Groomed for glamour in the skies

By Carroll du Chateau

When Naomi Rowntree, NAC air hostess, was called into her supervisor's office in late 1969 she expected the worst. Maybe she'd been seen without her hat, or worse, her gloves. "Instead, I was asked how would I like to be part of the crew to fly the Queen, Prince Philip and Charles and Anne around the country."

Today, more than 37 years later, Rowntree can still remember how her knees quaked because she'd kept them crossed to be ready for her first royal curtsy. There were to be no "shallow curtsies" from NAC hostesses. These girls were trained, groomed and up to the job.

For the country's National Airways Corporation the chance to fly the Royal Standard was a huge honour. It was the first time the Queen had brought her two elder children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne, with her. In line with royal security, that decreed the Queen and her heir could not travel together, NAC provided two planes: one for the Queen; the second, which had ordinary seats, for the Prince of Wales.

The four pilots were all captains, the six chosen air hostesses worked two to each plane, with two flown on ahead to meet them and provide standby cover. And, says Rowntree, it was the job of a lifetime, even if one day she worked 18 hours on end. "I'd do it again in a flash."

The crew's reward was something she believes had never happened before: they had their photo taken with, and signed by, the royal family.

Rowntree slides her copy, sent by the Queen, out of a 30cm-thick file of NAC memorabilia. It's faded now. The Buckingham Palace seal and signatures of the four royals have almost disappeared, the Friendship's brave red stripe has dulled to mud-brown, the hostesses' unloved yellow uniforms of the 1970s are bleached white. Their hats look too high, their knees a little chubby, their gloves stark black against the pale uniforms.

Rowntree wished they'd been wearing their soon-to-be-introduced red, green and white "lollypop" uniform. Based on a Mary Quant design, it featured a mini-skirt, A-line coat and skinny stretch white boots "that slimmed our legs".

Rowntree, the smallest person in the line-up, had started with NAC in 1960, four years after the first air hostess intake. By the time she stood there, waiting in a Fokker Friendship set up like a study with fresh flowers, two facing lounge chairs and a low coffee table, she was one of the airline's more experienced hostesses.

But this was extraordinary. As the cheering crowds that lined the Queen's route to the airport got louder and louder, signalling the big black cars were turning on to the runway, she could hardly believe what was happening. "It was really amazing. One of the most famous people in the world was about to step on to the aircraft."

By then the New Zealand National Airways Corporation's glory days were at their peak. The airline, which had lumbered into the skies after World War II, founded on military technology and a New Zealand "can-do" attitude, had been linking our main cities for nearly 25 years.

The successor of Union Airways, which had flown the main trunk route since 1936, NAC was created by government decree in 1945.

Its statutory obligation, set by the post-war Labour Government, was to provide a full and adequate airline service in New Zealand (and the Pacific Islands) at reasonable cost. The company, which operated from 1947, was always customer-focused and, because of its novelty, flying became seriously glamorous.

By 1950, most of the international routes had been transferred to NAC's sister airline TEAL (Tasman Empire Airways Ltd), but despite that and considerable financial losses during its first years, the corporation survived and celebrated its millionth passenger by the end of that year.

For around 25 years the corporation was helped by visionary manager Doug Patterson, who joined as Auckland district manager in 1948 and became general manager in 1961.

Patterson believed the customer came first. He was an innovative thinker who kept NAC in the public eye.

He also believed in looking after his staff, which meant that by 1972, 137 of his senior staff had started with the airline a quarter of a century earlier - and people like Naomi Rowntree loved their jobs with a passion unbelievable in today's work environment.

Back in 1954, Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke took a flight from Rotorua to Gisborne which boosted NAC's image again, and two years later the airline was carrying 426,295 passengers a year - one out of every five people in the country.

By the 1970s NAC was on a roll, a Sydney sales office was joined by one in Los Angeles and a new computerised and centralised reservations system booked around 1.5 million passengers a year. A Golden Age 30 per cent discount fare was introduced for pensioners alongside student standby fares.

And then, in 1975, with the election of Robert Muldoon's National Party, things changed. Two years later, a cursory study into possible amalgamation with Air New Zealand was announced and on April 1, 1978 the two airlines were merged.

During its 31 years of operation NAC had carried more than 30 million passengers, and became a Kiwi icon but the new airline was Air New Zealand.

Back in 1970, Naomi Rowntree was preparing to meet the Queen. She had undergone NAC's grooming, etiquette and safety courses and protocol briefing. She knew what the Queen liked and didn't like to eat, when to bow, when to curtsy and apart from offering coffee, tea or milk, to speak when spoken to.

"To actually talk to the Queen in those days was such an honour. There was a real mystique about the royal family."

What she didn't expect was the Duke. "I remember him throwing his hat into the hat rack and saying 'who's flying this crate?' " When Rowntree replied, "It's the short one" (of the two pilots), the Queen and hostess exchanged a glance. They were both around 5ft 2in (160cm).

"She looked at me and I looked at her," remembers Rowntree. "Then the Duke said, 'Everyone seems short on this crew.' "

Working for NAC, let alone the Queen, was a privilege she says. "We were taught our courtesies, to anticipate our passengers' needs - to put their luggage in the locker rather than watch them struggle, to ask if a baby's bottle needed warming before mothers had to ask us."

Now, as NAC's 60th anniversary approaches, "I can't be excited enough. Anyone who was ever part of NAC was so proud to be part of the airline." The merger brought the end of an era and despite the added lure of international travel, air hostesses like Rowntree miss the old days, which is why she and several friends are spending $6000 each for one of the 25 seats on NAC's 60th anniversary memorial DC3 flight around New Zealand.

"Ann Grieve and I, who were in the same era, decided to go into this together. We're treating ourselves to turning back the pages. After all, it's unlikely there'll be anyone around at the centenary," she says.

"One man is driving from Wanganui to Palmerston North just to see the DC3 land. There'll be lots of little hops, we'll be able to see everything because we'll probably be under the clouds. For once we'll be able to see everything."

Twelve hundred former employees and friends of NAC will be waiting to greet them.

A commemorative book, The Illustrated History of New Zealand National Airways Corporation 1947-1978, by anniversary organiser and aviation historian, Rev Richard Waugh with Peter Layne and Graeme McConnell, will be launched to celebrate the anniversary.

NAC's nation-wide 60th Anniversary celebrations

March 22-30: NAC Memorial Tour on DC3 and Dominie aircraft takes off from Christchurch and travels the routes of the 1940-1970s. As well as the flight celebrations will be held in most local airports. Celebrations include: Christchurch (dinner March 21 at Wigram's Air Force Museum); Ashburton (visit to aviation museum); Timaru (civic reception); Dunedin (celebratory dinner at Dunedin Railway Station); Invercargill; Queenstown (Dominie flights to Milford Sound); Wanaka; Hokitika (dinner and visit to Menzies memorial at Harihari); Westport; Nelson (lunch); Blenheim (evening event); Wellington (lunch at the Pines); Paraparaumu (Kapiti's Aviation Museum); Palmerston North; Napier (dinner function); Gisborne (lunch and visit Aviation Museum), Tauranga, (dinner Classic Flyers Aviation Museum with special guest Chappie Patterson, wife of former NAC general manager, Doug Patterson; Matamata (visit Kaimai memorial); Hamilton; and finally Ardmore Airport. The final dinner is on March 30 at Auckland's Langham Hotel (tickets Arlene Meder, email meder2000@hotmail.com).

March 31: One-day DC3 and Dominie flying tour of Northland.

* Contact details: NAC 60th anniversary committee, PO Box 82363, Highland Park, Howick 2143, Auckland; or email

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