Flying a novel            by Paula Helfrich & Rebecca Sprecher


The Authors

Interview with Paula Helfrich and Rebecca Sprecher


For most of her thirty-eight years in Hawaii, Paula Helfrich dogged legislation, drove horse-trailers, dished out federal economic development funds, raised two daughters, and enjoyed a wide range of friends and interests.  She also thought about writing.  Mostly, she thought about stories of the fairy-tale world that was Pan American World Airways, where she travelled the globe for twenty years.  Helfrich and co-author Rebecca (“Becky”) Sprecher, have just released Flying: A Novel, which recounts the fictional adventures of two women from very different worlds. 


“Pan Am was an incredible fantasy life.  I didn’t dare tell non-airline people the stories because they were literally unbelievable, “ Helfrich laughs.  Her present circumstances are hardly humdrum.  Now living and teaching in Yangon, Myanmar, Helfrich says she’s run the whole gamut of experiences in her life—from jet-age glamour and international adventure, to modern-day nation-building in a land that most western visitors regard as mysterious and magical.


“Pan Am was actually the glue in my early life,” she says, recalling flying from then-Rangoon to Calcutta to attend boarding school in Darjeeling, India.  Her friends from those Hill Schools gather regularly around Southeast Asia for reunions and new adventures.  They include the sons and daughters of crowned heads of Asian nations, the Dalai Lama’s sisters, Tenzing Norgay of Mount Everest fame’s daughters—all, she says, life-long friends.


Sprecher jokes that her upbringing in a small town in western Kentucky actually seemed exotic to some of her Pan Am friends, who, like Helfrich, hailed from far-flung parts of the globe.  The two met when they signed in for a flight one night in Honolulu, and Sprecher wondered how Paula had come to be fluent in Burmese.  Helfrich, the daughter of American OSS agents who were assigned to Burma after World War II, told Sprecher her story.  A few years ago, they knew it was time to write about their experiences.


“Pan Am and Hawaii in the 1970s is the setting for the book,” Helfrich says, noting that Hawaii serves as a natural segue to the Asian connections she and Sprecher describe.  “It was absolutely romantic, in spite of the difficulties of all night flying and terrible jet lag.” Because the characters are coming of age just after the civil rights era, they embrace the indigenous cultures in the countries to which they travel.  They were more than tourists; they visited places so often that shopkeepers all over the world accepted their personal checks, provided they presented their Pan Am ID.  Helfrich continues, “We didn’t shy away from other tough subjects of the era: the changing role of women in the world, the Vietnam War, and questions about the actions of the United States on the international stage—it was all the stuff of several lifetimes. Those were heady days.”

Flying: A Novel, weaves a tale of suspense and adventure in keeping with the history of the 1970s.  In addition to the story of Operation Babylift and the heart-rending tragedy of the Fall of Saigon, Flying tells other stories—both zany and serious—that flight attendants remember but didn’t tell outsiders. 


Helfrich grins.  “Most people don’t know that the man who chartered the Operation Babylift flight ordered hamburgers and milkshakes for the children as their first meal onboard to welcome them to America.  We’re on the ground in Hong Kong, loading up to head for Saigon, and I see this manifest for 600 hamburgers and milkshakes.  I ran for the Catering Supervisor and pleaded with him to offload the rich food and give us pans of jook and weak tea.  (Jook is a healthy broth made of chicken bones, spices and rice.) Jook is monk food, refugee food—the food of new beginnings throughout Asia.  Mr. Tak Lee raised his eyebrows and I said, ‘Mr. Lee, can you imagine what will happen on this airplane if 600 Vietnam baby eat hamburger/milkshake and make too much throw-up?’  He laughed and laughed, and pretty soon we had our jook and tea.”  She said the crew never told this story until the Operation Babylift reunion in Washington, D.C. in April of 2005.


Sprecher remembers feeling conflicted by her loyalty to the heroes of the 101st Airborne Division who were domiciled right outside her hometown in Kentucky and deployed in Vietnam, and the protests against the war while she was in college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  “History is never black and white while it is happening,” she says.  “In retrospect, things always seem clear. But in truth, it all happens at once and it’s confusing—particularly for young people.  Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that I would protest the war as a college student and be in the middle of the end of it several years later.”  Sprecher participated in the refugee charters that flew thousands from the camps on Guam to the United States. 


“We had fascinating friends,” says Sprecher.  “Pan Am hired flight attendants from all over the world because they wanted their language capabilities.  The more diverse it was, the better we liked it and the more fun we had.”  The airline took great pride in establishing international standards for service and sophistication as it knitted together the great cities of the world with its new airplane, the Boeing 747.  “You could make a case for the 747 providing an important link to the globalization that we know today.  It was the Everyman airplane.  All of a sudden, students and folks in all economic groups could travel to far-away places, not just the carriage trade.”


This image of glamour and sophistication, plus its international presence in so many parts of the world, led many to think of Pan Am as a symbol of America.  Returning Americans couldn’t wait to get on board so they could speak English, drink the water and eat the food.  Sprecher says that one passenger, who had became very ill on a business trip to a developing country, told her, “I kept praying, ‘God, please just put me back on Pan Am and let me die there.’”  Unfortunately, it was this high profile that proved to be the airline’s undoing.  On Sept. 12, 1970 the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine blew up a Pan Am 747 on the tarmac in Cairo (the passengers having been released the day before).  From this point on, the airline became a target for other acts of political terrorism, culminating in the disastrous explosion of the Clipper Maid of the Seas over Lockerbie, Scotland.  “That was the day the heart of Pan Am died,” say many veterans of the airline.


Sprecher lived in Hawaii for thirty years, where she had a ten-year career with Xerox Corporation after leaving Pan Am in the late 70s. But neither she nor Helfrich can resist the whine of jet engines, which often calls them both to adventure.  “Travelers are born, not made,” says Sprecher.  “You just can’t help it.  And when you’ve visited a country and eaten its food, shopped in its bazaars, inspected its monuments and learned its history—whether you had a good time there or not—that place is invested in your heart forever.  When there is a coup d’etat or a famine, an earthquake or a typhoon, you read about it and you care. That’s what being a citizen of the world is all about.  Pan Am taught me that.”


Helfrich and Sprecher wrote Flying via the internet over a period of five years, despite floods, earthquakes and dramatic political change in Myanmar.  “We haven’t seen each other in four years,” says Sprecher.  “But we feel as close as people who live next door to one another.”  While the book is complete fiction, the authors believe that flight crews working for the world’s airlines deserve a serious, hard-hitting story about airline life. “They are all heroes,” the authors say.  “It’s the flight attendants who will get you out of an aircraft if it goes down.  It’s the flight attendants who see our soldiers off to war and are the first ones to welcome them home again.  They volunteer for the evacuations from war zones and natural disasters at great personal risk.  They work long hours and they sacrifice, missing their children’s birthdays and daily family life.  It’s vigilant flight attendants who really pay attention to what goes on that airplane, and protect us from passengers who would do us harm.  And yes, sometimes they make the ultimate sacrifice and give their lives.” 


Did they know what they were doing when they started writing this book a half a world apart without ever having been published before? “Absolutely not,” say both women.  “Yes, we are crazy. But flying for Pan Am was like going to graduate school in the world.  It changed our lives forever, and we wanted to honor our airline and its contributions to aviation history. What’s getting older for if not for telling your stories?  And we think we’ve written a pretty darned good book in the process.”


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