When Airplanes Had Beds

In 1955, some transatlantic flights still offered sleeper berths.

A Sabena DC-6B from the mid-1950s, as pictured in a Sabena postcard. Sabena

Whenever I see ads offering “beds” on international flights to first-class and business-elite passengers who want to be in tiptop shape for whatever awaits them at their destinations, I think of my own night spent in a bed aloft. It was 1955, back when Boeing Stratocruisers, Lockheed Constellations, and Douglas DC-6s had sleeping accommodations for transatlantic passengers. But unlike the beds on today’s airplanes, which are do-it-yourself flip-down “lie flat” seats with blanket and pillow, the earlier ones were meant to evoke long-distance train travel, which still had an allure suggestive of luxury and comfort: upper and lower berths with mattresses and sheets, Pullman-style curtains for privacy, windows, reading lights, and sometimes breakfast in bed.

I was the quintessential clueless Ohio ingenue. Right out of college, I had joined the U.S. Foreign Service as a secretary so I’d get to see Europe, and the government had given me a ticket to Oslo, my posting, on a Sabena DC-6, out of Idlewild (now Kennedy International) in New York. Before this I had taken only one short flight, to see a boyfriend, and didn’t know much about aviation other than that it involved air. My ticket was first class, which meant a “gourmet” meal. Until then, my idea of adventure eating had consisted of peanut butter on bananas, although I once watched my father eat a chicken gizzard. What I got on that flight was “aspic” (my seatmate identified it), which, though quivering, bore no other relation to the colorful Jellos of my youth. A pale amber mound with unidentifiable little dark items embedded, encompassed something leggy, probably a crayfish, entire. So European! I thought.

The rest of the meal may have offered something edible (I don’t recall), but as for the aspic, I just stared at it. A little while later, the stewardess had me follow her down the aisle to—as unexpected a sight as a piano—a bed sticking out of the wall. Apparently the only passenger ticketed with such accommodations, I dutifully climbed in and the stewardess drew the curtains tight. I wriggled into my pajamas, put my hair up in pin curls, and lay there right under the airplane ceiling, too excited to sleep, looking from time to time out my porthole window at…total blackness, night over the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile, sounds of hilarity reached me from below: passengers drinking and talking and laughing in their seats, a jovial bunch. Midwest modesty kept me from descending among them, in my pajamas, for relief of any kind.

When the night passed and the DC-6 landed in Ireland to refuel, all the other passengers went in the Shannon terminal to eat breakfast while I hurried down the aisle with the cleaners and washed up, got dressed, brushed my teeth, and combed out the pin curls. I was about to join the others when they all trooped back on board, full of toast with Irish butter I was sure. The stewardess did not respond to my tragic expression—I guess if she’d had a breakfast for me she probably wouldn’t have sent everybody out to get theirs. She seemed far more interested in preparing the cabin for takeoff.

I was later told that my ticket—with a berth that provided no rest, isolated me from jolly times with my cabin mates, and deprived me of sustenance—cost the U.S. government $500; in today’s money, $4,200. But there was an up side: I got my first experience of the wider world I’d soon enter.

Mariana Gosnell wrote about her first overnight flight shortly before she died in March 2012.

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