Mary Chance Van Scyoc
Mary VanScyoc was the first female civilian air traffic controller in the United States, according to Andrew Pitas, historian with the Air Traffic Controllers Association. Mary worked in the Denver Airway Traffic Control Center in July 1942.
Air traffic control was in its infancy when I started in June 1942. The Air Traffic Control Center in Denver, Colorado, 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 we 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. We depended on pilots to give us exact times over a fix as well as correct altitudes. We had no way of verifying this information. We calculated their speed as they flew from one station to another so we could know their estimated time of arrival.
There were only two sectors or A-Boards where we kept track of all planes 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 my stint from 1942 through 1946. During this period, they changed the name to Civil Aeronautics Administration, but it remained CAA.
All but a few of the first controllers attended a 60- to 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. Our promotions were from trainee to tower assistant, to center assistant, to full controller in tower, to full controller in the center. That gave us experience in both areas. Today, they are trained in a specific area.
Our radios were all low-frequency until 1944, when VHF and UHF were installed. The low-frequency signals were very static laden and did not reach out too far. VHF and UHF were nearly static-free and reached out much farther, especially from a high altitude. It was a great improvement. Our first recorders were the old wax Edison-type records, then improved to the red, soft plastic loops. Today, it is done electronically.
Our instrument panel included an anemometer, barometer, a few phones, switches for runway lights and a microphone. All transmissions from the airplanes were audible in the tower. We had no radar and no instrument landing system.
It was not necessary to have a radio to fly into any field in our region during this time. We had light guns that shot either red or green directly at the pilot. We 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).
Traffic was quite diverse during World War II, especially in Wichita where I worked in 1944 and 1945. All the factories were at full production. The Boeing factory was adjacent to the airport on the west and used the field for all testing and delivery of B29s. Cessna was adjacent on the north and used both their field (with grass runways) and ours for test and delivery.
Culver was making the PQ14s about five miles north and flew them into the field for delivery. They were drones and had no radios, so were quite pesky. Beech, about five miles northeast, flew a lot of test 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 inappropriate time. Wichita's traffic is still diverse with everything from the smallest to the B-1s and KC-135s.
In the 40s, 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 taxi clearance. We did not have to tell them of 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.
Mary VanScyoc still climbs the steep winding staircase to the tower room at the Kansas Aviation Museum regularly. She's a volunteer for special events and often gets to tell visitors the personal stories behind the pictures on the walls.
"As a young girl, long before I ever thought about becoming a pilot, I had a recurring dream. In this dream, I would either be walking or roller skating on the sidewalk. Then I would flap my arms and fly about six feet off the ground. I remember how much fun this seemed to be, and then I would wake up to find it was only a dream.
"But the dream became reality. I was privileged to fly much of my life. I was so fortunate to have had parents who allowed me pursue my dreams. I was lucky to have married a man who shared my dreams and to have had children who supported me all endeavors."
—From Mary Chance VanScyoc's book, A Lifetime of Chances published by Parkwood Press, PO Box 20550, Wichita, KS 67208-1550
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