First Female Civilian Air Traffic Controller in the U.S.

By Carl E. Chance, Editor, WingsOverKansas.com

According to Andrew Pitas, former historian with the Air Traffic Controllers Association, Mary Chance VanScyoc was one of the country’s first recognized female civilian air traffic Controller’s in the United States. She played a vital role as one of many pioneer female aviation controller’s during World War II, representing well over 40 percent of the controller workforce.

The Beginning:

She was born in Wichita, Kansas on December 26, 1919 to Lois and Gerald Chance at a time in history when Wichita was fast becoming an aviation “hot-spot” in the nation. It was on April 8, 1920 that a Laird Swallow, the first commercially produced airplane in the United States, made its first flight over Wichita, Kansas. In 1929, the city fathers’ gave Wichita its title as “Air Capital of the World.” That title was well-earned by the fact that Wichita was boasting to the world its impressive aviation growth with 11 airports and 1,640 acres of flying fields. It had close to 100 aircraft-related businesses, including 16 factories, six engine factories, 25 accessory firms, seven service firms, 12 flying schools and two manufacturers of flying togs. The 2,000 men and women employed in the aircraft plants were capable of producing 120 airplanes a week. Wichita’s municipal airport had a square mile of good landing fields. Its brick and steel hanger could hold 30 planes, including any plane being built. The Wichita aviation community had a lot to brag about.

The long and storied aviation history in Kansas had begun in earnest soon after World War I. Included in that history were aviation pioneers like, Cessna, Beech, Swallow, Stearman, Mooney, Swift, Boeing and later, Lear, along with countless others that preceded those iconic aviation entrepreneurs. storied aviation history in Kansas had begun in earnest soon after World War I. Included in that history were aviation pioneers like, Cessna, Beech, Swallow, Stearman, Mooney, Swift, Boeing and later, Lear, along with countless others that preceded those iconic aviation entrepreneurs.

One of those early aviation pioneers, Clyde Cessna, gave Mary her first airplane ride in 1935 when she was sixteen years old. From then on, Mary was in love with flying. In her later years Mary had retold this story, as she was one of a few people at that time that could say she had known Clyde Cessna and had flown with him. She saved money from baby-sitting to take flying lessons and soloed the day after her 19th birthday in 1938.

In the Epilogue of her book, “A Lifetime of Chances”, Mary had said,“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 my dreams became reality. I was privileged to fly much of my life. I was so fortunate to have had parents who allowed me to pursue my dreams. I was lucky to have married a man who shared my dreams and to have had children who supported all my endeavors.”

Mary was the first female aviation student at Wichita University as a Flying Shocker in the CPT program of 1940. She graduated with a degree in Physical Education and English.

Following graduation, she taught school for a year at Ford, Kansas, then as “chance” would have it, Mary noticed an ad in the newspaper for Air Traffic Controllers. World War II had started and a large number of men had left to join the various military services. As a result, jobs opened up for women. This was a time that “Rosie the Riveter” was to become a household word for women who worked in the nations defense plants. However, since Mary was a pilot her interests lie in becoming an air traffic controller. The requirements to apply were, a college degree and a pilot’s license, and Mary had both. She was given a job and left for Denver, Colorado on June 1, 1942.

It was at this time that the industry took note of her status as the first woman to enter the field, but soon after many other women followed in Mary’s footsteps. Within a month following Mary’s arrival, Joyce Mead and Madelyn Brown became the next females to arrive at the Airway Traffic Control Center. Another, Marge Haynes soon followed as an ATC, offering some welcome company for Mary and her friends.

It was August of 1941 when Congress appropriated funds for the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) to construct and operate towers, and soon the CAA began taking over operations at the first of these towers, with their number growing to 115 by 1944. In the postwar era, ATC at most airports was eventually to become a permanent federal responsibility. In response to wartime needs, the CAA also greatly expanded its en route air traffic control system. Women too, for the first time were being trained as controllers during the war, and, at their peak, represented well over 40 percent of the controller workforce.

A Mile High in Denver:

Mary and her female counterparts started out their first job working on the “B” board in the Denver tower. Wearing headsets, they talked with air bases, flight stations, airline operators, and pilots who had filed flight plans. Mary had to be fast in getting data to the “A” boards where all information was being plotted on strips of paper. There, controllers would have responsibility of maintaining separation of all the aircraft on the airways until the flights were turned over to the towers for landing clearance. After being there for a short time, Mary started working the “A” boards, at first under supervision for a few months, then began working independently. Mary and her sister ATC friends worked with 12 male controllers in the facility all the while enjoying acceptance and support as ATC professionals in this formerly male-dominated profession.

While in Denver, Mary continued to fly and didn’t waste any time getting her commercial pilot’s license. Six months later, Mary was promoted to the Denver tower as an assistant controller. The action in the tower proved to be much more exciting than in the center, but after six months she had to go back to the center for an additional six months of training. The payoff happened then as she was promoted back into the Denver tower as a full controller.

Wichita/Hutchinson Airport Tower Experience:

In early 1944, Mary decided she wanted a transfer to the Wichita tower. The transfer was granted and she was soon back on her home turf in the Air Capital with family and friends. Her assignment was at the Municipal airport at Wichita, where she was the first female controller at the Wichita tower.

Soon after working at the Wichita tower, she assisted in training a number of assistant controllers who had been through the required formal training.

Mary soon started working on her flight instructor rating and achieved that rating in November of 1944. It was sometime that same year that Mary was sent to the tower in Hutchinson, Kansas, about 45 miles northwest of Wichita. Although needed there, she didn’t like this assignment as air traffic was not as busy as in Wichita. Most of the air traffic in Hutchinson were Cessna “Bobcats” which were being manufactured there. Most of the aircraft did not have radios, so it was necessary to use a light-gun to communicate with the pilots. Flashing a red or green light gave the signal for landings and take-off’s. After about 4 months, Mary had had enough of the Hutchinson tower and went back to Wichita.

While back in the Wichita tower, she utilized her pilot instructor rating by teaching several fellow controllers to fly. One of Mary’s students was Corrine Shultz, another of the early female air traffic controllers.

Mary started taking instruction for her instrument rating in 1945, starting out in a Taylorcraft and completing her instruction in a Curtiss Robin. Her navigational aids were a compass, gyro and the old A & N radio signals. Mary received her instrument rating in May, 1945.

Flight activity definitely ramped up at the Wichita tower which thrilled Mary. She had wanted action and action she received. Adjacent to the Wichita Airport was Boeing Airplane Company. The B-29 was in heavy production going at full speed during this time for the war effort, and many test and training flights occurred from the field. Also, Culver was producing the PQ14 one-seater aircraft which were quite active and added to the controllers headaches in keeping communication with the various aircraft going smoothly.

In addition, gliders and helicopters were operating from the field. Several flying schools were in operation, in an effort to train all the pilots they could as preparation in learning to fly the larger military aircraft. With the variety of types of aircraft, air speeds varied, all of which made for a challenging mix of traffic. To keep things even more interesting, on one occasion a group of B-25 aircraft arrived in the pattern. They were being flown by Chinese pilots who were being trained in New Mexico and were on a navigation training mission. Although a translator had been sent to the tower, there was still a language gap, but all turned out well when the microphone was turned over to the interpreter.

One of the most spectacular events to occur during Mary’s tenure in the Wichita tower was the night that the field hanger caught fire. On Sept. 25, 1945,the municipal hanger along with 27 airplanes and a fire truck were destroyed that night. Only two aircraft were saved, undamaged.

Cheyenne Tower:

While Mary was working in the Wichita tower she started dating Marion Neary, a radio installation employee for the Civil Aeronautics Authority. She was enamoured with thispilot, tennis player who was a lot of fun to be with. When Neary was transferred to Laramie Wyoming in 1945, Mary requested a transfer to the Cheyenne tower to be near her new found guy, arriving there in December. One of her friends, Virginia (Mac) MacCraken from the Denver tower had recently transferred to the Cheyenne tower. Mary had settled into the new environment with the enjoyment of a new boyfriend and a previous colleague from her Denver days. Mac later went on to be one of the first three female Senior Airway Traffic Controllers in the U.S.

Airline traffic was somewhat heavy at the Cheyenne tower with private flying activity along with military aircraft traffic. Cheyenne was usually quite windy which created problems for both pilots and ATC. On one occasion a United DC-4 passenger plane while turning onto its base leg, had its wing tip hit the ground causing a crash. Only two passengers sitting over the wing had died.

In her off time, Mary did some flight instructing. The relationship with her boyfriend was okay but not going anywhere. It was at this time that Mary decided to leave Cheyenne in April of 1947 and return to Wichita. Mary had remarked later, “I never had any regrets as the war was over and the men were coming back for these jobs we held while they were gone.” However not all female air traffic controllers left their positions but stayed on to be promoted and finish out their career. Some women even became members of WASP (Women Army Service Pilots), ferrying all types of aircraft abroad. It was however, Mary’s plan to concentrate on being a flight instructor leaving her ATC days behind her. At the time, she didn’t realize that she had played a major role in the history of the nations air traffic control development. Mary was happier in Wichita, her hometown, and soon met the man she was to marry, Evart VanScyoc, on October 10, 1947.

A Final Salute:

Mary’s story is but one of many from the lives of countless other women and men who devoted their abilities and time in the growth and development of aviation in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Other women Air Traffic Controllers of note were Ruth Fleisher, Helen Fabian Parke, and Mary Wunder. For more information please visit http://www.ninety-nines.org. There you will find additional information on women ATCs sharing their views on the occupation along with FAA approved ATC curriculums.

It is noteworthy to mention that Mary had a long history as a volunteer with the Kansas Aviation Museum, housed in the building of the old Wichita Airport. The tower where Mary worked still exists. Mary wrote and published a book entitled “A Lifetime of Chances” and was inducted into the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame in 2002. Mary was a proud member of The Ninety-Nines organization.

The author wishes to honor the memory of Mary Chance VanScyoc upon her passing at 91 years of age on Wednesday, February 9, 2011. She and I shared a family relationship through the Chance Genealogy.

To read an article written by Mary and furnished to Wings Over Kansas web site in the year 2000, go to: www.wingsoverkansas.com/bonnie/article.asp?id=68.

For a book review of Prairie Runways: The History of Wichita’s Original Municipal Airport, log on to http://wingsoverkansas.com/books/article.asp?id=201.

Please log on to http://www.wingsoverkansas.com for a comprehensive overview of Worldwide Aviation News, History, Education, Photos, Videos, Careers, Aviation Pioneers, Feature Stories and Learn-To-Fly.

Cited References:

Photos Courtesy Mary Chance VanScyoc and U.S. Air Force.