It was 1954 when 19-year-old Hong Konger Jennie Tung Wirth joined Cathay Pacific, a fledgling regional airline, as a flight attendant. She was part of the original group of flight attendants serving Cathay Pacific’s first plane – Betsy, a converted wartime DC-3, that had served as a cargo plane at first before being flown on passenger routes to Sydney and Manila.
‘Jobs like being a secretary or a flight attendant were new, attractive prospects for women,’ says Wirth – especially if you could speak English.
‘My first flight wasn’t on Betsy, but on the DC-4 to Singapore,’ she says. ‘We stayed in a boarding house – with just a ceiling fan and mosquito nets – as a group of five or six girls in one big room. We really got to know each other. And then the next set of crew would move in when we reported to duty.’
‘As for the DC-3s [Betsy and Niki], we flew them to the Philippines, Saigon, Singapore, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching in Borneo.’
In those early days, there wasn’t much training. ‘We just followed the other girls and learnt on the job,’ Wirth adds. It was often a balancing act to ensure you didn’t spill food or hot coffee into passengers’ laps. ‘There were no straps to hold onto.’ Cabins were loud and the ride wasn’t as smooth as today’s Airbus A350s.
Meals were often limited to sandwiches or what could be stored in a thermos. ‘We would ladle out dishes such as chicken curry with rice, noodles, desserts. Meals were served on a tray cushion, eaten TV dinner style.
‘My most memorable flight on the DC-3s was a Hong Kong to Sydney charter in 1956,’ says Wirth. ‘The trip took 64 hours, and it was full – 24 sailors. I had to work alone on that flight.’
In those days travellers tended to be businessmen, but Wirth also remembers the famous passengers Cathay Pacific carried: ‘The Beatles, Clark Gable, moguls like Sir Run Run Shaw.’ The Sultan of Brunei was another notable guest Wirth served onboard. ‘The Governor of Hong Kong met him at the airport with a big band.’
Wirth served until 1969, when she married and emigrated to Switzerland.
Last year she returned to Cathay City in Hong Kong as part of the airline’s 70th anniversary celebrations.
How did she feel? ‘It felt like coming home.’