Ode to a Flight Pioneer - United Hub

Ode to a flight pioneer

By Matt Adams, May 28, 2019

The best years of her life were the ones she spent in the air

With all due respect to the exhibits and gorgeous aircraft on display at The Museum of Flight outside Seattle, on a sunny Saturday in May, Betty Stockard overshadowed them all.

"Mom, tell them the one about Clark Gable," her son, Dick Stockard, urged, handing her the microphone and getting the ball rolling. Soon, Betty, who was celebrating her 100th birthday in one of the museum's banquet rooms, was recounting some of the more memorable episodes from her years as a United flight attendant in the 1940s.

Betty pictured at her 100th birthday celebration with Jennifer O'Brien and Ed Toschikat the Museum of Flight outside of Seattle Betty pictured at her 100th birthday celebration with Jennifer O'Brien and Ed Toschik at the Museum of Flight outside of Seattle

She told how she shared her lunch and a conversation with the legendary actor on a trip to Los Angeles, then recalled her friendship with frequent flyer and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. As her family and friends sat in awed silence, it was if the past seven decades had melted away and Betty was once again that intrepid young woman who forged her identity as one of the first non-nurse "stewardesses" in airline history.

Born near Kalispell, Montana, on May 16, 1919 as Elizabeth Jean Riley, and raised on a dairy farm, becoming an aviation pioneer was the furthest thing from Betty's mind growing up. But in early 1942, she saw a newspaper ad announcing that United was hiring a new crop of flight attendants.

For years, airlines had only hired nurses into those roles, but with more and more of them needed elsewhere during World War II, that was no longer the case. Despite having never stepped foot on an airplane, Betty applied. A few weeks later, she was in Chicago, where she joined 24 other women from across the country for six weeks of intense training. After graduation, she was assigned to San Francisco.

Flying up and down the West Coast was an experience that exceeded even Betty's wildest dreams. It was a glamorous and exciting career, and she was certain she had found the path she was meant to follow. Without a doubt, aviation was Betty's first true love. It wasn't until 1946 that another surpassed it.

Betty pictured with her late husband, Ray Stockard

That's the year she met a handsome former fighter pilot by the name of Ray Stockard. Ray was traversing the country interviewing for jobs with airlines when he introduced himself to Betty during a flight. They began dating shortly after, but it was a bittersweet romance. Betty knew if she got married she'd have to leave her career behind since, at that time, stewardesses had to be single. Alas, the heart wants what it wants, and Betty and Ray, who by that time was flying for Pan American, set a wedding date.

"I hated giving up flying, but I knew I was making the right move," she says. "I was looking forward to the next chapter."

Fortunately, marrying a pilot meant she didn't have to walk away from the industry altogether. In the years that followed, she, Ray and their four children – Joe, Denise, Ed and Dick – traveled extensively, and aviation was always a favorite topic of conversation around the house.

"My kids, instead of getting bedtime stories about three bears, they got flying stories," says Betty.

With those stories, she passed on her adventurous spirit to her children. As they got older, the Stockard kids followed their mom's example and went fearlessly into the unknown, visiting, living and working in some of the farthest corners of the globe – including Antarctica.

Even more than her unique connection to the history of commercial aviation, that is Betty's legacy. Her birthday celebration was packed with people who came from far and wide to honor the woman who showed them what it means to live life to the fullest. Among them were United's International Inflight Director Jennifer O'Brien and West Coast Base Director Ed Toschik, along with several retired United flight attendants.

"We have 25,000 flight attendants today, and Betty is one of the people who blazed the trail for all of them," Toschik says. "She is an absolute treasure and I'm so happy that she is part of our United family."

After saying a few words at the party, Toschik and O'Brien cemented that bond, presenting Betty with a new set of silver flight attendant's wings. As O'Brien pinned them to her lapel, Betty's face beamed, just like it had during her pinning ceremony 77 years earlier. The eyes that had seen aviation evolve from its near infancy shined as bright as ever.

And with that, an enviable life came full circle.

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