Six decades in the sky and counting

Ms Bette Nash, 81, was recruited as a flight attendant at 21. She says she will not be working until she is 90, but doesn't want to think about retirement. She will be 82 on Dec 31.
Ms Bette Nash, 81, was recruited as a flight attendant at 21. She says she will not be working until she is 90, but doesn't want to think about retirement. She will be 82 on Dec 31.PHOTOS: WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Ms Bette Nash, 81, was recruited as a flight attendant at 21. She says she will not be working until she is 90, but doesn't want to think about retirement. She will be 82 on Dec 31.
Ms Bette Nash, 81, was recruited as a flight attendant at 21. She says she will not be working until she is 90, but doesn't want to think about retirement. She will be 82 on Dec 31.PHOTOS: WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • American Airlines Flight 2160 from Boston has just arrived in Washington, DC, and Ms Bette Nash, 81, helps the passengers disembark.

They embrace her, take photos and express their thanks.

It's always like this.

After six decades crossing the skies as a flight attendant, Ms Nash still has impeccable style, incredible energy and a constant smile.

She has lost only one thing: her anonymity.

Ms Kendra Taylor, a passenger, beams after taking a selfie with the octogenarian, whom she had hoped to meet. "When I saw her I was like, 'Oh my gosh'. I just saw her on TV last week!" said Ms Taylor.

In the United States, pilots must retire at 65, but there is no such restriction on commercial flight attendants, of whom Ms Nash is probably the world's most senior.

"I start my day at 2.10 in the morning. I have two alarm clocks and when they go off, I don't lie there, I get up," Ms Nash says.

At her home in Virginia, bordering Washington, Ms Nash prepares food for her only son, who is disabled, and who will be waiting for her return to solid ground.

She was 21 years young and Dwight Eisenhower was president when Eastern Air Lines recruited her as a "stewardess", a word which - like Eastern itself - has disappeared from use.

At that time, travel by air was the preserve of a certain elite.

"There were a lot of men because they were doing business, and women came on with their fur coats, and their finery and their hats and everything. You didn't have... the flip-flops and the sneakers and things you do today," Ms Nash says.

Her own uniforms ranged, through the years, from conservative, to elegant, and "wild".

"When (President) John Kennedy came into office and everything, things started opening up, so we wore crazy uniforms. We even had hot pants for a brief period, and these boots," she remembers.

In those earlier times, which seem almost prehistoric, there were no plastic meal trays. Hostesses cooked lobster and duck a l'orange equally well, and carved the meat. In first class, passengers dined with silverware and porcelain.

Ten years ago, for her 50th anniversary on the job, Ms Nash's plane was welcomed on the tarmac by sprays of water from fire engines - an honour reserved for veteran pilots or the baptism of a new plane.

Who imagined that Ms Nash would still be there?

"I am not going to work until I am 90," she says, before adding on the subject of retirement: "I don't want to think about it!"

Ms Nash will celebrate her 82nd birthday on Dec 31.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 24, 2017, with the headline 'Six decades in the sky and counting'. Print Edition | Subscribe