League with his umbrella and deck chair at Lambert Field

League with his umbrella and deck chair at Lambert Field. Photo: National Archives

The first person on the ground to direct planes so they would not collide — the first air traffic controller — was hired by the city of St. Louis in 1929 to work at Lambert Field. He stood on the airfield and waved flags at planes to let pilots know when they could land, take off and when they shouldn't.

Archie W. League, a barnstorming pilot born in Poplar Bluff, Mo., in 1907, is generally acknowledged as that first controller. His presence at the beginning of the air traffic control era is well documented by photographs showing a smiling, confident young man no matter what his surroundings.

"It wasn't so complex," League told The Washington Post in 1973. "We had a red flag to tell planes we didn't want them to do what they were doing. And then we had a checkered flag to tell them it was OK."

Simplicity defined League's other equipment as well: wheelbarrow, chair, umbrella, note pad, water and lunch. Pilots buzzed the umbrella with their planes to try and knock it over, recalled Charles Straub, another early St. Louis controller in 2000. League voiced a similar complaint in a 1974 article by The Associated Press.

Archie League with his checkered and red flags at Lambert Field

Archie League with his checkered and red flags at Lambert Field. Photo: FAA

"It took a while to educate some pilots," he said diplomatically. "Several times my deck chair near the end of the runway was knocked over by planes that strayed from the proper path."

However, League's status as "first" is challenged by the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame which claims William "Whitey" Conrad, who worked at Newark Airport in 1929, was the nation's first controller. Conrad was enshrined by the Hall in 1990. Before League's job as a controller, he, like many aviators in the 1920s, flew in a "flying circus," dropping in on rural towns in Missouri and Illinois to do aerial stunts and charge for short flights. He doubled as a mechanic.

League's contributions to aviation go well beyond barnstorming and waving flags. In 1936, the federal government began to take over responsibility for air traffic control. The following year, League joined the Bureau of Air Commerce, beginning a distinguished career that didn't end until his retirement in 1973. His service at the FAA and its predecessor agencies was broken only during World War II when League flew for the Army Air Forces in the Pacific theater, earning the rank of Colonel.

After working as a controller, League was named assistant regional administrator in 1956 and transferred to Washington headquarters as chief of the Planning Division in 1958. After that he moved to Ft. Worth, Texas, as director of the southwest region. In 1965 he returned to Washington as director of Air Traffic Services. He ended his career as assistant administrator for appraisals from 1968-1973. He died in 1986.

League is most honored 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."