Life Stories

How I Became A Braniff Airlines
Ground Radio Operator

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Last updated 03/18/17

Personal history written by Robert Roll, July 30, 2008.

This is Robert Roll's personal story of his work experiences as a Ground Radio Operator for Braniff Airlines from 1957 - 1961.

            I believe the History you’re born into doesn’t necessarily limit your history – but it does define lots of your choices.  I was born in the heart of the Great Depression, grew up in during World War II, and graduated from High School facing the Korean War Draft.  I chose the Air Force and that choice led to many other of my life’s choices. After spending roughly 3 years of that enlistment in communications at Lowry Flight Service Center I was looking at the possibility in Civilian life working for FAA in Air Route Traffic Control.  Unfortunately, my Air Force experience was not on the ‘approved list’; however, Airline Radio Operator was.  If I had 12 months experience as an Airline Radio Operator I would have the experience to apply with the FAA.  So, when I was released from active duty in December 1955 I was already enrolled in electronic school in Kansas City; class to begin in March, 1956.  By early January 1957 I had my new, ink barely dry, FCC 2nd Class Radiotelephone License and off to Dallas, TX to interview with Braniff Airways for a job as an Airline Radio Operator. (They had the only vacancies I knew of at the time.)

What I didn’t know, or failed to comprehend, the Airline Industry was on the threshold of a major transition in 1957.  The Lockheed Electra II turboprops and the Boeing 707 turbojets were being prepared to enter airline service in less than two years.  These two airplanes would largely mark the end of the need for airline radio operators.

            When I began as a Radio Operator with Braniff Airways in January, 1957 Braniff’s newest planes were the Douglas DC-7C aircraft with roughly a 350 mph cruising speed.   One of the primary functions of the Airline Radio Operator was to act as a relay between the Company Flights and the Air Route Traffic Control operators.  This was accomplished by taking the Pilots reports/requests and phoning it to the ARTC Sector Operator, then relaying the clearance back to the pilot; this could take a number of minutes depending on the speed of the response from ARTC.  ARTC did not have much direct communications with aircraft in those days.  In piston engine days because of the aircrafts slower speeds this wasn’t as critical as it would become with the advent of the 400+ mph turboprops and would be totally unacceptable with the coming near 600 mph turbojet aircraft [ stated another way: 600mph = 100 miles every 10 minutes!].  It would be absolutely essential for the Air Route Traffic Control center to be in constant and instantaneous contact with every flight under their control.  This meant phasing out the ‘middle man’ in the air traffic control loop. Airlines either maintained their own communications networks or turned Company communications over to ARINC after that happened.  Braniff  maintained its own network but  was operated remotely from Dallas only handling company information thus eliminating all but a few Company Operators.

            But that was yet to come in my time as a radio operator (1957-1961); we were still receiving requests and delivering clearances.  This function was obviously the highest priority of the job, but certainly a long way from the only function.  I can only speak of Braniff’s requirements, but expect that they were generally the same throughout the industry at the time. The requirements varied to some degree on the size of the Station and the number of flights operated there.  In smaller stations the operator might have to sign off the radio when a flight was arriving or departing and stand fireguard as they started the engines or perform other duties, like helping load and unload luggage. 

            In larger stations, like Midway and Memphis, there was an Operator on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to handle over flights, arrivals and departures any time of the day or night.  It was also the Operators duty to assemble and post in the briefing area the various meteorological data for the pilots to study prior to filing their flight plans and to gather the dispatch release and other data required to be attached to the flight release.  To this end each station had a weather teletype that printed the hourly weather reports, the forecasts, wind aloft reports and winds aloft forecasts as well as Special Reports and Warnings.  These printers functioned at about 60 words per minute, so they were pretty much running all the time. They were Model 15 Teletype machines but about the time I left the job they were being replaced with Model 28 machines which operated at 100 words per minute!  Other duties included keeping the Station logbook and inserting revisions to the Station JEPCO manuals which contained all the approach data and other information the flight crews would need for their flight.  As well as other duties the local Station Manager considered to be part of a Radio Operator’s job.   

The radio equipment used to conduct these communications generally varied by the size of the station and its importance to the network.  In all stations there were two types of transmitters and receivers; HF (high frequency) and VHF (Very High Frequency).  HF was used for communications out of the local area and to relay messages to the home base in Dallas.  Memphis, as best I can recall, had 3 HF frequencies. The highest frequency (8956 kHz) was used to relay messages back to Dallas and not normally used by the flights.  The middle frequency (6574.5 kHz) was usually used in daytime to communicate with flights outside our VHF range. The lowest frequency (3456 kHz) was normally used at night.  These were based on the ‘general’ skip of HF radio.  VHF (130.3 MHz) was only used for flights coming into, going out of, or overhead our station since VHF is line of site. The actual frequencies listed are from memory; so don’t quote me on them– that was a very long time ago! All communication was conducted from the ‘radio room’ which contained the operator console, teletype machines, and typically had a place for the pilots to review the latest weather information for flight planning.  The information received over the air was recorded on a specialized typewriter usually called a “Mill” – it only typed capital letters.  They were manual machines and in the stations that I worked in appeared to be World War surplus; I’m not certain which war.  Some were pretty dilapidated.  Do you remember Woodstock Typewriters?? The transmitters and receivers were operated over phone lines to their remote location; normally somewhere off airport property as HF antennas required considerable space. Other duties included operating the Company teletype equipment (Model 19ASR – punched tape machines), sending and receiving company messages pertaining to the operation of the airline. Generally it included arrivals, departure, position reports that could not be relayed by radio (HF was not always reliable), air freight, maintenance, operations messages, and any other communications relating to Airline Operations for that station. About the only thing we did not routinely handle were reservations messages; in some smaller stations that too was part of the job.

            We also did minor maintenance on our equipment.  Braniff required each Operator to hold either an FCC 2nd Class or 1st Class Radio Operator License.  Maintenance typically meant replacing a defective receiver, a fuse, or burned out tube in the transmitter.  All heavy maintenance and routine checks were performed by Ground Radio Maintenance personnel out of Dallas. A side note – they were Radio Mechanics – the ‘Technician’ term had not come into vogue back then!


After Phase Out

            In 1961 it was apparent that the coming cutback in Radio Operators would require far more than my 4+ years seniority to stay on.  I left briefly for an ill chosen job only to have it end in just a few months.   (By the way,  referring back to the FAA … when I had 12 months experience the requirement had increased to 18 months  -- at 36 months I finally met the requirement – but there were no vacancies by then!.)

When I returned to Memphis  Braniff was looking for Radio Mechanics in the Maintenance Department in Dallas.  The requirement was a Radio Telephone 2nd class license.  In the time I was gone there had been several Radio Mechanics leave Braniff for the FAA to fill some of the vacancies in the emerging Air Traffic Control Communications Network maintenance areas, thus creating the Braniff maintenance vacancy I filled.  I worked 20 years in maintenance until the Company’s bankruptcy in May of 1982, thus ending 25 years of total Airline Experience. When BraniffII emerged I went to work for them for an additional 3 years in the Flight Simulator Department.  In 1987 I left there for E-Systems in Greenville, TX.  I worked there as a Quality Assurance Engineer on a Classified Government Contract until May 30, 1997 when I retired.  I can’t tell you what I did other than it was related to aircraft.  You can find out a lot about it by watching the 6:00 news --- if I could tell you what night to watch!  Like so much ‘security’ information -- it all depends on who’s doing the telling as to how much security it has. 

 Some Anecdotes from Radio Operator Days

            Shortly after I arrived in Chicago in 1957 I was breaking in with the operator who was about to leave. He was a great football fan and so was one of the Convair pilots he knew.  The Convair pilot was coming into MDW and called in over Peoria ..I took the call and it went something like this:  “Chicago, Braniff 562 over Peoria at Doak Walker’s Number estimating Midway at 24.”  Fortunately for me the football fan, Smoky, was still there because the pilot, Charlie, wasn’t about to give Doak Walker’s number – any good football fan would know it!  Unfortunately I didn’t have a clue… turns out to be 37.  There were a number of real characters in the airlines as there are in any business, I guess.  Another exchange between Smoky and Charlie occurred another night.  Charlie was on a night flight from Dallas to Denver.  They were out over Dalhart, TX and were calling in a position report.  After Dallas took the report, Smoky says “Watch this,” and keyed the mike and said “Charrrlie!” after a couple seconds the reply came back “El Smoko Ropo!”  Even over the staticy HF they could recognize each other’s voices.  Not exactly proper protocol, but Charlie didn’t particularly believe in protocol, and Smoky was leaving! These were some of the minor incidences that occurred now and then.

            One time when I was working in FSM during a very strong thunderstorm I got a call on the Tower intercom -- “Braniff you have a DC-6 coming over the fence.”  We didn’t have DC-6 service in Fort Smith and I wasn’t aware of any flights within a hundred miles of us.  This was before the days of effective weather radar and satellites. Seems there was a line of storms along the flight path from MKC and DAL … this flight had detoured to the southeast to avoid the storms but was still coming up on more storms ahead, so elected to land at FSM to wait them out; DC-6’s couldn’t fly over them.  As soon as operations got the plane parked, the pilot came in and was looking at the weather reports and the company TTY with all the Flight Advisories of delays and mechanical problems that seemed to occur during bad weather.  He said, looking at the mechanical delays, “I don’t know why they don’t do like I do … tell them it’s my bad back … I’ve got a yellow streak right up it!”  (When it came to flying into severe weather).

I noticed in my time as a Radio Operator there weren’t nearly as many ‘Smoky’s’ as there were ‘Charlie’s.’ Seems driving airplanes attracted some real characters back in those days. I would guess it still does.

            One last incident -- This occurred before security became so tight -- and long after my Radio Operator job had ended.  I and a friend were going to Hawaii on vacation.  She had never been in the cockpit of an airplane before.  It happened that while we were waiting to board the Copilot came by and was someone I had known for years.  He said after they got to altitude and the seat belt sign off to come on up and visit.  This was a 747.  When we reached altitude I asked the Hostess to call the cockpit and see if it was ok to come up … it was.  We went up the stairs and I knocked on the door, the Flight Engineer opened it and we went in.  You should have seen the look on my friends face … the Pilot and Co-pilot had Rand McNally Road maps open looking at them.  OK to the West Coast -- but what then???  Well, High Altitude Jet Charts don’t show a lot of ‘tourist’ detail.  They were looking for things to point out to the passengers.  But it sort of looked strange to my friend who was not familiar with flying!

.End of article written by Robert Roll, 2008.

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