Slightly related: Do airliners get substantially different weather briefings from the rest of us?
Highly related: How was the navigation managed on jetliners before having programmable routes?
Highly related: How long does flight planning take / when is it done / how is it done?

In the modern day, the tasks of an airline pilot preparing for a cross-country1 flight are very different from the tasks of a private pilot preparing for a flight. The private pilot may look at a sectional, decide on a destination, choose landmarks, and look up frequencies. Whereas the airline pilot is assigned a destination, receives a briefing package from dispatch, and verifies the correctness of the route.

My question is, was it always this way? For example, in the early days of the jet age, what sort of flight planning and briefing might the average airline pilot have done? Would they have decided on routes day-by-day? Would they have calculated time/fuel/distance for each leg by hand the way some private pilots still do2? To what extent would dispatchers be involved in the process?

I doubt many historical examples of actual training materials for flight planning exist, but they would make a spectacular answer to this question.

1 Which, really, is almost any airline flight.
2 (Or maybe not. Ah ForeFlight, the great equalizer...)

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @ymb1 - Oooh, good one! Highly related. $\endgroup$
    – Steve V.
    Aug 20, 2021 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ You're talking about an era where there was a dedicated engineer for that, the 3rd crew person, who managed engines, fuel, route, navaids, weather... $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Aug 20, 2021 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ @mins: DC-9 and 737 (and others; those just became popular) in the late-60s and 70s lacked that position. $\endgroup$
    – user14897
    Aug 20, 2021 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ @ymb: For example, the B707 which started to fly in the late 50s had a navigator. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Aug 20, 2021 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ @min: I think you missed my point, which is: in the 60s and 70s there were 2-crew jetliners (i.e. not all had an FE and/or navigator). Side note: TWA was the first to remove the 707 navigator position around 1962. $\endgroup$
    – user14897
    Aug 20, 2021 at 19:20

2 Answers 2


There is lots of info here I will go back a bit further before the 60's for a complete answer. Dedicated flight dispatchers date back as far as 1936 when they were broken off from ATC duties into their own functionality.

Weather planning involving ground based observations and intercommunication dates back as early as the 1930's when the technology made inter-airport communications possible and subsequently en-route weather planning possible before takeoff.

In 1930, Boeing Air Transport installed the Western Electric radiotelephone system in its aircraft and 18 ground stations. Ad copy for Western Electric Aviation Communication Systems referred to Boeing Air Transport pilots as “always in touch with dispatchers and weather observers along their routes. Reports on weather and field conditions, guiding radio beacon signals, or instructions come in clearly, helping pilots to bring their ships through on time”

Formal dispatch training goes back to at least 1936 and had various requirements. There is some great footage from a 1947 film about the "flight superintendent" here (at 4:55) you should watch.

The first documented educational program for training aircraft dispatchers appeared in the October 1936 issue of Aviation. The subjects covered included meteorology, dispatch practice, and airline operations. The course took 18 months to complete and required 2 years of college or 9 months of accredited engineering college coursework prior to enrolling (p. 66). The 1947 vocational film Your Life Work Series: Air Transportation called the dispatcher a “flight superintendent.” The film describes a flight superintendent’s key role in all flight operations: "He is the man who decides whether the planes will fly or not. He releases all planes on his division, follows their progress in the air, and keeps the captains…advised of conditions affecting their flight…He coordinates all flight operations to achieve these objectives: safe, swift, and dependable air transportation." (Twogood, 1947) The flight superintendent position required a pilot certificate and a dispatcher certificate issued by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (Twogood, 1947).

En-route pilot reports (PIREPS) date back to Feb 1 1943 so pilots would have had access to real time conditions over the radio from ground based stations going back well before the 60's allowing pilots to make en-route weather choices and ground dispatches to make pre-flight choices.

Feb 1, 1943: CAA inaugurated an expanded flight advisory service at all air route traffic control centers. The centers originated advisories on weather changes and hazardous conditions, and airway communication stations relayed this information to nonscheduled pilots. The service provided these pilots with some of the assistance that airline pilots received from their dispatchers. In Jul 1943, CAA's communication stations also began a flight communications service. When contacting pilots by radio, communicators were instructed to volunteer information on important weather changes or inoperative facilities along their route.

This copy of Aviation Weather dates to 1975 (and is pretty neat) but the preface indicates that its publication goes back as far as '43 indicating dedicated weather information was published going back at least that far (a copy can be had if you really want).

Thunderstorm avoidance was (and still is) a big issue. A good set of MK-1 Eyeballs is always your first option but on board radar tests date back as early as 1949 with the first units coming around a decade later Which would allow pilots to offer far more accurate PIREPS

Since the advent of commercial aviation, thunderstorms caused delays, diversions, and accidents. Airlines attempted to find ways to avoid enroute weather while maintaining scheduled operations. In 1949, American Airlines and the Unites States Navy conducted tests of an onboard weather radar system installed in a Convair airliner (“Flying Lab,” 1949, p. 28). In 1956, American Airlines equipped its fleet of DC-7s with airborne weather radar (“AA to Equip,” 1955, p. 20). Airlines quickly embraced the innovative technology, and Aviation Week (Christian, 1955) quoted a Northwest Airlines pilot: “We all wonder how we ever got along without it. Pretty soon the public won’t fly in anything but radar-equipped airplanes” (Christian, 1955, p. 40).

The tricky part becomes trans-oceanic flights where there may not be any reporting stations. The importance of trans ocean (Atlantic) weather reporting became important during WWII and the use of light/weather ships became apparent to gain such information. Transatlantic flights would not have been in the dark about weather on account of that.

Here is a pretty neat article about the radios they used to actually make the reports from ground to the aircrafts.

As noted in the comments many airplanes of the era had a Flight Navigator on board, they would have provided a great deal of fuel and navigational planning as that was their job. The FAA still has a handbook covering the tasks of the navigator you can find here.

On any note: Numerical weather forecasting dates back to the turn of the century and by 1950 the national weather service was providing future outlooks forecasts. Paired with airport based reports, PIREPS, and onboard radar systems for more in flight information; Trained dispatchers were capable of making educated decisions on flight dispatching. In some cases these dispatchers were full time employees of the airlines and much like in todays era dispatchers would have been responsible for weather planning and likely en-route planning as well as fuel requirements with final checks landing on the plate of the flight navigator.


Before the jet age, most cross-country routes had to make multiple stops[a], so flight planning was done in chunks and was more manageable. And as @mins commented, navigators were part of the crew.

Dedicated meteorological departments were also required; the departments shrank as networked computers took over and improvements in forecasts lessened the requirements, and eventually eliminated at most European and at several US carriers. More so in Europe when fuel prices rose (I suppose their salaries exceeded the cost-saving benefits of thoroughly and manually calculated efficient routes); in the US the situation was "ambivalent":

Airline communications were improving, longer range aircraft were becoming available and a number of countries now began providing terminal and in come cases even upper air forecasts. The requirements for dispatchers/meteorologists in the field began to lessen and as a consequence most European, as well as several U.S. carriers eliminated their meteorological staffs. As fuel costs also began to rise, all personnel including meteorologists was reduced. In the United States, the attitude was somewhat ambivalent. The approach carriers took ran from total dependence on the digital forecast with no human intervention, through little more than providing an amendment service, to manually developing a separate upper air forecast. [Steinberg. p. 2; emphasis added]

Beginning in 1962[b] (the scope of the question), computers began to take over (inc. optimum route selection) at the major operators:

American Airlines contracted with IBM to develop jointly a flight planning program for a 60,000 digit IBM 1620 computer [...] Operating cost savings are on the order of several million dollars annually. The program continuously surrounds an aircraft with a set of prognostic temperatures and winds valid by the craft's clocks at the plane's altitude. The program also selects the optimum route and the optimum altitude profile on the selected route. Flight plans on the optimum route at the optimum altitude are automatically delivered to the flight crew and the controlling dispatchers. [Kraght. p. 355; emphasis added]

And, by 1972 the predictive weather models in the Northern Hemisphere allowed for fully automated flight planning. [Steinberg. p. 1.]

In essence, the range and altitude leaps of the jet age coincided[c] with the beginnings of the information age, and prior to that more staffs were needed.

a: country-size dependent (:
b: 1962 also saw TWA's introduction of Doppler navigation and subsequent FAA authorization to not have a navigator on board for over-water flights
c: James Burke would find a connection though

References and further reading:

  • Kraght, Peter E. "Flight Planning with a Digital Computer." Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 44.6 (1963): 355-363. (PDF)
  • Steinberg, Robert. "Airline flight planning-The weather connection." (1981). https://ntrs.nasa.gov/citations/19820040851
  • $\begingroup$ Many Air Carriers have dedicated meteorology departments (e.g., FedEx, Delta, and others). Typically they are a component of the company's System Operations Control (or similar name) which can consist of Dispatchers, Maintenance Controllers, Meteorologists etc. $\endgroup$
    – user22445
    Aug 21, 2021 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ @757toga: I may have over-summarized it; I've added a quote. $\endgroup$
    – user14897
    Aug 21, 2021 at 21:07
  • $\begingroup$ For FAR 121 Domestic/ Flag operations the regulations (in their current form dating back to the early 60's) make the PIC and dispatcher jointly responsible for preflight planning. Also, each Flight has always been followed from beginning to end by a dispatcher with very specific monitoring and safety responsibilities. These requirements are quite old and pre-date the current sophisticated technology available today. Just some extra background info. $\endgroup$
    – user22445
    Aug 21, 2021 at 21:23
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I understand, but I believe Delta currently has the largest meteorology staff and some others have a significant sized meteorology department. Perhaps some other carriers eliminated their meteorology departments. Some probably contract out certain meteorology functions. $\endgroup$
    – user22445
    Aug 21, 2021 at 21:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @757toga: Given Delta's huge fleet size, likewise for freight carriers with tight schedules, it does make sense -- makes for an efficient decision making. Thanks for the info. $\endgroup$
    – user14897
    Aug 21, 2021 at 21:30

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