Author Archives: Natasha Feiner

Sean Connery and a Coca Cola: Alleviating Fatigue in the Air

Natasha Feiner

In the twentieth century crew fatigue was a major health and safety concern in the aviation industry. Alongside other health issues, such as cardiovascular function and eyesight, crew fatigue was tightly regulated. Flight time limitations, which regulated the hours of work and rest of pilots and cabin crew, existed at both the state and company level. As my PhD research shows, however, flight time limitations did not completely eliminate fatigue in the aviation industry. As such, workers often had to find other ways of managing their fatigue. Based largely on the oral testimonies of ex-pilots and cabin crew, what follows here outlines how crews personally managed fatigue in the air.


Food and Drink

For some people eating a cooked meal on board was important. Others preferred to graze. Joshua* a cabin attendant who worked for BOAC in the 1960s and 1970s used to ‘cross the Atlantic’ on bananas and cheese rolls. For Jane, a cabin attendant who worked for BOAC in the 1970s, Coca Cola was important:

I must have drunk half of the cans of Coca Cola on the aircraft because it was an instant hit of sugar. Any instant hit of sugar that could keep you going. I don’t touch anything like that now, I’m on mineral water or herbal teas, the odd coffee. But at the time Coca Cola.

For others, alcohol played an important part in managing fatigue. Gerry, who worked as a pilot for BOAC throughout the 1970s and 1980s, suggested that alcohol was used as both a stimulant and a sedative:

But I have to say that that night in America when you got there, it was something, you know go and have a few beers, was a way to stay awake, socialise, I mean I know alcohol eventually sends you to sleep, but initially when it’s still a social thing, you know, it kept you going so that’s what people did.



In-flight rest was very important for crews operating long-haul flights. From the 1970s, bunk-rest was mandatory on long-haul flights. Though some crew members found this helpful, others struggled to sleep in bunks. William, who worked as a flight engineer in the 1970s and 1980s said that bunks were not ‘conducive to good sleep’. For pilots and flight engineers, an informal culture of flight deck napping – sometimes referred to as ‘controlled rest’ – was important. Although the safety of this was called into question in 1972 after an entire flight deck crew was found to be asleep at the same time en route from Sydney to Honolulu, from the ex-pilots I have spoken to, it seems that the practice remained widespread regardless.[1] As William noted:

It was quite common. It was approved really, everybody you know captain or first officer would say to the others, ‘can I close my eyes for a minute?’ and he’d [the captain] say yes or no.

A similarly informal napping culture also existed in the cabin. According to Eleanor, who worked as cabin crew for BOAC throughout the 1970s and 1980s, crew would informally allow each other breaks. If there was a spare seat in the cabin, crew would ‘pull a blanket’ over themselves and have a twenty-minute nap. For some, sedatives played an important role in pre- and post-flight sleep. A number of the flight engineers and cabin crew I have interviewed have told me that they used sleeping tablets, often prescribed by personal GPs, during their working lives. While some took Temazepam, others were prescribed Magadon. Though some used sleeping tablets frequently on long-haul trips, others treated their prescription as a ‘back up’, as Eleanor explained:

My doctor gave me some. I explained to him that I rarely, I rarely felt exhausted but would it be a good idea, I was seeing him about something else, would it be a good idea if I had some with me so that if I started to feel it building up with the time changes… he’d known me for a long time, he knew I wouldn’t be silly with them and take them as a matter of course. I made it clear to him I didn’t want to. Just, it was a, it was a sort of back up if you like.



For pilots, socialising with the cabin crew was important. According to ex-pilot Adam, cabin crew played a key role in alleviating the fatigue of flight deck crew. Not only would cabin crew bring pilots meals and coffees, but they intermittently came in to chat. According to Adam this social interaction helped pilots maintain alertness. For some cabin crew, socialising with passengers was the best way of maintaining alertness. For Joshua, when the first signs of fatigue began to show, he would seek out celebrity passengers:

Every aircraft you had a passenger list. Every single person was down there and the important ones were highlighted so if I was feeling really really tired and I didn’t have another hour left in me, I thought I’ll go and bother Sean Connery for a minute.

Reflecting the subjective nature of fatigue, then, different modes of managing fatigue worked for different people.


*Pseudonyms are used throughout.

[1] Arthur Reed, ‘Ministry Inquiry over BOAC crew asleep at controls of jet flying 30,000 ft’, The Times, Dec 13 1972.

Life Begins at 40

Mark Jackson

It became commonplace during the twentieth century to regard the age of forty (or more recently fifty) as a tipping point in the life cycle, a moment when many people could begin to shed the financial, domestic, parental and occupational worries of youth and middle age and look forward to a more serene and comfortable period of their lives.  The belief that life after forty might present opportunities for, rather than obstacles to, happiness was given legitimacy by a post-Second World War culture that considered increased consumption and economic growth, at least in the West, as the primary route to self-realisation and emotional fulfilment.  Made possible partly by increased life expectancy, the crisis of middle age was recast as an epiphany, a moment of temporary imbalance that was necessary if age-related cognitive and economic decline were to be effectively reversed and individuals inspired to achieve the highest levels of personal satisfaction and well-being.

The origins of late-twentieth century convictions that life begins at forty were, however, less emancipatory than we might imagine.  Rather, they were rooted in reactionary attempts to preserve political stability, economic productivity and family unity.  Four days after the American army entered the First World War in 1917, Mrs Theodore Parsons was interviewed by The Pittsburgh Press, a local daily newspaper.  The author of manuals that encouraged children and young women in particular to embrace physical education as a means of cultivating intellectual advancement, health and beauty, Parsons tied her educational creed to the urgent need for women to train themselves for the `duties that war time may bring’.  `The mothers of a nation’, she argued, `are its supreme asset and as civilization advances it will be as natural for a nation to maintain its mothers as it is to-day to support its army and navy.’  Parsons’ conviction that women, as well as men, were critical to the war effort was not restricted to the young, but extended to the middle aged and elderly.

‘Most old age is premature, and attention to diet and exercise would enable men and women to live a great deal longer than they do to-day.  The best part of a woman’s life begins at forty.’ [1]

Parsons’ words constitute the first modern reference to forty as a transitional age in the fight for freedom and happiness.  But her aim was only incidentally the promotion of individual well-being.  More important for Parsons and her contemporaries were the social and military benefits of healthy ageing.  The notion that life, rather than death, began at forty was taken up most prominently by Walter B. Pitkin, Professor in Journalism at Columbia University.  Pitkin situated his self-help dogma in the context of an emergent American dream.  Science and technology had increased life expectancy, reduced the need for heavy labour in the home and workplace, and made leisure a genuine possibility for many Americans. ‘At forty’, he promised in 1932, `you will be wiser and happier than at thirty.  At fifty you will be clearer, steadier, and surer than at forty.’ [2]  Of course, the collective benefits of enhanced individual health and wealth were evident: greater consumption of services and goods would increase productivity and boost the American economy, fuelling further technological development and economic growth in a cycle of expansion.  Couched in capitalist terms, here perhaps were the seeds of the narcissistic veneration of the midlife transition that triumphed after the war.

In Britain, inter-war attention to the change of life in men and women around the age of forty adopted a different, but no less reactionary, complexion.  During the 1930s, Marie Stopes addressed the effects of ageing on married couples.  In Enduring Passion, first published in 1928, and Change of Life in Men and Women, published eight years later, Stopes questioned the inevitable decline in sexual health and satisfaction that appeared to beset previously passionate couples.  The notion of a crisis around menopause (or the equivalent decline in male virility), she argued, had been exaggerated by popular medical writers.  By preparing more effectively for the challenges generated by the unfolding stages of life, it was possible to prevent what many people regarded as the inevitable conversion of ‘happy lovers’ into ‘drabby tolerant married couples’. [3]  Stopes’ formula for surviving the crisis of middle age became one of the foundational principles of the marriage guidance moment, a development that originated in the late 1930s but subsequently emerged as one of the key features of a post-war settlement intended to restore the stability of the nuclear family.

It did not take long after the Second World War for these conservative dreams of social coherence and domestic stability to be destabilised, but covertly reinforced, by the rampant individualism of the marketplace. ‘Forty-phobia’ became an advertising slogan for companies selling nerve tonics that promised to help patients ‘feel younger as they grow older’. [4]  For men in particular, the purchase of household goods, cars, holidays and suburban houses was promoted as a means of blunting the frustrations created by the contrast between the excitement of conflict and the boredom of corporate and domestic life, a phenomenon neatly captured in the post-war fiction of Sloan Wilson and Joseph Heller. [5]  Self-fulfilment and its spiritual benefits became the mantra of popular advice books aimed at the disaffected, but affluent, middle classes struggling to redefine and relocate themselves in a changing world.

One of the fruits of this process was the creation of a novel expression of self-discovery: the midlife crisis.  Coined in 1965 by the Canadian psychoanalyst and social theorist Elliott Jaques to describe psychodynamic collapse triggered by fear of impending death, the term rapidly came to define midlife madness, a powerful tool for both explaining and legitimating the search for personal fulfilment during the middle years. [6]  The cost in terms of other people’s happiness was regarded by many as less important than the self-realisation, emotional emancipation and spiritual awakening that the crisis supposedly made possible.  But `la crise de la quarantaine’, as it became known in France, was not embraced as a means of enabling healthy ageing in women, as Parsons had anticipated, or as a pathway to a more contented and durable marriage, as Stopes had hoped.  Shaped by late twentieth-century obsessions with the autonomous individual and the gospel of consumption, the notion that life can begin again at forty has been used to reinvigorate a Western capitalist economy that can only be sustained by prolonging productivity and encouraging spending across the whole life course.


[1] `Now is the time for all women to train for the duties that war time may bring’, The Pittsburgh Press, Tuesday 10 April 1917, p. 20; Mrs Theodore Parsons, Brain Culture through Scientific Body Building, (Chicago, American School of Mental and Physical Development, 1912).

[2] Walter B. Pitkin, Life Begins at Forty, (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1932), pp. 174-5.

[3] Marie Carmichael Stopes, Enduring Passion, (London, Putnam, 1928); Marie Carmichael Stopes, Change of Life in Men and Women, (London, Putnam, 1936).

[4] An early example of this advertising strategy is `Forty-phobia (fear of the forties)’, The Times, 28 April 1938, p. 19.

[5] Sloan Wilson, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, (Cambridge, Mass., Da Capo Press, [1955] 2002); Joseph Heller, Something Happened, (London, Jonathan Cape, [1966] 1974).

[6] The midlife crisis is the focus of on-going research, the results of which will appear in Mark Jackson, The Midlife Crisis: A History, (London, Reaktion, forthcoming).