Earlier this year, Gwendolyn Bruhn, 94, traveled from her home on the Hawaiian island of Oahu to the Hawaiian island of Maui to attend her great-granddaughter’s wedding.
In the inter-island departure terminal at Daniel K. Inouye International Airport in Honolulu, Bruhn came face to face with an unexpected surprise. On the terminal wall was a large photograph from 1947, depicting Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants lined up in front of an aircraft, each wearing the uniform of the time: crisp shirt, mid-length skirt, flowers pinned in their hair.
For Bruhn, this photograph wasn’t just an interesting glimpse into aviation history. It was a glimpse into her own past.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god,’” Bruhn tells CNN Travel. “I saw my picture, as I was years back.”
Bruhn is one of the Hawaiian Airlines flight attendants in the photograph. She’s on the far right, in the top corner of the frame, gazing just past the camera.
“I was surprised and flattered that a picture of me was on the wall,” she says today.
Bruhn was traveling to Maui with some of her family members. After they spotted the photograph, Bruhn’s granddaughter, Samantha Beaumont, asked the passenger sitting underneath if they would mind temporarily moving so the family could take a picture of Bruhn with her younger self.
The passenger obliged, and Bruhn posted for the photograph, adding another unexpected chapter to her Hawaiian Airlines legacy.
“I didn’t expect to see myself as I looked years back as a flight attendant, but I was very honored,” says Bruhn.
Getting her air legs
Hawaiian Airlines launched in 1929, just a year after Bruhn was born. Bruhn was a flight attendant for the airline from 1947 to 1950.
Bruhn is her married name – when she started flying, aged 19, she was still Gwendolyn Kamai, living in Honolulu with her parents and siblings.
While today Hawaiian Airlines transports passengers across the world, in the early years the carrier only flew within Hawaii. But the airline was already making waves, connecting islands by air that had previously only been reachable by boat.
Bruhn was thrilled when she learned, via a flight attendant friend, that Hawaiian Airlines was looking to hire more staff.
“At that time they wore beautiful gray uniforms and yellow blouses, and they were very striking, and I’d admired them from afar, not knowing that someday I was going to be lucky to be wearing that same uniform for Hawaiian Airlines,” she recalls.
Before Bruhn got the job, she’d never stepped on board an airplane in her life, but she brushed over this lack of flying experience in the interview.
“They asked me if I had ever flown on a plane, and I thought I better say yes,” she recalls. “And then they asked me, “Were you ever air sick?” And I said, ‘Oh no, I was great.’”
On Bruhn’s first flight, she fought back nausea as the propeller aircraft made its way from Honolulu to the town of Hilo. She did her best to hide her discomfort from passengers.
“I’d tell myself, ‘I can’t show them that I’m airsick, because I’m supposed to be someone they can trust,” she says.
Despite this shaky start, Bruhn loved her job from day one.
“I was so honored to be accepted as a flight attendant,” she says.
She adds that her nausea gradually faded “as I got my flying legs.”
Bruhn worked all the routes on offer at the time, and found something to enjoy in all of them.
“The Hilo flight was long, but it was very interesting,” says Bruhn. “The volcano would erupt sometimes, there were times that the captain could not go over, but near enough, so that the passengers would be able to see the lava erupting.”
She loved flights to and from Hawaii’s Big Island.
“It was known for its beautiful flowers and leis, whenever someone would come on board, they would always have a beautiful lei on,” recalls Bruhn.
Celebrities and difficult passengers
Bruhn recalls meeting passengers from all over the world. It was one of her favorite parts of working as a flight attendant.
“You meet so many wonderful people on flights,” she recalls.
Bruhn also helped ferry celebrities around Hawaii, including actor Jimmy Stewart and swimmer Esther Williams. Bruhn says flight attendants were advised not to draw attention to celebrities on board, and to treat them with the same politeness and respect that they would any other traveler.
“I always thought to myself that if I was in their place, I would feel the same way too – I wouldn’t want to be overwhelmed with people taking pictures or something like that,” says Bruhn.
Bruhn also navigated situations involving difficult travelers, suggesting that disruptive airplane passengers have always existed in some form.
“They just didn’t listen when we explained you had to keep the seat belts on,” says Bruhn.
While Hawaiian Airlines didn’t offer alcohol on board at this time, that didn’t stop some travelers trying to sneak on little bottles of liquor.
Bruhn would have to firmly and politely explain they weren’t allowed to drink on board.
The aircraft operated by Hawaiian Airlines in the late 1940s were small, and Bruhn was often the only flight attendant on board.
Sometimes passengers would fall sick, and it would be on her to handle it.
“But, you know, we overcame all of that and we always made the passengers feel that we were there to serve them,” she says.
During the period in which Bruhn worked for the airline, Hawaiian, like many airlines in the mid-twentieth century, had strict grooming standards which Bruhn and her colleagues had to comply with.
“We always knew that we had to stay slim, and not look sloppy,” says Bruhn.
Bruhn says she was proud to represent Hawaii, at the time not yet a US state, to the world.
And she always enjoyed representing Hawaiian Airlines.
“I was also fortunate to be in one of the yearly big floats in Hawaii, and we represented Hawaiian Airlines,” recalls Bruhn. “They asked several of us if, since we were off that day, we would mind being on the float, and just waving at everyone.”
Bruhn became good friends with many of her colleagues at Hawaiian Airlines. As well as bonding with her fellow flight attendants, she also got to know some of the mechanics and engineers who worked behind the scenes.
One of her coworkers, an airplane mechanic, offered to take Bruhn on a private flying trip. These flights soon became a regular staple of Bruhn’s week.
“I would go several times a week, fly over what we called the high mountains and we’d go over to Bellows [in Waimanalo, Hawaii] where they have the military base now,” recalls Bruhn.
Her days of airsickness behind her, Bruhn loved the feeling of soaring over the hills and beaches below.
“I thought, ‘This is what I want to be, a pilot.’ But then it never did really happen after, because I got sidetracked with meeting my husband and whatnot.”
One day, Bruhn and her flight attendant friend Lois were relaxing at Lois’ family home following a long day at work.
“I happened to see this good-looking person, and I said, ‘Oh, who is this?’ She says, ‘my brother,’” recalls Bruhn.
The Hawaiian Airlines Christmas party was on the horizon. Bruhn asked Lois if the brother, whose name was William Carl, would like to go as her date.
“That started our relationship,” says Bruhn.
Gwendolyn Kamai and William Carl Bruhn III, who worked for the Hawaiian Electric company, were married in 1950. Bruhn gave birth to her first child the following year.
Back then, it wasn’t common for flight attendants to be married with children, so Bruhn closed the chapter on her time at Hawaiian Airlines.
She and William Carl went on to have four more children. The couple were married for 62 years, until William Carl passed away in 2012.
Today, Bruhn has 11 grandchildren, 24 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
70 years later
It may be several decades since Bruhn worked on board an aircraft, but she still loves to travel by airplane.
When she’s on board, Bruhn often reflects on her time working in the air. Flying has changed, but she still sees herself in today’s flight attendants.
“Maybe some of them went through the same as I did when they started, when you had to pretend nothing bothered you,” she says.
Several of Bruhn’s family members followed in her footsteps and worked for Hawaiian Airlines over the years.
Her granddaughter Samantha Beaumont worked for the airline from 2007 to 2008.
“Continuing her legacy was definitely a big deal,” Beaumont tells CNN Travel. “I remember being excited to tell her when I was hired and then when I actually made it through training.”
When Beaumont worked with Hawaiian, she flew internationally.
Her grandmother was just a little envious.
“I always wanted to visit other places,” says Bruhn. “The stewards today are very fortunate that time has gone on, and that more improvements have been done in the travel world now. I envy them.
“Yet, I’m glad that I had my time with Hawaiian Airlines,” she continues. “I never will forget how lucky I was to have all these memories to sit down with. When I see younger girls now in uniforms, I smile to myself. And I say, ‘I know exactly what they have to go through too.’”
Top photograph, Gwendolyn Bruhn. Photo courtesy of The Bruhn-Faria-Smith-Conmackie Ohana.