It was the 1950s, and Irene Keith just wanted a job as a dispatcher at Pan American World Airways. The world of chain-smoking men hunched over their desks piled with paper flight releases, weight and balance calculations, and weather charts beckoned her. She had started at Pan Am back in March 1948 as a coordinating clerk, but there were no female dispatchers at Pan Am, and no one considered Irene for that position. She’d gotten her commercial pilot certificate in 1948, but there was no airline who would hire a woman pilot, much less as a dispatcher. But that didn’t stop Irene!
By April 1955, Irene graduated as a certificated dispatcher from the Airline Operations Training School at Idlewild Airport (now JFK International Airport) as the only woman in her class. It took a full year of negotiating channels at Pan Am and multiple requests and manager interviews for Irene to be permitted to accept a dispatcher job “on the same terms as men.” She readily accepted and began dispatching in April 1956.
In October 1958, Pan Am began its first jet operations with the Boeing 707. Irene immediately set her sights on being the first woman to dispatch jets for any airline, and she achieved that goal in January 1959, dispatching flights from the office at Idlewild Airport to Pan Am’s European destinations.
I found a plethora of information about Irene in the newsletters of the Ninety-Nines, the organization of all-female pilots. She actively promoted the dispatch profession at chapter and section meetings, as she was a pilot who first flew in an open-cockpit plane in the mid-1930s. During World War II, she joined the Women’s Army Corps and worked as an aircraft mechanic. Many Ninety-Nines newsletters through the 1960s and 1970s feature Irene’s reports of flying right seat (in cruise flight, I assume!) in a Boeing 747 during dispatch route observations.
Irene was a trailblazing dispatcher who received many awards throughout her career. She received the Amelia Earhart Award in 1959 and the Lady Grace Hay Drummond Memorial Trophy in 1960 among other awards. She retired from work at Pan Am in December 1982 after 35 years of service to the airline. I would love to interview her about her amazing work (and travel) with Pan Am, but she died suddenly in 1985. If you know of any of Irene’s relatives, I’d enjoy speaking with them and learning more about her! Reach out to me through the blog comments or the contact form on my homepage.