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Birth of Operational Control

TWA's Response to Flight 6

The accident involving TWA flight 6 motivated TWA to improve its dispatch operations, and its president, Jack Frye, did not punish Dispatcher Haueter, who allowed flight 6 to circle at Kansas City while wasting fuel. Instead, Frye promoted Haueter to flight superintendent (Serling, 1983, p. 55-56). Aviation described TWA’s dispatch system in a fascinating article, “Flying with One Foot on the Ground” published in August 1937. It opens with a story of two pilots, “Young Fellow” and “Old Timer.” In fairytale-like fashion, the article tells the story of the Bronson Cutting accident in a lighthearted, de-identified, narrative. The story ends with Young Fellow making good decisions, having plenty of fuel, and heading toward a pre-determined alternate airport. Old Timer lands at an emergency field after running low on fuel, but he still gets his passengers safely on the ground (“Flying with One,” 1937, pp. 24-25).  The article states that after this “incident,” which is a thinly-veiled account of the Bronson Cutting accident, TWA President Jack Frye: "made up his mind then and there that no pilot in the future would take off with a load of passengers without knowing exactly how he was going to get to his destination and what he would do if that destination was unavailable. Thus was born TWA’s Flight Plan." (“Flying with One,” 1937, p. 25)


TWA organized a flight control and navigation department. This new department equipped each pilot with a kit including information about each route to be flown, including charts, graphs, and tables, flight computers, and a flight plan. Pilots made required checks of actual fuel burn at various checkpoints along the route with planned fuel burn. Pilots also designated specific alternate airports in case weather was not as forecasted and planned a direction to fly in case of total radio failure (“Flying with One,” 1937, p. 25). Since the article only discusses TWA, it is not clear if any other airlines adopted these policies prior to 1937. The article frames the flight plan and contingency planning as innovative ideas. It is plausible that this was the first major airline application of proactive fuel management combined with the development of contingency planning in the United States.


TWA made “a dozen or so” of the airline’s best pilots into chief dispatchers. Many of its early dispatchers were “youngsters who had actually come along from clerical or other non-flying positions…[and] didn’t know what they were talking about, or at least did not know how to interpret properly the information that was given to them” (“Flying with One,” 1937, p. 72). Jack Frye was “among the first” to view the dispatcher as the third member of the crew (“Flying with One,” 1937, p. 72). The modern aircraft dispatcher’s role is remarkably like the article’s description of TWA’s aircraft dispatchers in 1937: "A properly trained dispatcher, sitting apart from the immediate stress and strain of flying the airplane, and with all possible forms of information at his disposal, has an opportunity to sit down and figure things out in a way that is not possible for the pilot with his many flying duties. Thus the old joke about flying with one foot on the ground could become an accomplished fact. But the foot-on-the-ground must have the complete confidence of his flying crews." (“Flying with One,” 1937, p. 72)


Clearly, the Bronson Cutting accident caused TWA to elevate the role of the dispatcher into a qualified and trusted ground-based crewmember. It is this concept that is paramount to improved safety through operational control of airline flights.