When Male Air Traffic Controllers Went To War, Women Stepped In To Fill Their Positions

Photo Credit: 1. PhotoQuest / Getty Images 2. U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons

With men overseas in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, women were needed to fill their positions. Many male-dominated industries became inundated with female workers, many of whom paved the way for future generations. One organization to allow women to join was the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), with many taking on roles as air traffic controllers.

The United States enters the war

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 was the catalyst that saw the U.S. enter the war. Prior to the bombing, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been weary about joining the conflict, but with a direct attack on U.S. soil, he could no longer avoid the inevitable.

With the country at war, the War and Navy departments designated additional airports as essential for the CAA to have under its control. This meant taking over operations at local airports, on top of their work with en route airway traffic centers.

Overhead view of Dorothy Knee and Genevieve Close working in an air traffic control tower
Technical Specialist third class Dorothy Knee and Technical Specialist third class Genevieve Close. (Photo Credit: PhotoQuest / Getty Images)

With the push for every able-bodied male to join the military, the CAA enacted a new personnel policy, which read that “no person shall be selected for employment in the CAA who is eligible for military service.” This led to the launch of an extensive recruiting effort for those unable to enlist: women and older male civilians.

Training was fast tracked

CAA Administrator Donald Connolly hoped to have 1,200 new air traffic controllers trained by June 30, 1943. The organization set up training centers across the country, including in New York, Chicago, Kansas, Seattle, Atlanta and Fort Worth. Each was responsible for recruiting, hiring and training its own personnel.

Training began on November 1, 1941. Those eligible had to be between 20 and 45 years of age, have a private pilot’s license, and 18 months of air traffic control experience or a high school or college education. Training consisted of four weeks of theory, followed by on the job training in a control tower. In all, it took six months to complete.

WAVES recruitment poster featuring a woman working in an air traffic control tower
WAVES recruitment poster, 1943. (Photo Credit: David Pollack / Getty Images)

By late 1942, 40 percent of trainees with the CAA were women. They were given salaries of $1,800 a year, with an increase to $2,000 upon “satisfactory completion” of their training.

When the war came to an end, many women left to raise their families, as men returned to their pre-war roles. A few stayed on the job, rising through the ranks of the CAA and later the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Mary Chance VanScyoc

While historians debate who the first female air traffic controller was, many believe it was Mary Chance VanScyoc. VanScyoc had a life-long love affair with flying, which began in 1935 with her first flight alongside Clyde Cessna. After completing her first solo flight in 1938, she became an aviation student at Wichita State University.

Clyde Cessna standing next to an airplane
Clyde Cessna, 1917. (Photo Credit: Textron / Wikimedia Commons)

In June 1942, VanScyoc began job training at the Denver Airway Traffic Control. Upon starting work that July, her first role was in the “B” board in the Denver tower, which communicated with flight stations, air bases, pilots and airline operators with filed flight plans.

The information was then forwarded to “A” board, where it was “plotted on strips of paper.” The lack of radar and computer systems meant there was no way to verify the information sent from “B” board. As such, they had to estimate arrival times based on aircraft speed and other variables.

VanScyoc eventually transferred to “A” board, and during her time in Denver earned her commercial pilot’s license. She moved back to Wichita in 1944, where she trained assistant air traffic controllers and earned her flight instructor rating. This pushed her to focus on being a flight instructor, and she left her role as a controller in 1947.

Mary Chance VanScyoc with male military air traffic controllers
Mary Chance VanScyoc, 2007. (Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force / Wikimedia Commons)

While life eventually took her in a different direction, VanScyoc never lost her love for flying. She took helicopter lessons and made her first solo flight at 64, and she often volunteered at the Kansas Aviation Museum. When she was 74, she flew a WWII bomber, and in 2002 she was inducted into the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame.

We might never know who was the first female controller

While many consider VanScyoc to be the first female air traffic controller, others argue Mary Gilmore, Ruth Thomas, Marian McKenna Russell or Madelyn Brown Pert likely were.

More From Us: Munitionettes: The Women Who Built Munitions During WWI

The reason behind this uncertainty is a dearth in records. When President Roosevelt signed the First Supplemental National Defense Appropriation Act to allow the CAA to expand its operation of airport control towers to include those run by the local airport authority, things became rather hectic.

Men and women working in an air traffic control center
Washington Airway Traffic Center, 1943. (Photo Credit: Federal Aviation Administration)

To staff these towers, the CAA hired those who were already employed by the local airport authority. This created the dearth in records, making it unclear if women were among those hired when the CAA took over operations in November 1941.