Pat Nagel built model airplanes and had all the aviation books she could handle as a little girl in the 1930s. She pursued her passion as a flight attendant and as a docent for the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum.
Now 80, she has been a valuable source of expertise for museum curators preparing the new exhibit "America by Air," which opens Saturday. Nagel, an American Airlines attendant from 1950 to 1952, was able to explain the purpose of a mysterious compartment on the DC-7 aircraft: It was used for dog crates.
"We were stewardesses. We were not flight attendants," said Nagel, who will gives tours each week. "People said it was like being a movie star, but get this, movie stars had their pictures taken with us!"
It will be hard to miss one of the newest additions to the museum. The front section of a huge Boeing 747 airliner from Northwest Airlines pokes its nose into the new gallery, which curators spent more than five years developing. The exhibit traces the history of passenger air travel from its very beginning: the early attempts to start up airlines just a decade after the Wright brothers made the first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903.
Interactive exhibits depict the early air service developed to carry U.S. mail and later wealthy business travelers, the coming of the jet age and the airlines' struggles after the government deregulated the industry in 1978.
"In the span of less than 70 years, we've gone from tiny little airplanes to full-blown, massive, million-pound airliners carrying a billion people around the planet a year," said aeronautics curator Robert van der Linden.
The first passengers to fly across the country paid about $300, he said. The price is about the same today.
"That has never changed. It's just what that $300 could buy. In 1930, you could buy an automobile (for $300)," van der Linden said.
The permanent exhibit is the first major gallery to be updated in several years at what has been the world's most visited museum. Attendance has been more sluggish ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but it still averages about 27,000 people a day, said museum director Jack Dailey, a retired Marine Corps general and former NASA administrator.
Touch screens, simulations of 1920s airmail flights and a Web site that allows visitors to contribute their memories of airline travel are among the new additions designed to reach a younger generation of museum visitors.
"We're looking out into the future at the 'Y Generation,' who have very short attention spans. They want something new, and they get it right away," Dailey said. "So you'll see these presentations are shorter than some of the exhibits we've had in the past."
Adding more touch screens allows visitors to delve as deeply into the history as they wish. A news ticker and video of the latest airline developments allow curators to keep the exhibit fresh.
The $5 million exhibit came in under budget by about $300,000 and could be a model for other updates at the museum, Dailey said. Most of the work was done in-house.
A section on the qualifications for stewardesses shows the strict requirements women such as Nagel had to meet. Single women only, not divorced. Ages 21 to 26. The maximum weight was 135 pounds.
Because the government set airfare rates, the airlines used amenities to attract passengers. At least one ad campaign focused on the "pretty girls" aboard each flight.
"You could imagine we were all sure we were heaven's gift to aviation," Nagel said, adding that she loved serving passengers. "It was my airplane. It was like they were guests in my house."