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As a Piedmont Airlines flight attendant in the ’80s, High Point native Susanne McDermott Settle loved to banter with her passengers. When a window passenger asked which state they were

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As a Piedmont Airlines flight attendant in the ’80s, High Point native Susanne McDermott Settle loved to banter with her passengers. When a window passenger asked which state they were

As a Piedmont Airlines flight attendant in the ’80s, High Point native Susanne McDermott Settle loved to banter with her passengers. When a window passenger asked which state they were flying over, she’d quip, “How’s it shaped?” If she spilled a drink on a businessman, she’d make amends with, “I’m sorry. I was trying to get the man next to you.”

Susanne McDermott Settle, an attendant with Piedmont Airlines

Susanne McDermott Settle photograph by Susanne McDermott Settle

Settle, whose personality remains as bubbly as the champagne that Piedmont once served in its first-class cabin, adored her job. “It was a company that cared,” she says. “If a passenger said, ‘I love your almonds,’ we’d fill up a bag with almonds and give it to them. When [competing airline] People Express had $19 fares, we said, ‘We can do that,’ and put people on the plane for $19 and treated them like gold.”

From the moment it started flying passengers in war-surplus DC-3s in 1948, Winston-Salem’s Piedmont Airlines looked for ways to distinguish itself from the competition. The scrappy little airline found extraordinary success by doing things differently from the big boys. It pioneered the hub-and-spoke system of air routes that’s now ubiquitous across the industry. It flew to underserved markets. And its reputation for customer service was unrivaled by any airline, earning it “Airline of the Year” honors from Air Transport World magazine in 1984. In fact, the company’s thirst for a competitive edge led to one of the most unique product launches in aviation history.

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According to Chris Runge, curator/historian of the Piedmont Aviation Historical Society, the airline’s in-flight services committee was tasked with coming up with creative new ways to make customers happy. They brought one of their ideas, for a Piedmont-exclusive beverage, to Pete Van Duser, the head of catering for the airline. Van Duser liked the concept, and the resulting drink was dubbed Piedmont Punch.

The airline contracted with Juice Bowl, a firm in Lakeland, Florida, to formulate the recipe. Almost overnight, a taste sensation was born. Piedmont Punch was introduced in October of 1981 and soon vied for popularity with other in-flight mainstays like Coca-Cola, coffee, and tea.

“Employees and passengers fell in love with it,” says Runge, a self-described airline nerd and an early fan of the drink. “They struggled to keep it on the plane because people hoarded it.”

Served in a sky blue, six-ounce can featuring a Piedmont 737, the drink’s novelty intrigued passengers. And once they’d had a taste, Piedmont Punch, well, took off.

Piedmont Airline plane flies over Pilot Mountain

The October 1984 Fokker Bulletin depicted two icons of central North Carolina, Piedmont Airlines and Pilot Mountain, describing the latter as “the means of many airmen finding their way home to nearby Winston-Salem.” Photography courtesy of Piedmont Aviation Historical Society

The punch — all-natural, 100 percent juice — was a unique blend of white grape, apple, and pineapple. But what truly set it apart was its universal appeal: Kids loved it, and adults soon discovered that it was the perfect mixer for when they wanted something a little stronger. Combined with rum or vodka, it became the unofficial cocktail of vacationers headed to the Bahamas on Piedmont flights.

Professional wrestler André the Giant, who owned a ranch in Ellerbe and regularly flew with Piedmont, was a big fan and liked his Piedmont Punch straight. Runge recounts the story of a Piedmont flight attendant who served the seven-foot, 500-pound entertainer: “When he picked up the can, she said it looked like he was drinking out of a thimble.” André, who was reported to have once drunk more than 100 beers in one sitting, had no problem exhausting the supply of Piedmont Punch on any given flight.

The drink quickly surpassed all expectations. In May of 1982, less than a year after introducing it, the airline served 35,000 cans of Piedmont Punch at the grand opening of the new terminal at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

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For Settle, Piedmont Punch was more than a refreshment. It symbolized the tradition of hospitality that originated with the airline’s founder, Tom Davis. “He loved aviation, and he loved people,” she says. “He proved that a big corporation could have heart.” In short, the drink possessed a down-home, Davis-like charm that won over even the most jaded frequent flyer. “When we offered Piedmont Punch to passengers, it would just make them smile,” Settle says. “They knew it was created by the airline for them.”

Alas, all good things must come to an end. In 1989, Piedmont Airlines merged with USAir. After the last Piedmont flight landed in South Bend, Indiana, on August 4 of that year, Piedmont Punch disappeared. At least, officially. USAir had directed that every item featuring Piedmont’s ubiquitous “speed bird” logo be destroyed. (Interestingly, Delta Airlines introduced Pawberry Punch the year of Piedmont’s demise. Aimed at young flyers, it tasted suspiciously like Piedmont Punch, according to some.)

Piedmont Airlines founder and president Tom Davis (center) joined Charlotte Mayor Ed Knox and his wife, Frances, on the tarmac in front of a plane

On April 29, 1982, Piedmont Airlines founder and president Tom Davis (center) joined Charlotte Mayor Ed Knox and his wife, Frances, for the christening of Piedmont’s new 737, the Queen City Pacemaker. Photography courtesy of Piedmont Aviation Historical Society

“Former Piedmont employees started hiding things in credenzas and filing cabinets,” Runge says of their efforts to retain mementos of the airline they so loved. Those efforts formed the basis of the Piedmont Aviation Historical Society’s collection.

After the merger, Settle left the industry and resumed a teaching career that lasted 40 years. But she remained connected to the legacy of Piedmont through her husband, Bill, a pilot whom she met while working for the airline. Bill retired in 2019 as a captain for American Airlines (which had merged with US Airways in 2013).

On his retirement flight from Rome to Charlotte, Bill commanded the Airbus 330 from the flight deck while Settle donned her Piedmont Airlines uniform and paraded down the aisles. In that moment, she honored her husband’s long career and relived the glory days of flying, when something as simple as fruit punch — served with a generous helping of Southern hospitality — could provide just the lift you needed.

To learn more, visit jetpiedmont.com.

The (Unofficial) Piedmont Punch Recipe

The official Piedmont Punch formula remains a secret, but fans have attempted to replicate its flavor for years. An article titled “The Secret Recipe of the South’s Favorite Punch” recently popped up on the Piedmont Aviation Historical Society’s Facebook page. The article — scanned from an unidentified periodical — quotes a former Juice Bowl executive who would not reveal the recipe but offered this hint: “It’s safe to assume that the ingredients [on the can] are listed in order of greatest quantity.”

2¼ cups white grape juice
2¼ cups apple juice
2 cups pineapple juice
⅓ cup water
½ teaspoon almond extract
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons lime juice

Mix ingredients. Chill. Serve over ice.

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This story was published on Apr 29, 2024

Brad Campbell

In addition to being a regular contributor to Our State, Brad Campbell is a storyteller and a winner of multiple Moth StorySLAM competitions.