‘Cigarette Smoke Hid the Smell of Fear’ – What Flying in the Sixties Was Really Like

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by Hazel Plush, The Daily Telegraph, December 22, 2017

The early years of commercial air travel are often touted as the “golden age” – when air hostesses were glamorous, passengers were both dashing and polite, and everyone got the first-class treatment.

But perhaps travelling in the Sixties and Seventies wasn’t as ritzy as it appears. Indeed, when Quora users were asked what air travel was really like back then, many lifted their rose-tinted glasses to reveal the uncomfortable truths. Quite frankly, we’re glad we missed out on it all.

The plane “reeked of smoke”

“Having a smoking section in the plane was like having a ‘peeing section’ in a pool,” quipped forum user Robert Moutal. “It was a horrible, horrible experience because there was no escaping the smell.”

Although planes were divided into smoking and non-smoking sections, the cigarette stench permeated the cabin. “The whole place reeked of smoke. You’d get off and all your clothes would smell like smoke,” said frequent flier Colin Teubner.

“I once sat on the smoking section of a flight to Tel Aviv and many times during the 10+ hour journey I was asked to get up and ‘lend’ my seat to passengers who wished to smoke,” said Moutal.

Flying was much scarier

“Take off was something akin to a rocket launch,” commented Andy Kerr. “Once you turned onto the runway, there was a full stop, and they started spooling up the engines. This took a lot longer, nearly a minute, just building up the anticipation and dread.

“They weren’t quiet, either – they just kept getting faster and higher and louder until it was an almighty roar that shook the whole plane. The brakes released with a bang, and you slammed back into your seat as the plane leapt forward down the runway. It was awe-inspiring… better than any roller coaster.” Yikes.

Nervous fliers of the Sixties and Seventies also had to the contend with the fact that flying was - statistically speaking - up to 77 times more dangerous. The deadliest year in aviation history? That was 1972, when 72 accidents resulted in 2,373 fatalities. With around 331 million passengers flown, that's one death for every 139,486 fliers. Last year, by comparison, there were just 19 fatal crashes and 325 deaths. With 3.5 billion passengers flown, that's one death for every 10,769,230 travellers.

At a glance | The deadliest decades in aviation history 

And noisier, too

“Aircraft engines were extremely loud,” says Paul Wicks. “At the beginning of the Seventies, pilots would ‘climb-out’ [take off] at a fairly steep rate of assent, preferring to get as much altitude as possible, as quickly as possible. This contributed to the noise and visible exhaust. The sounds of the engines and the airframe cutting through the air permeated the cabin.

“The plane was likely to be a 4-engine jet aircraft, built by Boeing or McDonnell Douglas. It smelled like kerosene on the outside, and cigarettes on the inside.

“If you found yourself boarding a shiny new ‘Whisper Jet’, with three engines mounted in the tail, you might struggle to suppress your fear that hidden design flaws may reveal themselves, and that you might not see your loved ones again. The smell was the same, since the jet fuel and the tobacco masked the smell of fear.”

The 18 most important aircraft of all time 

It was really expensive

In the early days, the cost of a plane ticket was based on the length (in miles) of the journey – so carriers had to charge a fixed price. There was no competition to offer the cheapest rate.

“The only thing that an airline company could do to compete or distinguish itself was to offer more services,” said frequent flier Bonnie Thompson.  “I remember trying to fly out to a wedding of my close friends — I lived in Seattle and the wedding was in Chicago. The price of the ticket was over $700 – on every airline! Flying was MUCH more expensive [back then].”

Delays were common

“Disorganization was the norm,” commented Carlton Schuyler. “Wasted Time? Hah! We have it good today. Delays? Of course.”

But surely the queues at airport security and passport control were much shorter back then? No – apparently not. “The check-in lines and customs often easily trumped today’s,” said Schuyler.

The entertainment systems were rubbish

Moving maps and in-flight Wi-fi were a distant dream. “On the 747 flights, they’d show a movie (movies were a rare treat then) and if you shelled out for the headphones you could listen to it as well,” commented Andy Kerr. “ It was pretty hard to hear the movie over the engine noise, even if you cranked those headphones as high as they’d go. Most of the time, I’d just be staring out the window.”

It was easier to screw up

Airport regulation wasn’t so tight back then, but that wasn’t always a good thing. “I lived in Chicago and would often fly Southwest to a client in St. Louis,” said Oscar Anderson. “One day, I took a very early flight and fell asleep. The plane landed in St. Louis. I was still asleep. The flight took off. I woke up in Tulsa Oklahoma. I missed my meeting.”


This article was written by Hazel Plush and Travel Writer from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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