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The Often ‘Under-Appreciated’ Aviators Watching Out For Us All, and The Story of Their Beginning

by Jeremy Cox 4. August 2010 09:30
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Unless you are either an Aviation Historian or a career-insider, the name Archie League will probably mean nothing to you. Archie’s career and the career of 30,000 other air traffic controllers in the United States began at Lambert Field, just northwest of St. Louis in 1929. He is credited with being the world’s first air traffic controller.

Picture this: 170 acres of relatively flat grassland kept short. A field that once grew thousands upon thousands of rows of maize, now cleared and flattened after it was rented and then owned by Major Albert Bond Lambert as the new home for the Missouri Aeronautical Society and for the Missouri Air National Guard.

Both the then Majors Charles Lindbergh and Frank Wassall had been flying the U.S. Mail from this patch of countryside to/from Chicago for their pay-master Robertson Aircraft, thus establishing the world's oldest and longest continually running airline route. Before then, the Naval Reserve Unit of St. Louis had also been established here; the National Air Races had been held here; and about one mile away to the East, a now long disappeared fairgrounds and horse racetrack (Kinloch Park) once played host to the first flight ever taken by a U.S. President (Theodore Roosevelt.)

Less than two years after Charles Lindbergh makes history by flying solo non-stop from Long Island, New York to Paris, flight operations activity at the Lambert Field was intensifying, especially now that the City of St. Louis was the new owner. With concerns that a collision was a real possibly, the City decided to add some form of rudimentary air-traffic control at this newly acquired municipal field. This control came in the form of a local 21-year-old St. Louisian, aircraft mechanic and private-pilot-cum-barnstormer, Mr. Archie William League.


So starting in the wintery weather of early 1929, Archie could be observed as a new fixture out on the field at the head of the landing zones, wearing a padded flying suit. The tools of his trade consisted of a wheelbarrow, an umbrella, two flags (one Red for “Hold”, and one checkered for “Go”), a lunch-pail, a water-pail, a note pad, pencil and a stool to sit on. According some of the archives that feature Archie’s story, he lost his three legged stool to a landing accident, i.e. a Stinson paying more attention to Archie, but not to his glide-path, managed to land directly on top of the stool, thus crushing it into oblivion, and what amounted to as thousands of toothpicks.


As traffic and the approach and landing speeds of aircraft in the early 1930’s increased, Archie soon pitched the flags and went instead, to the use of a signal-light system (very similar to what is still in use today, if an approaching aircraft has lost radio contact with the tower, due to equipment failure.


He later got a-then modern tower to direct traffic from in 1933, which was located a-top the new, colonial-style terminal building. This new tower included a 30,000 candlepower landing light, and two-way-radio system. Now that Archie was working inside, instead of having to sit unprotected from the elements mid-field, he started taking classes at Washington University to earn an Aeronautical Engineering Degree.




After graduating, he was no longer content with being tied to one airport location in this country and therefore Archie chose to join the Bureau of Air Commerce (later to become known as the Federal Aviation Administration) to assist them in building the air-commerce network. Soon after he left St. Louis and was developing new air traffic sites around the country for the Bureau; World-War-II struck, so Archie went off and flew for his country for a spell. As soon as VJ-Day was announced, Archie returned back to his duties at the Bureau.


In 1965 Archie became the Director of all Air Traffic Control for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and retired as the Assistant Administrator of the FAA in 1973. In an interview that he gave to the Washington Post in 1973, Archie told that being the World’s first Air Traffic Controller “...wasn't so complex,”...“We had a red flag to tell planes we didn't want them to do what they were doing. And then we had a chequered flag to tell them it was OK.”


Archie passed away in 1986, but He is still remembered by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which annually awards the Archie League Medal of Safety to “air traffic controllers who displayed extraordinary skill to ensure safety in critical situations.”


I just had to share Archie’s story with you all, as it is too good, not to know. Until next month then. Ciou.

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Jeremy Cox


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