Everyone who flies is familiar with the cockpit crew, the cabin crew, the ground crew, the commissary crew and ticketing/check-in crew. But, there is one more crew sequestered deep inside the airline operations center. These airline professionals are legally 50% responsible for the safety of every flight. They must demonstrate extensive knowledge of meteorology and of aviation in general to qualify and demonstrate competence to a level comparable of the holder of an Airline Transport Pilot certificate (ATP) in order to be certified and licensed. These professionals plan the flight path, taking into account weather, weight and balance, fuel needs, and airspace utilization and brief the cockpit crew prior to every flight. Prior to computers these tasks were accomplished with slide rules and sharp pencils. These airline professionals are the airline dispatchers.
This is one Pan Am airline dispatcher’s story:
Robert W. (Bob) Gray was born 1918 and raised in San Jose, California. He took his first job at the age of 14 and dreamed of going to college. He graduated High School and attended San Jose State College prior to his acceptance into Stanford University. He graduated from Stanford with an Economics degree just as World War II was in full bloom. He married his school sweetheart at the Stanford Chapel.
He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was sent to Texas for flight training. He commanded his training wing and graduated a certified multi-engine pilot. He was sent to Europe and flew B 25 Bombers out of Italy until the European war ended. He trained in the A-26 Invader, but was not deployed in the Pacific because of the Japanese surrender.
He returned to his wife, Dorothy, and to San Jose where he took his pilot’s physical. He was most disappointed when he learned that his eyes were good enough to captain B 25s over Germany, but not good enough to be a commercial airline pilot for Pan American. He was recruited to be a treasury agent (T-Man) for the US government, but after a couple of months he could not keep flying off his mind. He agreed to take a position as an airline dispatcher for Pan American in late 1945.
1945: Pan American World Airways Douglas DC-4
His early years were spent stationed in Los Angeles and San Francisco. A review of his passports and travel documents indicate that he was also sent to the territory of Hawaii, Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines and Japan in 1946 and 1947 in preparation for Pan American reestablishing Pacific routes after WWII. These documents also provided information that he was authorized to carry and receive classified documents and information. On the Island of Guam, he was met with rifle fire and later with Japanese soldiers coming out the mountains to surrender to American Marines months after the peace treaty was signed.
From his station in San Francisco, he was assigned the responsibility to pioneer commercial aviation into the territory of Alaska, so he moved his family to Juneau. Alaska was an interesting assignment. In the beginning, there was no tower so when a plane reported in on final he would go outside, plug in a microphone to the exterior wall and talk the flight in though “the notch”. Anyone who has flown into Juneau is familiar with the notch. While flying with his family (two sons) we learned that he preferred to ride in the jump seat. Every time he was invited to “come up to the cockpit”, he took it. It was also all the time. He really did love flying.
After nearly five years in Juneau he was transferred to Seattle in 1950 and served as the senior flight controller. During this time in Seattle he spent weeks in New York at the Pan Am building as a negotiator for the American Airline Dispatcher’s Association (ALDA) with Pan Am management. When the TWU (Transport Workers Union) went on strike supporting the flight attendants, he used that situation to teach his older son a lesson. I was working as a custodian in the hangers for a summer job. When I asked for his advice, he told me the TWU was my union and I should join the picket line. He had negotiated a picket line pass in his ALDA negotiations for himself to protect Pan American property. He crossed the picket line each day with the TWU TWU picket captain escorting him to work while I walked the line.
He was then transferred to Miami in the mid-1960’s and began serving as the Flight Control Manager for Latin America. He was so dedicated to his position that he went to night school at the local community college for two years to learn Spanish at the age of 55. While in Miami he was selected by Pan Am to lead a group of managers from other airlines to negotiate landing rights for United States airlines into the counties in South and Central America. His wife, Dorothy, joined him on many of his trips to Latin America. They were received by Latin American heads of state and treated with grandeur, even though many countries were very poor. Again, he spent most of his on-board time in the cockpit jump seat. He also served as the coordinator of the multi-airline emergency council, whose responsibility was to reposition all aircraft during the threat of hurricanes to Florida and the SE part of the United States.
1959 Seattle (Left Image) 1968 Miami (Right Image)
Pan Am golfers from the north and south met on the rolling fairways of the Doral Country Club in the annual North-South Golf Tournament. The Miami team, shown in the top photo, walked off with the laurels and the trophy in Classes A and B but lost in Class C. They are, left to right: Gil Jennings and Frank Schmidt, Class A; Bob Gray and Bill Hendrick, Class B, and Charlie Schilb and Art Austin, Class C.
Robert “Bob” Gray retired from Pan American in the early 80’s following an offer of early retirement because of the merger with National Airlines. He moved to Lake Wildwood in the Sierra Nevada foothills and joined a number of other Pan Am expats. He played golf three days a week for 20 years. He moved to Portland Oregon to be closer to family and was elected the president of the resident’s council at his retirement home where he lived and served for over a dozen years. He passed away at the age of 98. His wife often noted that “he never sought leadership positions, but leadership positions always found him”.
Bob Gray was a great husband, father and professional. He loved Pan American and spoke often of the history of Pan American. Captain Robert Ford was a dinner guest many times. And, he read and studied everything he could find about the Pan American’s early years, especially in Miami. I’m not sure he totally understood how much a part of history was made possible because of his role with Pan Am. He was always the unknown professional and a really good one at that.
Pan Am Museum thanks Robert “Bob” Gray’s son, Roger Gray, for submitting this story. Here is Roger pictured in the August 1950 Pan American World Airways employee newspaper, “Clipper”.