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United Airlines flight 6

On November 29, 1938, a DC-3 operating as United Air Lines flight 6 departed from Medford, Oregon with its intended destination of Oakland, California. The flight landed in the Pacific Ocean near Point Reyes after complete fuel exhaustion (Civil Aeronautics Authority [CAA], 1939, p. 1).


The weather that night was poor. The Oakland-based dispatcher initially concurred with the U.S. Weather Bureau forecaster’s opinion that the flight should not be dispatched from Medford to Oakland. After further consideration and a three-way telephone conversation with Captain Charles Stead and the Medford station manager, Captain Stead and the dispatcher agreed that the flight could be dispatched. The flight departed Medford just after midnight on its flight plan to Oakland, estimating arrival at 2:14 AM (CAA, 1939, pp. 6-7).


Because of enroute icing conditions and interference from other radio range stations, the crew could not clearly hear radio range beacons used for enroute navigation as the flight approached Oakland. The crew attempted multiple times to establish their position, but without success. By 3:17 AM, the crew managed to intercept the Oakland radio range, at which time it was already over an hour overdue to arrive at Oakland. The aircraft was still approximately 35 miles from Oakland, and 150 gallons of fuel were left. At 4:08 AM, Captain Stead estimated fuel remaining at only 60 gallons. In addition to this, the crew still did not know their exact position. Captain Stead descended through the clouds, hoping he was over the water, and sighted a ship and the lighthouse at Point Reyes at 5:03 AM. The flight ran out of options, and fuel, over the water at 5:25 AM (CAA, 1939, pp. 8-10).


The aircraft survived the ditching mostly intact, and the crew and passengers climbed onto the roof of the aircraft through an emergency hatch in the cockpit roof. Initially, “the aircraft rode the swells easily” (CAA, 1939, p. 10). Waves carried the aircraft toward the shore, but it broke into pieces as it hit rocks near the shore. Captain Stead and one passenger survived the ordeal. First Officer Lloyd Jones, Stewardess Frona Clay, and three passengers survived the ditching but drowned after the fuselage hit rocks and broke apart (CAA, 1939, p. 1).


The flight’s first dispatcher, Thomas Van Sciever, cleared the flight from Medford to Oakland and went off duty at midnight. He was relieved by dispatcher Philip Showalter. Although communication logs showed that Showalter knew flight 6 had difficulty hearing Oakland radio range, these logs showed he did not attempt to determine the amount of fuel remaining on the flight until an hour after the flight was scheduled to arrive in Oakland. At 4:10 AM, Showalter received the following communication from Captain Stead: "OK, I have been over 50 minutes from there, left of range???? (static) am 30 degrees off in my computations. There must be something wrong with the range. I have 60 gallons of gas, and I am (descending). Don’t know exactly where I am???? (static terrible) I figure I should be over now. There must be something wrong with the range. I am going to come down slowly." (CAA, 1939, p. 13)

Eight minutes later, dispatcher Showalter belatedly suggested Captain Stead use a different power setting to conserve remaining fuel. It took Captain Stead’s panicked communication at 4:10 AM to motivate a flurry of activity from the Oakland dispatch office which began much too late. Showalter finally began emergency activities and communications nearly two hours after the flight was to have arrived in Oakland (CAA, 1939, pp. 11-12).


The Journal of Air Law and Commerce (1939) published many CAB safety recommendations resulting from the accident investigation. Dispatch-related recommendations included:

  1. Establishing a clear definition of an emergency condition and duties and responsibilities of personnel involved.

  2. Requiring the dispatcher responsible for each flight to designate its minimum fuel requirement.

  3. Increasing minimum competency requirements for dispatchers.

  4. Defining duties and responsibilities of air carrier dispatchers.

  5. Prohibiting dispatching of scheduled air carrier aircraft in flight by anyone not holding an Air Carrier Dispatcher Certificate of Competency.

  6. Requiring dispatchers to be more thoroughly tested upon applying for an Air Carrier Dispatcher Certificate of Competency.

  7. Requiring a standardized flight plan format, a standardized navigation log including fuel consumption calculations and standardized position reports.

  8. Requiring a standardized minimum training program including both pilots and dispatchers. (pp. 225-227)


These recommendations resulted in major improvements to the dispatcher’s role in exercising authority of operational control. United Air Lines flight 6 demonstrated that, in general, dispatchers did not quickly recognize emergencies and promptly act to assist flight crews. Inadequate emergency procedures existed for dispatchers to follow.

Read the original CAB accident report in this PDF.

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