From bombs and war zones to serving stars, Carole Farr has had an eventful life in the sky. Rachel Jones reports
She had flown all over the world, been evacuated from a war-torn city and dealt with countless passenger problems and emergencies.
But on a night in 1988 Pan Am flight attendant Carole Farr found herself sobbing at the wheel of her car because she couldn’t find a hotel.
It was only a day or two after Pan Am flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie and Carole knew the 13 cabin crew killed on the flight.
She had lost friends and colleagues but Carole was also dealing with the fact that she had flown on the connecting flight, which it later emerged had the explosives on board.
She says: ‘It was such an horrendous feeling. I was just lost in the rain trying to find a hotel in Surrey but suddenly it all got to me and I was on the phone to my husband crying. We’d had to get straight back to work after it happened. You had to keep flying, it’s what you did, and that night in the rain and being lost, it was all too much.’
A Pan Am flight attendant for 18 years, Carole was working the Frankfurt to London route on the day of the explosion. After she finished her shift and went to stay with a friend, the luggage, including the timed device which had been placed in a tape recorder, and passengers transferred to New York-bound flight 103.
It was only a few hours later that she saw the news flash that would shock the world and shake her to the core.
‘We didn’t know it was a terrorist attack at the time, they were coming up with different reasons. But I knew it had to be,’ she says, adding.’ It was such a horrible time afterwards. We had a shrine with candles at Heathrow and there was a vicar around. But you had to keep working, even though it had changed everything.’
The Lockerbie bombing would signal the beginning of the end for Pan Am which had already faced bankruptcy and was still struggling financially. Just three years later the company flew its last passengers.
But for flight attendants like Carole, working life would have to continue. She ended up having time off with stress a few months after the tragedy, but she couldn’t be grounded forever.
The 62-year-old Hayling Island wife and mum is still a flight purser, now working for United Airlines between Heathrow and Washington.
In a 40 year-plus career, which began at the Pan Am training school in Miami in 1970, Carole has experienced drama and glamour in equal measure. It’s the sort of life that is being depicted in new series Pan Am, which focuses on air stewardesses in the 1960s. And Carole says the show isn’t so far-fetched.
‘You can imagine a lot of those things happening, you really can, although they didn’t all happen to me,’ she says.
Born and raised in Portsmouth, Carole knew she wanted to be an air hostess and spent years perfecting a pristine look while getting her education. An interview with Pan Am was successful and she went to work in the States.
The glamorous side of stewardess life in the early ’70s emerged early on, while 21-year-old Carole was at the Miami training school.
She says: ‘A Sun photographer turned up while we were all around the pool and wanted to take a picture of us in our Pan Am hats. Well we were all young and thought it was all great fun. When it appeared in the paper my family didn’t know. My dad opened the paper and went ‘‘my God, that’s my daughter’’. It must have been a big shock for him.’
Carole started working life based in Seattle and San Francisco and flying around the world, later returning to the UK to work from the new Heathrow base.
Over the years she has attended to so many famous people, she finds it hard to remember. But Ringo Starr, Sean Connery, Barbara Bach, Robert Wagner, Cher, Billy Connolly, Roger Daltrey and John Cleese are among the names on her passenger list.
She often worked on the new Boeing 747s with their different levels and bars and dining rooms and says it was a different era, where flying was a big treat for most people and flight attendants would take awe-struck children to the cockpit.
‘We used to do that a lot. Can’t now of course,’ she says.
‘They have an armoured door. It really was a different world back then.’
It certainly wasn’t without conflict and fear though. Carole’s career could almost stand as a timeline for some of the major events of history.
In the early ’70s Pan Am flew troops to and from Vietnam and Carole worked on many flights in and out of Saigon and Da Nang.
‘We would see the bomb craters as we were flying over. And we had to do a sort of dive to the runway as we couldn’t fly too low,’ she says.
Not surprisingly the lads were always pleased to see the Pan Am girls.
‘But they were very well-behaved,’ says Carole.
‘Partly because the colonels and sergeants were also on board. But we did used to put up pictures of Playboy centrefolds for them.’
In the mid to late ’70s Carole was flying Middle Eastern routes and found herself being evacuated from Beirut during the Civil War. ‘We could hear shootings and bombings from the hotel. It was pretty scary and things were getting so dangerous they got us out. It was so sad, it was a beautiful cosmopolitan city.’
And in 1979 the Pan Am staff had military escorts and had to obey curfews in Tehran after the Shah of Iran was deposed.
She says: ‘When things like this happened there was always a difficult time before the airlines pulled out, so that’s how we found ourselves in those situations.’
By 2001 Carole was working for United Airlines and was in US airspace on what seemed like a normal September day.
Before the day was out the world was reeling from the 9/11 attacks and Carole was grounded in Calgary desperately trying to contact her family who knew two United planes had been used by the terrorists.
‘I was called into the cockpit while we were in the air and told that there had been a terrorist attack and they had to get everything on the ground. But we didn’t tell the passengers everything.’
Meanwhile her family were frantic. ‘My son was 15 at the time and was ill at school. He was actually sick because all he knew was that the planes were bound for San Francisco. And I couldn’t get them on the phone for ages.’
She says hundreds of United flight attendants resigned after the shock of 9/11. But she’s glad she stuck with her career of 30 years.
‘I’ve done other things. I ran a lingerie shop and now I’m also a driving instructor as I only work for United part-time. But I wouldn’t change what I’ve done. I love the travel and the passengers and, yes, it can still be quite glamorous.’