Pioneer Female, First Civilian Air Traffic Controller in the United States

Mary Chance

By Mary Chance VanScyoc

Mary Chance VanScyoc was the first female civilian air traffic controller in the United States, according to Andrew Pitas, historian with the Air Traffic Controllers Association.

Air traffic control was very much in its infancy when Mary started in June, 1942. The Air Traffic Control Center in Denver, Colo. had just opened in March with 12 controllers, a chief, a senior controller (who was the trainer) and a secretary. Traffic was controlled only on the airways, which was called the “Highways of the Skies.”

East and southbound traffic flew at odd altitudes and north and westbound were assigned even altitudes… Those crossing the airways flew at odd or even altitudes, plus 500 feet. Controllers depended on pilots to give exact times over a fix as well as correct altitudes. Controllers had no way of verifying this information. ATC calculated the aircraft’s speed as they flew from one station to another so that ATC could do an ETA or estimated time of arrival.

There were only two sectors or A-Boards where the controllers would keep track of all planes operating on flight plans. Today in Longmont (formerly Denver), there are about 50 sectors with their own radar screens, headsets and computers. The centers were renamed Air Route Traffic Control Centers when they started controlling planes on and off the airways. Planes are handed off from one sector to another as they progress across the region.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) during Mary’s stint from 1942 through 1946. During this period, the name was changed to Civil Aeronautics Administration, although it still remained as the CAA.

Back in that time period, all but a few of the first controllers attended a 60-90 day class, then were employed either in towers or centers as assistant controllers. The earliest ones were trained on the job and were trainees for a few months before becoming assistants. The controllers promotions were from trainee to tower assistant, to center assistant, to full controller in tower, to full controller in the center. That gave them experience in both areas. Today, controllers are trained in a specific area.

Wichita in the 1940's

ATC radios were all low-frequency until 1944, when VHF and UHF were installed. The low-frequency signals were very static-laden and did not have a far-reaching broadcast spectrum. VHF and UHF were virtually static-free and had a much further broadcast spectrum, especially from a higher altitude, which was obviously a great improvement. The first recorders were the old wax Edison-type records, then improved to the red, soft plastic loops. Today, it is done electronically.

The early ATC instrument panel included an anemometer, barometer, a few phones, switches for runway lights and a microphone. All transmissions from the incoming aircraft traffic were audible in the tower. They had no radar and no instrument landing system then.

It was not necessary to have a radio to fly into any field in the tower region during that time period. They had light-guns that beamed either red or green signals to the aircraft. According to Mary, they had a few other combination signals that could be used for emergencies. Red meant to stop and green meant cleared to taxi if on the ground. In the air, red meant to make another pattern and try again. Green was “cleared to land.”

The main means of instrument navigation was the old A & N beam. If you were off the course, you would hear the Morse code “A” (dah-dit) or “N” (dit-dah). When you were over the station, you would encounter a cone of silence. While making your instrument pattern, you would have to count the number of seconds you flew on each leg while descending to the proper altitude, flying the airplane and using the radio. Quite a lot more complicated than the GPS (Global Positioning Satellite).

Mary ChanceMary went on to relate, that traffic was quite diverse during World War II, especially in Wichita where she worked in 1944 through 1945. All the factories were at full production. The Boeing-Wichita plant was adjacent to the airport on the west and used the field for all testing and delivery of the B-29 Stratofortress Bombers. Cessna was adjacent on the north and used both their field (with grass runways) and the airports for test and delivery.

Culver Aircraft was making the PQ14’s about five miles north and flew them into the field for delivery. They were drones and had no radios, so were quite “pesky.” Beech (now Raytheon), about five miles northeast, flew a large number of flights as well.

There were several civilian-flying schools on the field, using the two-place trainers. Add in a few airline flights and groups of military that made navigational flights to the fields and you had quite a mix of airspeeds. Boeing was also building large gliders that they would tow over the field and release at an appropriate time. Wichita’s traffic currently is still heavy and diverse with everything from the Cessna 150 to the B-1B’s and KC-135’s.

In the ’40’s, there were no computers, radar, good radios or navigational systems. There was no ATIS. Each plane was given the wind speed and direction, the altimeter setting and the active runway when receiving clearance. ATC did not have to tell them about wake turbulence, as there were no jets. Pilots were not told how fast or slow to fly on approach, only given their clearance to land or their sequence number.