The not-always friendly skies

Wendy Sue Knecht poses in the turbofan engine of one of Pan Am's planes. Photographs courtesy Wendy Sue Knecht.

Wendy Sue Knecht has always loved to travel. Born in Columbus, Ohio, raised in West Orange, New Jersey, and graduated from the University of Arizona, she had already seen a good deal of the country by the time career choices loomed large.

“In college, I thought, I’d love to see the world.”

So she set out to do just that by becoming a stewardess with Pan Am World Airways, a job she held from 1979 to ’91 when Pan Am went out of business. She then worked for Delta Airlines part time for 20 years.

“From traveling, I got a lot of ideas,” she says, like Beyond a Bag, “a travel bag that starts out small, expands and reverses to multitask.” It’s available on Amazon now and under the Jenni Chan brand on the Home Shopping Network in the fall. 

Knecht’s love of travel and design brought her recently to a travel fashion trunk show at Neiman Marcus Westchester that also introduced us to Courtyard Travel and Regent Cruises. (See related stories in this issue.) Along with her great travel tips — chief of which is “travel light…if you have enough for a week, you have enough for a month” — we were intrigued by the title of her 2014 book “Life, Love, and a Hijacking:  My Pan Am Memoir.”

So, Life: Knecht was a flight attendant in the days when they weren’t called that and didn’t come in different shapes and sizes. As a stewardess for Pam Am — whose name conjures images of a Park Avenue skyscraper that is now the MetLife building, Leonardo DiCaprio’s rogue pilot in “Catch Me if You Can” and the Beatles deplaning with signature Pan Am bags on their first flight to America — Knecht had to be as glamorous as the airline she worked for. That meant a certain height (which she just cleared at 5 feet, 2 inches and ¼) and weight (height-appropriate, which meant thin), with makeup expertly applied and her luxuriant curls corralled. Pam Am stewardesses also had to be college-educated and proficient in a second language. (Knecht’s was Spanish, and she would be based in Miami.)

Love: Later, the outlandish discrimination stewardesses endured, including being fired for gaining approximately five pounds, would be among the cases in “Sex-Based Discrimination,” a casebook edited in part by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, now an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Earlier on, Knecht says, “we didn’t know about political correctness.” Inappropriate remarks, a world based on how you looked “went with the territory.” Unlike some of her colleagues, she wasn’t out to get a husband. As Knecht writes, friends found her picky when dating and skeptical about marriage. She dated a pilot when she was in her 20s and he in his 40s. “I thought he was an old guy.” One she respected though. “I have so much faith in our pilots. At Pan Am, they were sky gods.”

She also dated a passenger — which she decided to avoid doing in the future. She writes well of Dan, a Texas ex-patriot she fell in love with in India, but marrying him and living in places like Saudi Arabia while he pursued his career with an engineering firm would’ve clipped her wings. Instead, she married later rather than sooner. Her husband is a doctor whom she identifies in the book only as Dr. K. They live in Studio City, California, and are the parents of the furry, four-legged Murray.

A hijacking:  Knecht had some close calls — a rapid decompression, an engine fire. But nothing like she experienced on Sept. 5, 1986. She had trained a flight crew based in Bombay (now Mumbai) and had gotten close to its members, particularly Neerja Bhanot, who overcame an abusive arranged marriage to become a model as well as a flight attendant. On leave from Pan Am, Knecht returned to Bombay to see Dan and ran into the flight crew she had trained on its way to Frankfurt. Hours later, Pan Am 747 Flight 73 with 379 passengers and 13 crew members was hijacked to Karachi, Pakistan, by members of the Abu Nidal Organization, who demanded to be taken to Cyprus. 

Per Pan Am protocol, which was to keep the plane grounded, the cockpit crew fled through an escape hatch in the cockpit. That left the cabin crew, led by purser Bhanot, to defend the passengers against the terrorists, who opened fire when the auxiliary power went off and tossed in hand grenades.

In the end, 22 were killed and 100 injured. Among them was Bhanot, who died shielding three minors. Knecht helped comfort the survivors and attended Bhanot’s cremation.

“I’m still friends with her family and got involved with the movie ‘Neerja.’” More than 30 years later, Bhanot remains a hero in India. Her brother and sister have visited Knecht in Los Angeles. “They help keep her alive.” 

The searing experience hasn’t stopped Knecht from traveling. (We talked just before she left for a trip to Dijon, France.)

“You just have to live your life,” she says.

For more, visit wendysueknecht.com.

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