Archie W. League, an Unsung Pioneer of Aviation

In the early 1900’s there was very little need for any type of an organized system of air traffic control in the United States. Most of the flying of the time was being conducted in the daytime during conditions of very good visibility. Pilots generally liked to take off and land into the wind when possible which organized departures and landings to some extent (Nolan 5). But on calm days it seemed like planes were taking off and landing in all sorts of directions. As more and more flights were beginning to take place under the “see and be seen” flying rules a need for some type of air traffic control was needed.

This first air traffic controller was Archie W. League. League was a certified airplane and engine mechanic, who before becoming the first air traffic controller ran his own flying circus. In this circus League performed as what was known as a barnstormer. A barnstormer was a type of pilot that would perform stunts and tricks with their airplane. League and his flying circus toured parts of Missouri and Illinois performing. In 1929 League was hired by the St. Louis Lambert Municipal Airport to perform the duties of air traffic controller.

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Back then he would roll a wheelbarrow with an umbrella attached to it out to the end of the runway and use a system of flags to direct air traffic. League performed this duty all year round standing outside with just his flags, the wheelbarrow and a chair. The flag system was very simple being that the controller was only directing planes during good visibility in daylight. League would wave a checkered or green flag at an approaching aircraft letting the pilot know it was ok for them to continue their approach and land. If the pilot needed to hold their position league would wave a red flag to indicate this.

Then once it was safe for the pilot to continue and land a green flag would be waved. While this early flag system was effective, it did have some drawbacks. One drawback was that the controller would stand at the approach end of the runway. This made him more visible to planes that were departing rather then approaching. Also, if more than one aircraft was approaching the runway at the same time it was nearly impossible for League to give separate landing instructions to each plane individually. As technology increased slightly and more planes began to fly at night or in inclement weather, the flag system began to prove useless.

When planes began flying at night by following light beacons, League and other controllers of the time started to use light guns in order to direct the air traffic coming and going from airports. Light guns are still found in control towers at airports around the country to this day and the system of different light codes used remains unchanged for the most part. The two main signals used would be a steady green light to indicate a plane was cleared to take off or land. A steady red light would signal a plane to keep circling and give way to other landing aircraft if in the air or to stop if the aircraft was on the ground.

League used this system of light guns to direct aircraft at Lambert Airport as more and more planes began flying in Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) conditions. IFR conditions are conditions or poor visibility or inclement weather. Finally in the 1930’s when a radio control tower was installed at the airport, League became the airport’s first radio controller. After Archie League was hired as an air traffic controller, he went back to school and obtained a degree in Aeronautical Engineering at Washington University. In 1937, he joined the Bureau of Air Commerce (the precursor to the Civil Aeronautics Authority, and the Federal Aviation Administration), where he began a 36 year career in government service. (FAA Story)” When World War II occurred League left his position as air traffic controller to fight for his country. While in the military he served as a pilot. During his time at war League moved up the ranks to Colonel. He moved up through the ranks as an air traffic controller over time reaching a management position in 1956. This position was the Assistant Regional Administrator of the Central Region.

Then, just two years later League transferred to the Washington headquarters of the Bureau of Air Commerce to take on the position of the Chief of the Planning Division. After this, he had a short assignment as the director of the Bureau of National Capital Airports and then moved to Fort Worth, Texas to be the director of the Southwest Region (Wikipedia). In 1965, he moved back to Washington to become the head of staff for the department in charge of the safe and efficient operation of the United State’s air traffic control system. His title was the Director of Air Traffic Services. Archie W.

League retired in 1973 as the Assistant Administrator for Appraisal. Archie League can be described as a very admirable person for many reasons. One would be the fact that he truly was a pioneer of not only Aviation, but also air traffic control. While other pioneers in the aviation field were trying to accomplish new things with aircraft, League was trying to define a whole new occupation to help make the growth of the aviation industry possible. If Archie League didn’t make the leap from pilot and airplane mechanic to an undefined career of air traffic controller, who knows how much longer the progression of that field could have taken.

Another reason one would admire Mr. League is that despite the fact he played a key role in the new field he was in, he did not hesitate to join the military. I think the fact that he took the role of a pilot in World War II speaks volumes about the type of individual he was. Also, his ability to move up through the ranks of the Military to Corporal in such a short time span is quite impressive. League’s hard work ethic was also reflected in his civilian career. Starting out as an individual standing outside in the high heat of summer and the freezing cold of winter in order to direct air traffic showed his dedication to his new career.

This same dedication undoubtedly played a key part in his ascent from air traffic control up into a higher management position and then into the various director positions he held in different branches of the agency. Archie League’s thirty-six year career in the aviation field can be described as active, admirable and influential to say the least. He was an innovator in a field that barely existed when he came into it. He held numerous high-ranking positions in government agencies affiliated with the aviation industry. After living a full life of 79 years, Archie William League was ble to watch what was just a fledgling of an industry at the time of his first employment turn into the global giant that it is today. One could imagine the best part about being able to witness that huge transformation was knowing that he played a key role in many of the early changes that were made which shaped the function of an air traffic controller.

Works Cited

  1. Nolan, Michael. Fundamentals of Air Traffic Control. Fifth. Clifton Park: Delmar, 2011. 4-5. Print.
  2. “Archie League. ” (2007): n. pag. Wikipedia. Web. 23 Oct 2012. .
  3. “Archie William League. ” FAA Story n. pag. Southwest Region Logistics Division. Web. 23 Oct 2012. .

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