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Douglas DC-3 interior view

Aircraft Dispatching in the 1930s

In 1930, Boeing Air Transport installed the Western Electric radiotelephone system in its aircraft and 18 ground stations. Ad copy for Western Electric Aviation Communication Systems referred to Boeing Air Transport pilots as “always in touch with dispatchers and weather observers along their routes. Reports on weather and field conditions, guiding radio beacon signals, or instructions come in clearly, helping pilots to bring their ships through on time” (“Boeing Installs,” 1930, p. 58). This description of the dispatcher is similar to responsibilities of modern dispatchers, which include issuing necessary information for the safety of flight (Holt & Poynor, 2016, p. 203) and maintaining communications with each flight (Holt & Poynor, 2016, p. 15). Willets (1931) noted that “the highest degree of reliability and safety can only be achieved with this mode of transportation when instantaneous communication with ground is available to the pilot throughout the flight” (p. 9).

The link between railroad telegraphers and early dispatchers is easy to understand, given how railroad telegraphers controlled train movements and monitored track conditions. In a similar fashion, the dispatcher became an air traffic controller at busy airports. The March 1933 issue of Aviation documented dispatchers utilizing a light signal gun to aim a red or green beam at an airplane at “many airports where traffic is heavy” (p. 100). Another article in the August 1933 issue of Aviation described a tower at Allegheny County Airport in Pittsburgh where a dispatcher had a desk with: "…almost finger-tip control of the arrival and departure of planes…Incoming and departing planes receive authorization to land or to take-off from a signal “gun”…All boundary, obstruction and floodlights are also controlled from the dispatch board in the dispatcher’s tower." (p. 240) 

The role of the dispatcher as an air traffic controller ended in 1935, when a new inter-airline agreement governed air traffic. This agreement included an experimental center for traffic control staffed by dispatchers from various airlines (Professional Airline Flight Control Association [PAFCA], n.d.). A July 1936 article by Jerome Lederer in Aviation described this system of Airway Traffic Control Offices (ATCO) controlling traffic separately from the airlines themselves (pp. 22-23). The system initially controlled traffic at Newark, and it required periodic communications of each flight’s position between the pilot and associated airline dispatching office. The dispatcher communicated through an interphone system to the Newark ATCO when the flight was over the last fix prior to the “inner radio marker” nearest the airport. If the flight was not going to be cleared to land at Newark shortly, ATCO informed the dispatcher, and the dispatcher notified the pilot, who held his present position until cleared to continue. When each flight reported over the inner radio marker, the dispatcher notified ATCO who cleared the flight to proceed from the inner marker to the terminal. The pilot then contacted the control tower and proceeded to land. At that time, Newark had 64 closely-spaced arrivals and departures per day. This generated concern for safety with the number of airplanes converging on busier airports (Lederer, 1936, pp. 22-23). 

Dispatchers had the best interests of their respective airlines in mind, and each airline wanted its flights to arrive and depart on schedule. Obviously, conflicts of interest at busy airports occurred. The Bureau of Air Commerce established a permanent solution to separate the flight planning, flight following, and meteorology functions from controlling when airplanes arrived and departed at airports. The ATCO solution previously described was not ideal; it involved a lot of direct communication and coordination between the aircraft dispatcher, the pilots, and the ATCO office.

On June 6, 1937, the Bureau of Air Commerce separated the dispatch and air traffic control functions by assuming control of airway traffic control centers (PAFCA, n.d.). According to Caisse, (2015) the Bureau of Air Commerce certificated several hundred existing airline dispatchers together on this day as the Bureau created the new aircraft dispatcher certificate, grandfathering in these formerly un-certificated airline employees. Previously, the Department of Commerce only required dispatching procedures and personnel receive Department approval (Federal Aviation Administration [FAA], n.d.). 

The first documented educational program for training aircraft dispatchers appeared in the October 1936 issue of Aviation. The subjects covered included meteorology, dispatch practice, and airline operations. The course took 18 months to complete and required 2 years of college or 9 months of accredited engineering college coursework prior to enrolling (p. 66). The 1947 vocational film Your Life Work Series: Air Transportation called the dispatcher a “flight superintendent.” The film describes a flight superintendent’s key role in all flight operations: "He is the man who decides whether the planes will fly or not. He releases all planes on his division, follows their progress in the air, and keeps the captains…advised of conditions affecting their flight…He coordinates all flight operations to achieve these objectives: safe, swift, and dependable air transportation." (Twogood, 1947) The flight superintendent position required a pilot certificate and a dispatcher certificate issued by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (Twogood, 1947).

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