Monday, March 12, 2018

Achieving temporary immortality

At last !  I am a pilot of distinction !  Having survived brushes with imminent demise, screwed up thises and thats, a couple of embarrassments (ok, more than a couple) and a few more unmentionables, I can now claim to be THE HIGHEST-TIME LIVING, ACTIVE CALLAIR S1 PILOT IN THE WORLD!  
Lest you think this is some trifle in the annals of aviation, please allow me to explain: I am the ONLY living, active CallAir S1 pilot in the world. The few became the fewest and, thankfully, I'm it. It's a status that is, if you pardon my allusion, perishable, as long as I can avoid being the "perishee".

It also happens to be that time of the year when the annual inspection is due. Many of my fellow aviators opine that airplanes are worn out more by unscrewing things and screwing them back in than by flying. The hours-flown total for the last year is quite low, partially because minor re-do items had to be re-done after the restoration, a little bit owing to weather and mostly because I do more talking than flying these days. Now that some of the kinks are being worked out I hope to do more flying this year.

The first grand plan is to wend my way South to the annual Sun-n-Fun Fly-in at Lakeland FL next month. I tried this last year and didn't make it because the airplane wasn't out of the shop. This year, the fly-in comes first and the shop second. I hope it works out.

Dave in South Carolina made up a custom aerosol can of paint for my rudder/brake pedals and I hope to have them reinstalled when the weather turns warmer later this week. 

No flying today. The wind is howling outside and the temps took a dive this morning - today just happens to be the 25th anniversary of the "Blizzard of '93" in the North Carolina mountains, a date that will live forever around here. I must sound like a really old fogey when I spin that yarn to my grandchildren but I don't care - I used to listen to the old timers when I was that age and still remember some of their tales. The older I get, the more I appreciate them and wish I could turn back the clock. If I could, I'd make more of an effort to listen and remember.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Springtime Flying - Getting Ready

At about this time of the year there is a stir in hangars across the country. Engines that have been sitting quietly are running up, heating the oil so it'll drain more quickly to make room for fresh oil; wood props are being re-torqued; pulleys and pedals are lubricated and flexed; cable tensions, safety wires, cotter pins, all checked. It's the gradual wake-up for spring flying and it's a sure sign that there are pancakes and barbecue and eggs and grits and bacon at little airports within 100 miles of wherever you are (unless you are in someplace where elbow room is 100 miles or more).

If you've found a place on the web called "Social Flight", you've found a good place to look for flying goings-on. The Western North Carolina Air Museum breakfasts on the first Saturday of the month are found there (the first one this year -2018- will be in April) but other local happenings aren't - you just have to know somebody who knows somebody who knows. 

Mornings in the North Carolina mountains can be misty, rainy, wet, icy or beautiful when it comes to flying weather. My go-to page for up to date weather has been the government's page, but there are others. I'm old school and like to read prog charts but that's not everyone's cup of java.

Long story short, there is flying to be done and fun to be had doing it and if you don't get out there and do some of it you might just as well take up - ulp - tiddledywinks.

Be the old man

Jamie Beckett is a very good aviation journalist. His article in this morning's news feed reminded me of a kid I knew, only it was 6 miles to the airport, not two. The pilots sat around a low table in a small room with low ceilings and open rafters, the smoke from the fireplace that never seemed to draw quite right ever present. Sometimes they'd let me get them a beer from the fridge in back while they pulled their old cards on the table; Air Transport Command, this squadron, that squadron, etc. The broken props on the wall, shirttails with names and dates for student pilots who had made their first solo flight, big green charts, a combat boot hanging from a rafter next to a stuffed owl ... these were the icons of my first exposure to the magic of aviation that eventually blossomed into a career. Those kids at the airport fence, they're the ones who will fly into the future. Hand one a broom.

From General Aviation News:


The kid’s pace slowed as the tree line fell behind, the green grass of the airport coming into view. Pedaling slower while steering the bike off the main thoroughfare and onto the little used service road, the kid’s eyes scanned the grounds.

Beyond the chain link fence, the Do Not Enter signs, and the undeveloped buffer that lay between the rest of the world and the runway, there were rows of hangars.

Some of the hangars were small. Just big enough to fit a single airplane inside. A few of the doors of these smaller hangars stood open, their tenants milling about nearby as they rolled aircraft in, or out, or washed a layer of earthbound grime or formerly airborne insects off the painted surfaces.

Another kid, not much older than the one on the bike, wiped a chromed propeller blade with a bright yellow cloth. An adult, maybe the lucky kid’s father or grandfather, wiped the opposing blade with a similar looking piece of fabric.

The kid envied that youthful counterpart, even if he was doing a required chore. He was touching an airplane. A real airplane. One that flies and everything.

Just 100 yards or so down the road the hangars grew. They got taller, wider, and deeper. Whopper big airplanes sat inside waiting for action. Some were near the front of the hangar, the sun glinting off their brightly colored skins. Others were farther into the cavern, partially disassembled. Engines poked out from their mounts, their covers removed, their dull metal naked to the world, clearly visible even to the curious eye of a bicycle riding 12 year old.

The kid could barely see what sort of treasures were hidden in the shadows at the back of those big hangars. But he dare not stop. The fence was high. The Do Not Enter signs were plentiful. There were people in those hangars. Men and women, young and old. They’d turn an intruder into the authorities for sure.

The kid kept pedaling. Slowly, but never wavering. Forward progress was imperative. This was no place to give the appearance of being a thief, or a terrorist, or the kind of kid who might climb a fence when nobody was looking. Nothing good could come from that. Curiosity killed the cat, after all.

Over the summer the kid’s route stayed the same. Two miles from the house to the airport. Two miles home again. Every day. Sometimes twice.

The sights and sounds of the airport and the flying machines in those hangars stuck with the kid. Flying became a constant preoccupation. Overnight the kid’s dreams were populated with those exact same airplanes, coming from the very same hangars on the daily route.

A hangar at a Wisconsin airport. (Photo by Larrcy Stencel).

Throwing caution to the wind on the very next visit, the bike slowed, stopped, and fell over into the soft grass beside the service road. Seeing no police cars or military vehicles nearby, one foot inched toward the fence, then another, then a full step. Suddenly the kid’s face was pressed to the fence’s galvanized steel links. They were sharp and poked young cheeks.

Pulling back a fraction of an inch, the hangars seemed to call out, inviting a curious kid sporting a head full of dreams inside.

The big hangar where the mechanics were busy mending and maintaining machinery caught the eye. At least five airplanes were visible. Some were big. The kid surmised there must be lots of seats inside. Others were small. Very small. But they must be easier to fly, the kid thought. Maybe that’s where you start. Maybe I could fly one of those…someday…maybe…

From out of the shadows in the back of the hangar came an old man. A really old man. The kid guessed he was 50 if he was a day. In one hand he held a cup. Probably coffee. Old people drink coffee. In the other a grease-soaked rag. He spotted the kid. The kid froze. The old man raised the rag and gestured with it. The kid ran. Back to the bike. Back to the service road. Two miles home. No looking back.

The kid didn’t go back the next day, or the next. But the lure of the airport, the hangars, the flying machines, and the sounds they all made was too much to ignore, even if it did mean he might get arrested for trespassing. Even if they did haul kids off to the pokey and call their parents at work to let them know what hoodlums they were raising. The airport called out and the kid answered.

The bike stopped again, fell in the grass where it had before, and the kid carefully walked up to the fence.

The sky was a perfect blue without even a hint of a cloud. July was in full swing. It was hot, even at mid-morning. The kid squinted. The sun was directly behind the big hangar, just clearing the roofline. The kid could barely see, but the sounds of the mechanics were familiar, both soothing and exciting at the same time.

“Hey, kid!” a voice boomed out. It was close. Startled, the kid squinted harder, peeking in between tightly closed fingers. “What’s your name?” the old man came into view, no more than three steps away. He was on the opposite side of the fence, but close. The kid shuddered but remained silent.

“Kid,” the old man repeated. “What’s your name?”

“Morgan,” the kid replied with knees and voice exhibiting equal unsteadiness.

“You come by here almost every day. Sometimes twice. Maybe more, I don’t know.”

“Uh huh,” said the kid, still shaken.

“You got family here?”

“No, sir.”


“No, sir.”

The old man took a sip of coffee from his mug. They were so close the kid could smell it. He looked back over his shoulder at the hangar and the activity inside. The kid thought about taking the opportunity to run, but if caught that would only make things worse.

“You know how to use a broom?” the old man asked.

The kid looked back, confused.

“A broom,” the old man repeated himself. “Do you know how to use a broom?”

“Uh, yeah,” the kid said. “I guess so.”

“Wanna make $5?”

The kid’s mind locked up. This must be a trick question.

“My helper couldn’t come in today. Sick. I could use someone who can help wash planes and sweep up. Pays $5.”

“Yes, sir,” the kid beamed.

“C’mon, there’s a gate just over here. I’ll let you in.”

And so it begins…as it has for over 100 years, as it still can.

Be the old man, even if you’re not one. You’ll feel good about it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I Just Love Airplane History

I just love reading history and, particularly, history of airplanes and airplane people. Turn me loose at the computer with a snowy day and a cup of coffee and I can be lost for hours.

Today's foray into the past began with yesterday's arrival of the last volumes needed to fill my collection of Joseph P. Juptner's "U.S. Civil Aircraft Series", a comprehensive nine-volume set of hardback books that lists all the airplanes granted a U.S. type certificate from when it all started to 1948, when the system was changed. It took Juptner 19 years to put it all together, and it stands as THE authoritative reference source for aviation historians.
As with most all my forays into the past, one search morphs into many searches and I find myself completely immersed in the history of all things aviation. For example, issues of Aviation and Aeronautical Engineering magazine published a broad array of articles having to do with aircraft design, in such depth that this theatre major's eyes glazed over after a short while ... but the subjects were interesting, nonetheless. Early dirigible theory, airfoils, variable camber wings, inflatable wings, powerplants, etc ... all interesting in their quaint sort of way. From the ads, there were a lot of companies that wanted in on the action. I'll throw out a few ads to whet your appetite (click on them to make them bigger) ...
The development of this new aviation technology is a lot like the technology revolution we see today ... many supporting technologies that make the original idea work and work better - in stages. Think both hardware and software in today's world; hardware and more hardware yesterday, but some of the ads are real eye-openers. Do a little digging of your own and look for yourself at the changes in how information was transferred - the faces of instruments, for example, to help pilots and mechanics make sense of the whole thing.

 Some of the ads get a little fanciful. Maybe the makers of Wright engines and Zenith carburetors saw this new aviation thing through the eyes of the grandmothers of the Village People.

One theme that everybody seemed to agree on was that for airplanes and aviating to take off, the public had to accept that it was more than a stunt, that it might someday be reliable.

There's nothing like a manly man with a tool of some kind in his hand to make us all feel better. 

This crate might get off the ground, after all.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Creative thinking for a winter flyer

Most of my posts over the last 5 years have been about my CallAir Cadet 90 (nee Interstate Cadet) and the Call family who built it. They were entrepreneurs who happened to also be airplane people who started from scratch to design and build their own brand of flying machines in Afton WY in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

The Call Aircraft Company brand was dubbed "CallAir" at some point and started out with a low wing, strut braced design that had remarkable performance in the high (6,000'+MSL) Wyoming terrain. Production was on hold during World War II but started up again toward the end of the conflict and really began in earnest once parts and supplies became available.

The A-2 was powered by a Lycoming O-290 of 125HP. One write-up said it would take off in 800 feet at Afton's elevation, climb at 500 feet per minute and fly 500 miles. Local pilots loved it and the design's popularity spread. Most were sold in the western states. It's written that the first flight was in December of 1941 and one account said it was from snow skis. The Calls knew the need for skis and came up with an easy-on, easy-off set of clamps and bungees for their own brand of skis that were produced during and after the War. It was a design that allowed an airplane to be rolled on or lifted on.
Lifted, with appreciation, from

An unforeseen market crisis hit the small airplane manufacturers particularly hard when the double-whammy of oversupply and under-demand took hold in 1947. All of a sudden, the flood of cheap military surplus airplanes and an economic slump overwhelmed the industry. Being smart business people first, the Calls kept their doors open by promoting and producing their "Snowcar". It was a big hit with mail carriers, forestry/wildlife managers and emergency services. It was also marketed as a recreational vehicle, the forerunner of today's snowmobiles, using aircraft engines and propellers for power. The Snowcar could also be equipped with optional wheels for ease in rolling on and off those CallAir skis, though the lack of a reversing propeller made it impractical for highway use.
Barlow Call at right, extolling the virtues of the CallAir Snowcar

An undertaking like the Call Aircraft Company had to involve some pretty special people to take hold in a little town over 100 miles from any other town of any size and far, far away from other centers of aviation manufacturing. The Calls were certainly in touch with their customers and were creative when it came to keeping their employees at work. Today's aircraft manufacturers at Afton owe a debt to these resourceful people for getting the whole thing started.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Hero Next Door

I was going to hold this until December 17, but this is the weekend of the annual Army-Navy football game and I decided to go ahead and publish.

I read a book - “Halsey's Typhoon” - after meeting and befriending a man who joined the Navy as soon as his age allowed and boarded the same ship - USS Monterey (CVL-26) - that President Ford had served on during a terrible storm. Halsey's Typhoon caught the fleet by surprise and cost the lives of nearly 800 men in December, 1944.  My friend boarded while the ship was undergoing repairs of storm and fire damage at Bremerton WA and went on to survive kamikaze attacks in the waning months of the war. Lieutenant Ford left the ship at Bremerton on orders to the Navy Training Command.

Monterey was repaired; other ships were not so lucky. USS Hull (DD-350), USS Spence (DD-512) and USS Monaghan (DD-354) were lost. 98 men were pulled from the sea from those three ships (92 from Hull and Spence), 55 by the USS Tabberer (DE418).
USS Tabberer went from keel to commissioning in an astonishing four months - a tribute to American manufacturing during World War II. I'll come back to its story in a few paragraphs, but first:

A small, spare obituary appeared in the Ocala FL newspaper in 2003; A man died, and that was that. But what a man. Because of him, 55 men lived, most begat families, all had the utmost respect for a man who defied direct orders from none other than Admiral “Bull” Halsey to save men in peril on the sea. If you are ever in Ocala FL, stop by and read a plaque in the Silver Springs Shores Presbyterian Church honoring a quiet hero who lived, virtually unnoticed, in our midst.

Henry L. Plage, LCDR USNR

OCALA - Henry Lee Plage, 88, a retired pharmaceutical distributor, died Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2003, at Oakhurst Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
A native of Oklahoma City, Okla., he moved here from Inverness in 1980. Mr. Plage was a member of Silver Springs Shores Presbyterian Church. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Mr. Plage was a recipient of the Legion of Merit.


I'm inserting a photograph of Henry Plage here. My friends in Ocala may not recognize him from this one from 1945, so I'm also inserting a photograph taken from a more recent video on the History Channel. 

From the Congressional Record:

Thursday, November 14, 2002


Mr. Speaker, I appreciate this opportunity to share with my colleagues a story of heroism and to honor the bravery of Lt. Commander Henry Lee Plage who lives in my hometown of Ocala, FL. During World War II, he and his crew saved dozens of men from the water of the Pacific after a raging typhoon sunk three ships.

Henry Lee Plage started his military career as a member of ROTC at Georgia Tech and he joined the Navy in 1937 after his graduation. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Commander Plage immediately requested sea duty. His first assignment was commanding a submarine chaser. With only 4 days to get ready, he assumed command of a crew of 55. On February 18, 1944, the USS Tabberer (DE–418) was launched. She was commissioned on May 23, 1944, with Plage in command. By October the ship had joined Admiral Halsey’s 3rd Fleet, helping to supply crucial air cover for General MacArthur’s Land troops. On December 17, 1944, the USS Tabberer was east of the Phillippine Islands along with the 3rd Fleet, scheduled to refuel, when the weather began to deteriorate rapidly. The reason, Typhoon Cobra was heading directly toward them.

The high winds and choppy seas prevented the USS Tabberer from refueling and by the evening of December 17th, the full force of the typhoon was upon them. The Tabberer had to fight extremely rough seas—and by the 18th sustained winds had reached about 145 miles per hour, with wind gusts up to 185 miles an hour. Before the Typhoon had moved through, the USS Tabberer had lost its mast and radio antenna. Three destroyers from the fleet, the USS Hull (DD–350), the USS Spence (DD–512) and the USS Monaghan (DD–354), had gone down.
Tabberer, after Typhoon Cobra
About 9:30 p.m. on December 18th, the Tabberer rescued its first survivor from the water. It was then that Lt. Commander Plage learned that the USS Hull had capsized. Plage and the Tabberer immediately began an intensive search and rescue effort. These efforts continued for 3 days and nights. In all, the USS Tabberer pulled 55 men from the Pacific Ocean. All were from the USS Hull and the USS Spence.

Typhoon Cobra claimed nearly 800 lives. Only 92 survived (my note: from the 3 ships lost; other ships lost men as well.), 55 of these rescued by the crew of the USS Tabberer. Lt. Commander Plage remained on sea duty after the war and gave the Navy 14 years of service before retiring in 1954.

It is an honor for me to share this story of heroism and survival and I ask you all to join me in commending Lt. Commander Henry Lee Plage and the crew of the USS Tabberer for their dedication in saving the lives of 55 men from that terrible storm.

---------end Congressional Record---------

For more on the storm and interviews with Henry Plage:

Growing up, I spent my young life in the presence of special men and women who had come together from all walks of life to fight and win a war that did nothing less than save the world. Some of these were in my own family, many were teachers and coaches. We walked among them and never knew their stories. From age 10, in Ocala FL, I personally knew their most special kind; a survivor of Bataan, a Marine who island-hopped and fought in nearly every engagement in the Pacific, a teacher whose dreams caused him considerable anguish. A grade school classmate later distinguished himself in our generation's fight in Vietnam and died a dozen years after, a delayed casualty of that bitter conflict. Two of my college professors were World War II veterans, another served in the Korean conflict. Today, they all remain my heroes.

As my own shadow lengthens, I look back in awe at men like Henry Plage and feel more than a little humble and more than a little guilty that my own accomplishments don't hold a candle to theirs. I count myself fortunate to have known a few of them but even more fortunate that I inherited the privileges they left to me. 

This weekend, the football teams from West Point and Annapolis will square off in one of the iconic contests of the sport. They will strike each other and block and tackle and compete ferociously, and they will leave the field as one brotherhood, willing to die for each other if need be.

go army ... Go Navy.


Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Home Again At Last

I've written before about the Western North Carolina Air Museum and its turf runway. That's home for me and the CallAir.

We took a little hiatus of about 4 1/2 years, partly because I didn't want to pay hangar rent in two places and partly because I had decided to re-do the airplane at a shop close to what passed for home at the time. Then we did what people do, sold the house in Florida and moved lock, stock and barrel to North Carolina, leaving the airplane to be finished. And I waited. And I waited. For another year and a half. 

3NR3 - Transylvania
When the CallAir and I finally made it home, I found a hangar at the Transylvania Community Airport near Brevard NC ... a nice place - good people, nice hangars. The trees at the ends of the runway made life interesting, though they could be dodged. I had no complaints other than it was a long way from home and the runway is paved. Taildraggers don't like (1) Student Pilots, (2) Crosswinds or (3) Paved Runways, but chasing deer down the runway on takeoff or landing is fun.

8NC9 (grass runway at left) and 0A7 (Hendersonville, paved at right)

Enough of that ... when Leland said my former hangar at the Museum was coming open, I was overjoyed. So now we've come full circle - I'm back in my comfort zone and am really glad to have a former Air Force and American Airlines pilot and his RV-8 as hangar mates. 

Here's to many hours of spontaneous lethargy, tall tales and fun flying. Y'all come!

Friday, September 01, 2017

A Very Good History of Air Traffic Control

My daily mail "push" includes some interesting observations and articles, mostly related to aviation. Today's batch from AVweb included this article by Paul Berge, former editor of IFR magazine and it's worth more than a mayfly's lifetime on the screen of my computer:

Art by Ben Bishop
Which came first: the chicken or the Federal Egg Administration? Impossible to say. Physics teaches us that when Bernoulli found lift, his nemesis, Newton, said there must be an opposing reaction. So, when the Wright brothers flew, government pondered how to keep them from impacting all those other aeronauts. Little happened because of Newton’s Law of Administrative Inertia: An agency at rest remains at rest until acted upon by an un-ignorable force.
The growth of air traffic control (ATC) followed a predictable path: Innovation (private sector), befuddlement (government), punctuated by periodic disasters, followed by outcry and government reaction. Repeat. Today’s National Airspace System (NAS) and its ATC components are the outgrowth of screw-ups, miscalculations and clever winging it.

Meet Me in St. Louis

During the Great War (which wasn’t that great; we can do better), belligerents embraced aviation’s potential but, by adding machine guns, made it self-limiting. When the war to end all metaphors concluded, survivors in the U.S. embraced aviation’s commercial value—hauling mail, nauseated passengers, and bootleg liquor.
As air traffic increased, the Department of Commerce was charged with putting order to this nascent industry growing faster than politicians could say, “Whatever it is, I’m against it!”1 The Air Commerce Act of 1926 created the Bureau of Air Commerce, which decided who got to fly where and when. Airlines multiplied like pimples on prom night and muscled into airport traffic patterns where confusion reigned. Until Archie.
St. Louis, MO was a pioneer aviation hub—its “Spirit” took Lindbergh to Paris in 1927. With so many airplanes, the concepts “near miss” and “mid-air” took shape. Pilot and mechanic Archie League mitigated unruly patterns when, in 1929, he rolled a wheelbarrow to runway’s end. Inside were his lunch box and two flags. Red flag: Hold. Checkered flag: Cleared for takeoff/landing. Thus, he issued the first ATC clearance and became the first air traffic controller to work through his meal break, planting unionization seeds.
Flags are fine on clear days—not so much at night or in fog. Enter the control tower with light signals and bright beacons. Radio was added in Cleveland, OH in 1930.
With the advent of gyro instruments, pilots could fly inside clouds, following a low-frequency A and N, four-course range. Lighted airway beacons and radio markers indicated reporting points. Nice, but impractical, since every airliner wanted to follow the same routes at the same time with the result that in the early 1930s about 12 domestic air-carrier collisions were reported per year.
Congress was slow to react until Senator Bronson Cutting was killed in a DC-2, low on fuel and scud-running at night toward destiny. Tragedy spawned a conference in 1935 at which Edgar Gorrel, of the Air Transport Association, established GA’s place in the IFR world: “Private flying is today a menace….” Without objections, the airlines created an air traffic control consortium and agreed to share flight plan information and coordinate departure times, routes and altitudes.
The first Airway Traffic Control Station opened in Newark, NJ in 1935. Air traffic controllers were called Flight Control Officers. Run by the airlines, these enroute centers, as they would later be known, expanded into Cleveland, Chicago and Pittsburgh. In 1936 the Bureau of Air Commerce took control of centers. A year later Washington, DC, Los Angeles and Oakland Centers opened. Atlanta, St. Louis, Salt Lake City and Fort Worth opened in 1939, and in 1941 Seattle and Cincinnati joined the list.

Separation Standards Evolve

Vertical separation of traffic is simple: Keep users at different altitudes, and no one hits. Problem is, no one lands. So rules were developed to allow altitude changes based on position reports, much like today when ATC says, “Radar service terminated (or lost), report FIGBY.”
Radar wasn’t common until 1940 when the British were dealing with German air traffic over London. Before radar—which really didn’t make the ATC scene with great effect until the 1960s—controllers hovered over maps and plotted airliner progress as dispatchers phoned in position reports. Direct pilot-to-center radio communication wasn’t available until 1949.
Controllers tracked aircraft progress with small “shrimp boats” pushed across the map. Each represented an airplane and had a clip holding a slip of paper with the call sign and altitude. Shrimp boats would serve well into the radar age on flat-top radar displays. Before digital data tags, controllers wrote aircraft data on the plastic data tags and gently nudged them across the scope.
Additionally, each flight had a flight progress strip with more information. By stacking these strips, early controllers formed the 3-D picture, and to some extent their descendants still do.
Once an aircraft passed a fix, another at the same altitude could also pass. If two were approaching the same fix at the same altitude, the controller could instruct one to climb or descend before a certain point or stop one in a holding pattern until the airspace was clear.
This is easy where flight paths cross at right angles, but someone had to figure how much room was needed to protect these converging points based on all the possible converging angles. There was no ATC manual until the controllers wrote it.
Non-radar separation gets muddier when two—or more—airplanes are at the same altitude on the same route, especially if the trailing aircraft is overtaking. In the 1930s, in-trail separation was at least 10 minutes. The moving math of non-radar air traffic separation rapidly developed out of necessity, and safely remains the basis of separation standards today. If a 2017 approach controller loses radar, traffic gets slapped onto airways and separated by altitudes, routes and speed as pilots stumble making position reports and estimates to subsequent fixes.
In 1940, the newly created Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) took over ATC. By the time the U.S. entered WWII in 1941, the CAA ran 24 enroute Centers with 4000 employees. By war’s end, the CAA had 7800 air traffic controllers.

Postwar Boom

Peace brought a surge in civil aviation. Former military pilots transitioned into the airlines. Non-pilot veterans learned to fly under the GI Bill, which meant more airplanes being built and more airliners reaching new markets. DC-3s gave way to DC-6s and Lockheed Constellations (Connies), flying higher, faster and stretching ATC resources. From 1949 to 1955 airline passenger traffic doubled, even as CAA staffing levels were cut. In 1955, the DC-7 premiered, capable of flying non-stop from the U.S. to Europe, carrying 100 passengers at 300 knots.
More traffic in an overburdened and underfunded ATC system with little radar service, meant midair collisions and near misses occurred at uncomfortable rates. On June 30, 1956, a United DC-7 hit a TWA Super Connie at 21,000 feet over the Grand Canyon, killing all on both airliners. Post-accident fingers pointed, politicians ha-rumphed, but the public demanded change—to what, most didn’t know. In short order, Congress funded the CAA to increase the number of VORs, purchase 82 advanced long-range radars and install an IBM 650 digital computer at Indianapolis Center, and should the computer thing work out, buy more. The modern ATC system emerged from the Grand Canyon ashes. Except, while the CAA met challenges posed by DC-7s and Super Connies, Boeing took orders for its 707 and Douglas for the DC-8. ATC needed to adapt faster, before TWA and United could meet again.

The Jet Age

Ground speeds suddenly reaching 600 knots changed everything, with airlines leading the way and the CAA playing catch-up. In December, 1957 CAA classified all airspace above 24,000 feet as Continental Control Area with a dozen “super skyways” planned for transcontinental commercial traffic. With no private jets, this was primarily for airlines.
By 1958, 707s and DC-8s were in service, each capable of hauling 189 passengers. The same year recorded three notable mid-air collisions. The first occurred when an Air Force C-118 (DC-6) collided with a Navy P2V patrol bomber over Los Angeles, killing 50. The second midair was near Las Vegas when an Air Force F-100 Super Sabre cut through a United DC-7 at 21,000 feet, leaving 49 dead. The third collision again mixed civilian and military when a VFR Air National Guard T-33 trainer collided with an IFR four-engine turboprop Capital Airlines Viscount over Maryland, killing 61.
A day after the Maryland midair, Senator Mike Monroney from Oklahoma, introduced the Federal Aviation Act, which—among other things—created the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). President Eisenhower signed it into law on August 23rd, proving that government can move quickly when the body count gets embarrassing.
The FAA was charged to oversee and regulate everything in aviation. The first administrator was retired Air Force General Elwood R. Quesada, who rolled into office kicking butts and making changes. But it took another midair to spark the next airspace upgrade.

Past and Future Collide

Mid-morning December 16, 1960 brought low ceilings and snow to New York City, as a TWA Super Connie was cleared for the ILS approach into LaGuardia Airport. Heading into Idyllwild Airport (now JFK) was a United DC-8. The last of the piston airliners and first of the jets met over Staten Island when the DC-8, not in radar contact and traveling in excess of 300 knots, overshot its holding fix. Essentially, the United crew was lost and navigating with one VOR receiver, the other being inoperable. Radar service and visibility were minimal—TWA was on a New York approach radar scope, but United was not. One of United’s engines scooped through TWA’s cabin, dropping the Connie onto Staten Island. United continued toward Idyllwild as the crew steadily lost control of the damaged DC-8, until it slammed into the Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn, where all onboard United plus eight on the ground, died.
Once again, out of tragedy came reforms: IFR pilots must inform ATC of navigation or communications failures. Turbine-powered aircraft must have distance-measuring equipment (DME). ATC improved its radar hand-off procedures. Finally, no aircraft could exceed 250 knots below 10,000 feet.

1960s and Beyond

ATC continued to improve in the next decade as more jets (B-727, B-737, B-747, DC-9, Lears…) entered service and competed for airspace. Despite progress, airliners still crashed, and in 1965, a TWA B-707 hit an Eastern Airlines Connie over Carmel, NY. Both were approaching the Carmel VORTAC when the crews saw each other. Although separated vertically by 1000 feet, the illusion created by the upsloping cloud tops, caused the 707 pilot to think they were converging, so he banked to steer clear. Instead, they hit. Amazingly, TWA limped safely into JFK, while Eastern’s crew lost all control. By playing the throttles, the pilot was able to crash land the four-engine Connie in a level attitude, minimizing fatalities.
The 1960s saw the arrival of ARTS (Automated Radar Terminal System), which put digital tags on radar displays. Adios, shrimp boats (although they were kept as backup). ATC was improving and catching up with the users. Controllers slowly received better equipment and even a pay raise.
In 1967 the newly created Department of Transportation (DOT) renamed the Federal Aviation Agency as the Federal Aviation Administration. Despite the name change, airplanes still collided, including a TWA DC-9 descending into Dayton, OH and a VFR Beech Baron, prompting the creation of Terminal Control Areas (TCA, the precursor of Class B airspace) around busier airports.
Three years later, transponders were required to operate in TCAs. Midair collisions declined, suggesting the FAA was gaining ground. But another problem awaited—air traffic controllers grew actively dissatisfied with FAA management. In 1968, a handful of New York controllers formed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). In six months, membership grew to 5000.
While organizing controllers didn’t have a direct input on air traffic, FAA management was slow to understand controllers’ gripes. PATCO sickouts, however, did affect traffic, as controller/management relations soured, and so began a decade of ATC labor unrest, erupting on August 3, 1981, when 13,000 air traffic controllers walked off the job and brought IFR traffic to a crawl.
It appeared in the early hours that PATCO had triumphed, but the FAA had learned from the earlier sickout and was prepared to react. Of the controllers who walked, about 850 returned during a brief grace period. The others were fired, and the FAA began the slow process of reinventing the air traffic system…again.


Post-strike ATC would seem to have been in total ruin. Some would disagree, but between late 1981 and today, the FAA managed to restart the stalled system, with a limited workforce and new hires beginning the difficult process of replacing the fired controllers. Those 11,000 lost employees were highly experienced with no available replacements. The economy was in recession, which reduced demands on ATC. This breathing space scared Congress into funding not only to rebuild the NAS but point it toward the future. Goodwill hugs were everywhere, and, eventually, the FAA squandered that to some extent.
From the 1981 rubble came the impetus to radically change how we navigate. It’s been a slow slog from ground-based navaids to satnav. GPS is nearly as important to aviation today as Bernoulli’s “So that’s how lift works” moment in the 18th century. Federal airways designed for DC-2s, might find a place in Smithsonian’s Air & Space museum, while GPS makes creative routing a reality.
Elsewhere, ATC radar service—including backups—improved. Simultaneous parallel approach operations funneled even more traffic into saturated airports. Weather radar, including NEXRAD, and wind shear detection improved throughout the 1990s. Still, pilots blundered into thunderstorms, and still they near-missed and occasionally collided, such as the 1986 Cherokee and DC-9 midair over Cerritos, CA. Again, from tragedy springs regulation, which increased use of Mode C and TCAS.
While progress was relatively swift after PATCO’s demise, the FAA slipped back into its labor-management ways, leading to the formation of NATCA (National Air Traffic Controllers Association) in 1987, which must’ve had PATCO ghosts howling, “Told you so….”
ATC’s future is bright(ish). ADS-B is reality and will continue to revamp NAS and our places within it. And there, beneath the technological and procedural improvements, lies the ATC foundation first established when Archie League waved his flags in 1929. And as the propeller of ATC progress turns, we, inevitably come full circle.
The first enroute air traffic facility was run by the airlines in 1935. Today, the stench of ATC privatization—largely controlled by the airlines—is again in the air. Perhaps the prescient words of Edgar Gorrel, of the 1930s Air Transport Association, might augur our future: “Private flying is today a menace….” Time, once again, to decide if we’re the chicken or the egg about to be scrambled.
The author wishes to thank Mr. Ron Fandrick for his excellent website covering the history of ATC,, which simplified a lot of the research necessary for this article.
Paul Berge, CFII, is an IFR editor emeritus and author of Private Pilot Beginner’s Manual (for Sport Pilots, too). Additional information at
This article originally appeared in the August 2017 issue of IFR magazine.

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