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Operational Control Accidents of the 1940s

Despite CAB recommendations after United Airlines flight 6's accident investigation, accidents related to dispatchers and operational control continued to occur. On November 4, 1940, a United Air Lines DC-3 crashed near Centerville, Utah while attempting an approach to Salt Lake City, Utah. The crew descended into a mountain due to malfunctions to the airport’s radio range station and static electricity caused by St. Elmo’s fire impeding communications with the dispatcher and reception of the radio range station. (Civil Aeronautics Board [CAB], n.d., pp. 111-112) Read the original CAB report. After this accident, the CAB (n.d.) enacted regulations to: "…authorize a dispatcher in charge of a flight to direct it to an alternate or take other indicated action in the event that his judgement leads him to believe that the flight cannot proceed with safety in accordance with its original clearance. This power of the dispatcher would be subject to the authority which is vested in the pilot to depart from regulation or from company policy when, in his judgement, an emergency then confronting him requires it." (pp. 119-121) Even today, operational control and dispatcher emergency authority are key concepts of safety used in airline operations.

 

To maintain adequate supervision of assigned flights, a dispatcher must be assigned a reasonable number of flights. Civil Air Regulations in 1940 required air carriers to “provide an adequate number of certificated dispatchers…located at such points as may be deemed necessary by the Administrator to insure the safe operation of the air carrier” (CAB, 1941, p. 18). The loss of Eastern Air Lines flight 14 demonstrated that scheduled air carriers of the 1940s often did not employ enough qualified dispatchers to exercise operational control over all flights.

On April 3, 1941, Eastern flight 14 flew into severe turbulence in a squall line and crashed near Vero Beach, Florida (CAB, 1941, p. 22). Eastern operated a dispatch office in New York and relied on its ground transportation agents in Florida to facilitate communications with local flights (CAB, 1941, pp. 3-5). Eastern flight 10, flying nearby, told the transportation agent to tell flight 14 to stay out of the area due to severe turbulence. The transportation agent, who was not a dispatcher, told flight 14 to “stand by until [trip 10] is in the clear” (CAB, 1941, p. 5). The transportation agent did not communicate the existence of hazardous turbulence to flight 14. Flight 14 entered the area of turbulence and was buffeted by updrafts, downdrafts, and rotational winds. The crew lost control of the airplane and crashed into a field. Everyone on board survived, although 13 occupants sustained serious injuries. The CAB (1941) concluded that the accident would have been avoided had Eastern Air Lines provided sufficient dispatch centers and qualified dispatchers to facilitate current weather reports to its enroute flights (pp. 21-22). Two of the CAB’s findings were particularly directed at operational control functions:

  • The company transportation agent at West Palm Beach did not relay to Trip 14 a verbatim report of the weather conditions that Trip 10 reported at 8:32 AM.

  • Eastern did not provide an adequate dispatching system together with a trained number of certificated dispatchers on Route 6 so that aircraft could be informed of changing flight conditions as they progressed along the airway. The distance between New York and Miami is about 1,250 miles and it was not possible for the dispatcher stationed at La Guardia Field to maintain adequate supervision and control over the numerous aircraft simultaneously in flight and nominally under his supervision. (pp. 21-22)

Shortly after this accident, Eastern established dispatch offices in Miami and Atlanta in addition to their existing dispatch center in New York (CAB, 1941, p. 23).

 

Other dispatch-related accidents of the decade included Eastern Air Lines flight 14 (December 30, 1945) and American Airlines flight 9 (February 23, 1945). Both flights suffered from poor preflight planning by the dispatchers in charge. The dispatcher of Eastern flight 14 also failed to keep the crew informed of weather trends at both designated alternate airports (CAB, 1946b, p. 9). American flight 9’s dispatcher approved the captain’s plan to fly at night under visual flight rules at an altitude lower than that required for the terrain along the route of flight. The CAB (1946a) cited “a general laxity in dispatching and flight supervision and a need for continued training and checking of pilots in proper flight planning” (p. 3). The CAB (1946a) chastised the Civil Aeronautics Authority in its report for not maintaining adequate oversight of American Airlines’ dispatching and operating procedures (p. 4).