The profession of Flight Dispatcher has evolved with the many changes that the aviation industry has undergone. In the early years of aviation, it was standard practice for pilots of commercial airlines to load the mail, passengers, and cargo get into their airplanes and fly from point A to point B. They had no preplanned flight plan, little if any weather information, nor any firm plan of action in case conditions changed enroute. The pilots, in those days, would take off and head in the general direction of their planned destination, with no more than a compass and known landmarks to help them along the way. If weather, mountains, trees, or even power lines didn’t get in their way they were able to find their destination. In the early days aircraft had very little navigation equipment, no usable communication equipment, nor did the airlines have any reliable method of tracking flight progress from the ground. After years of increasing accidents which were growing more costly in terms of equipment and lost lives the state and federal authorities sought to put the fledgling industry on safer ground through regulation.
In 1938, the Congress of the United States passed the Civil Aeronautics Act. This legislation laid down strict regulations to ensure that all air carriers operated in as safe a manner as possible. The establishing of this act created an operational control structure consisting of a system of checks and balances which, when complied with, produced the highest level of safety possible for commercial airline operations. One result of this regulatory action was the creation of a new Airman Certificate. The Aircraft Dispatcher was created.
The Aircraft Dispatcher was and is a ground based, licensed individual who, according to the regulations, shares responsibility with the pilot for the safe conduct of each flight. The regulations have been modified, amended, consolidated, clarified, and re-coded, but the concept of shared responsibility between the pilot and the dispatcher for safety has always remained. This concept in regulation has become the model for many other countries which have adopted similar regulations for governing air commerce in their jurisdiction. The concept of operational control has been found to be a sound enhancement to air safety. The Aircraft Dispatcher is known by many names. At some carriers they are known as Flight Dispatchers, or Flight Superintendents, or even Flight Controllers (not to be confused with Air Traffic Controllers). No matter what the name, the function is the same; ensure compliance with all applicable regulations and the pursuit of the highest possible level of air safety.
In 1944, after World War II had already demonstrated the abilities of the airplane to get people from point to point, another step in establishing a standards for this new industry called Air Commerce was taken. That year ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization was formed. ICAO is an organization of nations whose purpose is to standardize international aviation regulations and to propose recommendations and norms for its member states.
Today, by regulation all United States scheduled airlines operating aircraft having more than 9 seats are required to maintain an appropriate number of dispatch centers staffed by FAA licensed Aircraft Dispatchers. The Dispatchers in these centers maintain operational control over thousands of flight segments a day throughout not only the United States, but around the world. Many of these Dispatchers, working for different carriers, exercise this control over flights operating literally on the other side of the globe. This is made possible by the advances made in recent years in telecommunications and computer technology. The Dispatcher now has the capability to discuss the operation with their flight crew whether they are over head, over the Atlantic Ocean, or over the western Pacific. This capability has greatly enhanced the safety of operation by enabling the Dispatcher to forward to the flight crew any changes in destination weather or field conditions, enroute weather or wind changes which could adversely effect the operation. Compared to the early days when the best the pilot could do, on his own, was to head in the right direction, we have indeed come a long way. The over all safety record of the industry bears this out.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE IN THE DAYS BEFORE DISPATCHERS ?
This letter was forwarded to ADF by an unknown source. It appears to be a letter from one airline captain to another recalling an aircraft accident involving a United Air Lines Boeing 247. This operation was conducted in the days preceding the regulations requiring aircraft dispatchers.
We left Chicago at 5:00 PM on May 29, 1934 and I headed for our first stop at Cleveland. We were supposed to go on to Newark but the weather there was lousy and had been all day. Since it was the copilots duty to check the gas before departure (stick the tanks) and thinking we might need all the gas we could get, I filled the tanks - ran them over - to be sure they were full (268 gals). Night had fallen by the time we left Cleveland. I was at the controls and Johnny, the other pilot, requested clearance to Albany, N.Y. for better train connections for the passengers to New York. I headed for the Cleveland to Albany airway over to my left to follow the (airway) beacon lights to Albany. Johnny went back in the cabin and stayed quite a while taking to the passengers. At a point up the line to Albany, Johnny came up to listen to the weather broadcast. We were near the north-south airway that crossed our route about 50 miles northwest of Newark. The weather at Newark on that broadcast was better than planned, 600 - 1/2. Johnny signaled me to head for Newark. When we got down to the Newark range marker, Johnny reported our position over that range. That surprised everyone at air traffic, for at that time we should have been nearing Albany. Johnny took the airplane and as we approached Newark, the weather was down again. Newark had centerline runway lights and I think they were 200 feet apart. Johnny did a good job on each approach. He would let her right down to the ground but on each try was off to the left side of the lights because of the strong winds there that night. I had my head out the side window and could see only one light - dimly - at a time. Also we could not stay down there too long because hangars were close to each side of the runway and at the other end. On each pullout, the red hazard light on our hangar showed up much too close right off my wing tip. After the fourth attempt, we had to give up and go back up on top. The tops were 1200 ft, clear above with stars and moon out. The Empire State building was sticking out like a sore thumb. It was beautiful up there. We were now on our last tank of gas with 36 gallons left. I had pumped the other two tanks dry. As I remember, those engines used about a gallon a minute, (Boeing 247, NC13334) so we had 36 minutes to do something. At about the 15-gallon mark Johnny started letting down slowly, hoping to get underneath. He looked for a flat area -apple orchard or corn field- we couldn't be fussy about an airport. I had my head out my side window, looking for breaks or a field or anything, when I noticed what appeared to be "white caps" behind the prop on my side! I thought we were out over the Atlantic, running out of gas, and I couldn't swim. I checked the altimeters and they showed 900ft. It then dawned on me that the "whitecaps" were the undersides of tree leaves. I horsed back on the wheel and we busted out on top again at 1200 feet. That was a narrow escape - but we had more coming. I then suggested to Johnny that we turn 90 degrees to the coast and maybe we would run off (the edge of) the overcast and find an open field. We headed northwest but as far as we could see it was overcast. Now we were down to 4-5 gallons. Johnny started letting down slowly again - we didn't how what the hell was under us. Finally, I saw lights below under the clouds. - We were over a town. Johnny took a quick look and told me to kick out a flare. In just seconds the flare landed among a lot of houses. We went ahead for a minute and Johnny asked for the other flare. It wouldn't release. We had hit something that had partially closed the tube the flare slides out through. (We found out later we darned near knocked over a church steeple in this little town- which was Bethel, Conn.-70 miles northeast of Newark). By then we were down to 1 or 2 gallons of gas - nothing to do but level off - go straight ahead and get away from this town. Finally, after just a few seconds, the fuel pressure lights came on. I pulled my head back in -"might as well hang on to it as long as possible", I thought. We said so long to each other - Johnny slowed her down as much as possible and the last thing I remember was seeing tree branches going by the right landing light which was turned on. When I "came to" it seemed as quiet as a vacuum. My first thought was, 'This trip is over".
We had crashed 18 minutes after midnight, May 30, 1934. The tail section broke off behind the cabin door. It had whipped around and turned upside down. The end of the stabilizer leaned right up to the cabin door, so the passengers could slide right down it to the ground. We woke up this little town and a lot of people came over to the wreck and hauled the people over to Danbury, Conn. Hospital, 3 or 4 miles away.
That wreck, I think germinated a few ideas - like having an alternate before takeoff - reserve fuel - to get there, landing minimums and dispatchers to watch out for us. When landing back then, if I remember correctly, we had no minimums - if you could get in with 0-0 weather conditions-fine, there were no questions. Also I think that might have been the beginning of thinking about approach lights, etc. I don't believe we had any of those things in '34.