Could Cecile Beck ever have known that her career as a flight attendant would last a whole six decades of her life? The world was certainly a very different place in 1959 when Cecile was hired as what was known back then as a Stewardess at the iconic airline Pan Am… but Beck has taken the last 60-years and the many changes in the airline industry in her stride.
“It turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever been able to do,” Beck recalls of her decision to join Pan Am at a time when young women typically only did the job for a few years at most. As a Swiss-American dual citizen, Cecile got the idea of becoming a flight attendant when she overheard another Stewardess talking to a friend about her globe-trotting antics.
Pan Am quickly snapped up Cecile for her French and German language skills and in October 1959, she found herself on her first flight – a long-haul international trip from Lisbon to Rome and onwards to Istanbul. At the time, flight crew’s would spend 24-hours in each destination before moving on for the next short hop.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Cecile certainly has some hair raising tales from her time at Pan Am, including an incident in 1964, when her plane was forced to divert to the Republic of Congo due to a maintenance problem. It couldn’t have been a less well-timed visit to the Congo – Cecile and her crew were stranded in the country for four days during the Congo Crisis.
But rather than worrying about the violent civil war going on around her, Cecile was more concerned about her passengers. “When we landed, we couldn’t find four passengers on the manifest who were listed as diabetic,” she recalls. “I was so worried knowing they’d need insulin during the delay.”
“It turned out we had four diabetic gorillas in the cargo hold. It took us three hours to find a vet.”
Then, in 1979, Cecile found herself flying some of the last evacuees out of Tehran during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. She says she only realised how dangerous that assignment was after they successfully repatriated evacuees back home.
A very different memory from the time the Shah of Iran invited Cecile and her crew to the ballet.
And in 1991, when Pan Am sold its Transatlantic rights to Delta, Cecile even found herself having to switch to her new uniform mid-way through an international trip.
But perhaps her happiest and most enduring memory from all those years of flying was meeting her husband, Gustave in 1961 who was a lead flight attendant at 1961. Cecile says they had many happy years of flying together before he retired from business in 1984. Gustave sadly passed away in 2008.
During her long-career, Cecile has certainly rubbed shoulders with the great, good and famous including the likes of Jackie Kennedy and Ella Fitzgerald. One of her favourite chance encounters was the time she met Begum Ra’ana Liaqat Ali Khan – the wife of the first prime minister of Pakistan. If you haven’t heard of her, don’t worry, Cecile hadn’t either…
“We were flying to Paris and when we landed, she was greeted like royalty,” Cecile remembers. “I was so embarrassed not realizing who she was, but she told me it was the best flight she ever took because I didn’t recognize her. I’d treated her like every other passenger, not like a famous person.”
“After I helped carry her bags, she waved back to me from the car. I felt much better after that,” Cecile fondly recalls.
But all good things have to come to an end. Cecile began her retirement in September and still misses her colleagues, and of course, the time spent on layovers. Thank you Cecile!