthropist Phillip Keene has Pan Am roots. In 1987, he answered an LA Times recruitment ad for the airline. It would change the direction of his life, taking him from a dead-end job in California to a glamorous life, circling the globe from his new base in London.

He watched as the pages of his passport filled with new stamps from countries around the globe. Working with Pan Am was “eye-opening, educational, exciting, exhilarating and expensive, while living in London and Amsterdam,” he says.

Meeting celebrities onboard – like movie and TV stars John Gielgud, Tracey Ullman, hairstylist Vidal Sassoon, and rock band Huey Lewis and the News – gave him a glimpse of what his future life could be.

Today, Keene is an actor living in Paris and traveling regularly to Switzerland, Italy, Ireland, the UK and the US. He can be seen in the award-winning shows “Major Crimes” and “The Closer,” in which he plays Buzz Watson, the tech-savvy member of LAPD’s team.

Keene keeps his Pan Am love alive with his 3,500-strong collection of airline memorabilia – said to be the world’s largest collection.

Karren Pope-Onwukwe

“Traveling around the world broadened my view of life and exposed me to fine wine, gourmet food, and real couture,” says Pope-Onwukwe, who was a flight attendant from 1980 to 1991.

One of her favorite trips was flying to Dakar, Senegal, on the 747, where she was language-qualified to deliver French announcements. And her love of traveling took her to other warm destinations like the Caribbean, where she had a chance to meet Susan L. Taylor, the formidable former editor of Essence magazine.

Her flights often had celebrities on board. Author and civil right activist Coretta Scott King traveled with her own peanuts (still in their shell), while boxing promoter Don King was “hilarious” during a flight from Italy. “He engaged with the crew and the passengers, smiling and joking – his laugh itself made you smile,” she remembers.

If that wasn’t enough celebrity overload, she once shared an airport-to-airport limo ride with singer James Brown, from La Guardia to JFK. “He was nice enough to give me a ride; we were both trying to make our flights.”

Losing the glamorous lifestyle has been hard, she says: “I still love hotels and room service, laundry service, spa treatments, and drinking poolside.” Yet much of what she learned at Pan Am remains. Pope-Onwukwe credits the airline with making her independent and confident. Today, she practices law in Maryland and has had her own company since 2000.

Linda Reynolds

Jetting in to different cities across the globe heightened Linda’s love for international intrigue and espionage. Her experiences getting to know places and cultures inspired her three novels: “Spies In Our Midst,” “Spies We Know,” and “One Deliberate Act.”

“Pan Am gave me so much knowledge about the world and introduced me to people in the intelligence and diplomatic communities. I use all that in my writing,” she says.

Reynolds once spent a flight from New York to London chatting with US broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite: “He was exactly what everyone wanted him to be: kind, personable, intelligent, interesting, and a great conversationalist.”

The airline also brought her into contact with her husband, Joe, who was a Pan Am station manager in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Pan Am was their life, so when the airline folded it was a double blow.

“The memory that sticks with me is how passengers felt seeing that big Pan Am blue ball on the airplane tail,” says Reynolds.

“Living or traveling abroad is not always a lark … sometimes the place just explodes in danger. Whether the Vietnam War, natural disasters, or the overthrow of a government, we were always there to evacuate and care for people. It was our calling, and we went. I remember people literally kneeling and kissing the floor of the aircraft … their relief was palpable. Pan Am meant home.”

Penny Powell

In 1985 Powell, a fluent Spanish speaker, began what she calls “the best career of my life.” Living in Paris, she was based out of London.

Her love of Pan Am lives on in her current business: making candles. Penny’s Flame candles have a collection named “Clipper Blue Lights” after the nickname for Pan Am planes, “Clippers.”

Her candle business is a recent move. After Pan Am, Powell moved to another airline, until she married, raised her daughter in Chicago, and trained as a realtor.

Elena Williams

For five years, Williams flew the friendly skies after graduating college, looking to add excitement to her life. Fun-filled layovers sometimes meant meeting other airline crew in exotic places – on a trip to Rome, she and her roommate went to dinner with two Italian Learjet pilots.

“They met us at the Metropole Hotel, and we went to a romantic dinner with violin players. They carried us in their arms into the Trevi fountain and back to the hotel for a nightcap. The next day they stood on the wings of their jet and blew kisses across the Tarmac as our flight readied for take off. We had gotten zero sleep on the layover, but we walked on cloud back to New York.”

One, she met JFK Jr. on a flight. “He came up and shook my hand and said, “I’m John F. Kennedy, Jr.” I shook his hand and said, “I’m Elena Sugarman!”

After leaving Pan Am, Williams headed home to Memphis to become a Spanish teacher, sharing how a second language can take you around the world. She’s still there today, enjoying family life and her dance club “The Energizers.”

Annita Thomas

I, too, was a Pan Am flight attendant in the 1980s, jetsetting to Rome one week and across West and East Africa the next. My life was filled with meeting interesting people, learning about different cultures, and trying foods a young girl from South Georgia hadn’t known existed.

On a 20-hour flight from JFK to Tokyo’s Narita airport, I had my first cross-cultural experience serving soba noodles. Slurping is the Japanese way to eat noodles – it demonstrates enjoyment. I didn’t know this – my mom had always taught me to swirl the noodles around my fork and not slurp. The sound of over 200 passengers slurping together was both surprising and shocking. I couldn’t believe it.

I realized I’d had a cultural experience. While one mom in Georgia was teaching her daughter to quietly swirl noodles, thousands of miles away, another mother was teaching her children to slurp them with sounds of delight. This single flight broadened my curiosity and made me interested in learning more about the cultures of the places I visited.

It wasn’t all so positive. We were also greeted with not-so-friendly skies when coups and political uprisings disrupted air travel, but our training taught us to stay in control during emergencies and high-pressure situations. In April 1980 I was in Liberia, sequestered in a hotel at the Robertsfield airport (now Roberts International Airport) after a coup d’etat which killed president William Tolbert and 13 of his cabinet members.

Over the 11 years, working for Pan Am changed my outlook on the world. It prepared me for my current role as host of “Travel With Annita,” a travel radio show inspiring listeners to put down the glossy brochures and go out to have their own adventures.

Keeping the fires burning

Pan Am flight attendants find ways to keep the spirit alive. Memories live on, with many of us becoming members of World Wings International, a non-profit organization of former Pan Am flight attendants. We focus on philanthropic work through four international and 23 domestic chapters supporting our community needs.

Other former Pan Am flight attendants have unique ways of honoring the airline. One, David Hinson, has co-created accessories line David Jeffery, many with Pan Am themes. Their items have been selected several times for Oprah’s “Favorite Things” list. Linda Little Freire heads the Pan Am Museum Foundation, where you’ll find exhibits dedicated to the airline. The foundation also has a podcast filled with Pan Am stories.

For those of us lucky enough to fly for the airline, Pan Am shaped our world and gave us courage, wisdom, and a large, powerful dose of “you can do it.” Ask any “Pan Amer” their favorite slogan from their time crisscrossing the skies, and they’ll likely say, “Pan Am, you can’t beat the experience.”

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