The USS Hornet–Featuring Apollo Mission Artifacts and WWII Flying Ace Dean Laird!
The USS Hornet–stationed in Alameda, CA. Of course this was…
The 70’s, the years of Apollo 13, The Jackson Five, bell-bottoms, Disco, Star Wars, and the Flight Attendant adventures of Penny Mabe Chambers!
Born to a father who’s love for flying began in WWII aboard an aircraft carrier and to a mother who’s love for travel abounded, most of Chambers earliest memories are from the back seat of her parent’s Beechcraft Bonanza.
Her father traded mechanic time in Walla Walla, Washington for flight training. After he got his ten hours in, he quit the job, flew the plane back to Compton, California and started his own flying club. Chambers, who had a history of suffering from airsickness, remembers asking her dad for a horse and getting the response, “horses are dirty, I’ll buy you a plane.”
She recalls many memories with her other two siblings sitting in the back of her father’s planes with her parents at the controls. Remembering one particular flight going from Long Beach to Palm Springs flying VFR. “When we came back into the L.A. basin the clouds had developed and we couldn’t land,” she said. They kept searching for alternate landing strips but with time and fuel getting critical, “my response as a little kid was to start throwing up,” said Chambers. Eventually they found a hole in the clouds and landed safely.
Chambers was always encouraged by her father to get her pilots license but it wasn’t until he started suffering from strokes that she began to think about it more seriously. “He had a stroke when I was only eleven or twelve and they took his license,” said Chambers, “Since my dad could no longer fly, I knew I would still be able to take him up.” They ended up having to sell all of his planes except for one to pay for his medical expenses.
With a long history of airsickness, Chambers noticed that when she was in the pilots seat, she wouldn’t get sick. She started flying out of Long Beach and Meadowlark, California during her training, passing her written test but not finishing her cross country flights.
In 1978 she relocated to Hawaii to continue working for Western as a Flight Attendant, remembering her father’s response to her acceptance as a flight attendant, “you are in the wrong end of the airplane.” Chambers goes on to state, “but back then there were no female commercial pilots.”
Chambers continued her flight attendant work with Western and went on to embark on some very interesting and exciting adventures.
On a 6-hour flight to Anchorage in a Boeing 707 they lost their navigation while slightly over half way on their journey. These were the days where veering just 5 degrees off course would set you into Russian Territory. Luckily, this particular 707 still had it’s Celestial Navigation in the ceiling of the cockpit and even luckier, they had an older Captain that knew how to use it. Celestial navigation also known as Astronavigation is the ancient science of using celestial bodies and the horizon to navigate one’s position. Their captain took out the sextant and got them all to Anchorage safely in the middle of the night and most importantly while not veering into dangerous Russian territory.
Being based in Hawaii, all students flew out of Honolulu International Airport at that time. “I remember one time coming in for a landing in a 182 and they’re like, ‘Cessna niner fife two could you speed it up, you have a 747 Heavy on your tail,’ ” Chambers said with a mischievous laugh. She finished her cross country flights there and after the check pilot signed her off, the first person she wanted to fly was her father. Being partially paralyzed from his latest stroke but still able to walk, he waited on the ground for his daughter to pick him up. She loaded him in the airplane and took him for a flight around Oahu putting the biggest smile upon his face.
Chambers went on to use her license frequently. Often flying herself and other flight attendants to lunch in Maui, “We would put on our little sun dresses and bop over to Maui for lunch, hop out of the plane and these guys would be sitting by some commercial or private charter and they were like ‘did you girls just bring that plane in?’ ” said a laughing Chambers. “I was probably 27, we got a lot of attention and then I also learned to sky dive,” She said nonchalantly. Explaining that she had a friend who flew a twin Beechcraft that would give her lessons. She rode right seat but with the door missing for the skydivers, it was required that Chambers wore a parachute too. So, with a parachute strapped to her, she decided she may as well learn to jump as well, “it was totally amazing,” she said.
One night while flying standby Chambers was put in a first class seat next to a very chatty gentleman. While the rest of the cabin was asleep, Chambers stayed up with this lovely gentleman exchanging stories about flying. This particular man was very excited to talk about what he had been doing with deep-water training research. Eventually the two introduced themselves and low and behold the chatty gentleman was none other than the famous Astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Which confirmed the underwater training comment, as Aldrin was the pioneer in underwater training techniques for NASA. She remembers him saying, “Once you’ve been in space and stretched the limits of your imagination, you just keep wanting to test the limits more.”
Back then a 72-hour layover was typical. This gave Chambers time to play hard, for instance going river rafting but also to work hard, even going to college classes during the layovers. Dating a secret service agent that was on assignment in South Korea at the time. Chambers remembers flying to him on a layover simply to go to dinner, stay one night and then fly back. “It’s funny because most flight attendants didn’t do much on their layovers,” Chambers stated.
Chambers fondly remembers her Las Vegas Layovers where flight attendants could go to any show for free. “We could go to any show, flash our airport ID and if there were any open seats, they would seat us,” she said. She recalls a flight going from San Diego to Las Vegas where they were delayed and waiting for one very affluent passenger who came onboard with bodyguards and an entourage. Not knowing whom this man was, Chambers was her typical happy self and tried to serve him just like the rest of her passengers. Being shunned by his bodyguards, she continued to be her cheerful self and won him over by the end of flight. Which lead to one of her most favorite nights in Las Vegas. This man sent a car to pick her and the rest of the flight attendants up at their hotel, took them straight to the Tropicana where they spent the rest of the evening dining in the restaurant closed just for them and gambling with chips the man gave them. “It was a pretty special night,” said Chambers. To this day she still does not know who the man was.
Towards the end of her career, she wanted to start getting as many photos as she could. One fun flight near Mount St. Helens, not long after it had erupted, Chambers was invited up to the cockpit to get her photos. The Captain altered their course with permission and did some nice turns so that she could get some great shots. Coming out of the cockpit, a passenger stopped Chambers right away in a panic and said “we were turning so close to that mountain, what’s wrong?” Chambers kindly explained everything to the passenger.
At the end of her very exciting Flight Attendant career, she married, obtained her Bachelors Degree in Management with a minor in Accounting and graduated from Sonoma State University. Just last summer Chambers went to a Honolulu Flight Crew Reunion. She has been a resident of Sonoma County for 30 years and is also a Customer Service Representative at KaiserAir also known as the Santa Rosa Jet Center. Chambers gives back to her community by volunteering as a Chaplain for the Sonoma County Sheriffs Department.
She takes great pride in her daughter and two sons that she passed the “adventure gene” down to. Having Lifetime free First Class travel, she spends her extra time traveling the world with her children. “We have to pay the tax, I think it was $135 for Australia but $156 for Paris,” she said with a coy smile.
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