Governments have played an
important part in shaping air transportation. This role began as early as 1783,
when the king of France summoned the Montgolfier brothers to demonstrate their
balloon. In 1892, the French War Ministry backed an attempt to build a
heavier-than-air flying machine. Six years later, a military board in the
United States approved a grant to assist similar efforts by Samuel P. Langley,
secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. These early military grants gave a
hint of how important airplanes would become in warfare, but they properly
belong to the history of air power. This essay deals with the official
influence on civilian flying, and it focuses on the U.S. experience.
Langley's Smithsonian was a
significant source of information for those interested in the possibility of
heavier-than-air flight. The Institution distributed literature about
aeronautical principals as part of its scientific mission, which was partly
supported by federal taxes. Among those who studied this material were Wilbur
and Orville Wright, whose own experiments led them to achieve controlled,
powered flight in 1903.
Despite its early start, the
United States soon lost aeronautical leadership. European enthusiasm for air
power was sparked by an arms race and then by the outbreak of war in 1914.
During the following year, Congress took a step toward revitalizing American
aviation by establishing the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics
(NACA), an organization dedicated to the science of flight.
Upon entering World War I in 1917,
the U.S. government mobilized the nation's economy, with results that included
an expansion of the small aviation manufacturing industry. Before the end of
the conflict, Congress voted funds for an innovative postal program that would
serve as a model for commercial air operations.
With initial help from the Army,
the Post Office in 1918 initiated an intercity airmail route. The subsequent
achievements of the Air Mail Service included the establishment of a
transcontinental route and the development of airway lighting.
In 1925, new postal legislation
authorized the Post Office to contract with private airlines to transport mail.
This prospect offered the hope of steady income to America's struggling air
Many aviation leaders in the 1920s
believed that federal regulation was necessary to give the public confidence in
the safety of air transportation. Opponents of this view included those who
distrusted government interference or wished to leave any such regulation to
state authorities. To investigate the issue, President Calvin Coolidge
appointed a board whose report favored federal safety regulation. Congress
passed the Air Commerce Act of 1926, which assigned to the U.S. Department of
Commerce the fundamental tasks needed for civil air safety. Among these
functions were: testing and licensing pilots, issuing certificates to guarantee
the airworthiness of aircraft, making and enforcing safety rules, and
investigating air accidents. The Act also directed the department to take
certain actions to assist the progress of aviation.
To fulfill its new aviation
responsibilities, the Department of Commerce created an Aeronautics Branch. The
first head of this organization was William P. MacCracken, Jr., whose approach
to regulation included consultation and cooperation with industry. A major
challenge facing MacCracken was to enlarge and improve the nation's air
navigation system. The Aeronautics Branch took over the Post Office's task of
building airway light beacons, and in 1928 introduced a new navigation aid
known as the low frequency radio range. The branch also built additional airway
communications stations as part of its effort to encourage broader use of
aeronautical radio and to combat problems of adverse weather.
While the Aeronautics Branch was
making these advances, NACA was producing benefits through a program of
laboratory research begun in 1920. In 1928, for example, the organization's
pioneering work with wind tunnels produced a new type of engine cowling that
made aircraft more aerodynamic.
Under President Franklin D.
Roosevelt, the Aeronautics Branch cooperated with public works agencies on
projects that represented an early form of federal aid to airports. Budget cuts
and distracting quarrels hampered the branch during this period. It achieved a
more unified organizational structure, however, and in 1934 received a new
name, the Bureau of Air Commerce.
The year 1934 also saw a crisis
over airmail contracts that former Postmaster General Walter Folger Brown had
used to strengthen the airline route structure. Investigators now charged that
Brown's methods had been illegal, and President Roosevelt canceled the
contracts. Army fliers experienced many accidents carrying the mail before a
modified contract system was restored.
Increased commercial flying
heightened the danger of midair collisions. In 1935, therefore, the Bureau of
Air Commerce encouraged a group of airlines to establish the first three
centers for providing air traffic control along the airways. In the following
year, the Bureau itself took over the centers and began to expand the control
In 1938, the Civil Aeronautics Act
transferred federal responsibilities for non-military aviation from the Bureau
of Air Commerce to a new, independent agency, the Civil Aeronautics Authority.
The legislation also gave the authority the power to regulate airline fares and
to determine the routes that air carriers would serve.
In 1940, President Franklin
Roosevelt split the authority into two agencies, the Civil Aeronautics
Administration (CAA) and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The CAA was
responsible for air traffic control, safety programs, and airway development.
The CAB was entrusted with safety rulemaking, accident investigation, and
economic regulation of the airlines. Although both organizations were part of
the Department of Commerce, the CAB functioned independently.
After World War II began in
Europe, the CAA launched a Civilian Pilot Training Program to provide the
nation with more aviators. On the eve of America's entry into the conflict, the
agency began to take over operation of airport control towers, a role that
eventually became permanent. During the war, the CAA also greatly enlarged its
en route air traffic control system. In 1944, the United States hosted a
conference in Chicago that led to the establishment of the International Civil
Aviation Organization and set the framework for future aviation diplomacy.
In the post-war era, the
application of radar to air traffic control helped controllers to keep abreast
of the postwar boom in air transportation. In 1946, Congress gave the CAA the
task of administering a federal-aid airport program aimed exclusively at
promoting development of the nation's civil airports.
The approaching era of jet travel,
and a series of midair collisions, prompted passage of the Federal Aviation Act
of 1958. This legislation gave the CAA's functions to a new independent body,
the Federal Aviation Agency. The act transferred safety rulemaking from CAB to
the new FAA, and also gave the FAA sole responsibility for a common
civil-military system of air navigation and air traffic control. The FAA's
first administrator, Elwood R. Quesada, was a former Air Force general and
advisor to President Eisenhower.
The same year witnessed the birth
of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), created in the
wake of the Soviet launching of the first artificial satellite. NASA assumed
NACA's role of aeronautical research while achieving world leadership in space
technology and exploration.
In 1967, a new Department of
Transportation (DOT) combined major federal responsibilities for air and
surface transport. FAA's name changed to the Federal Aviation Administration as
it became one of several agencies within DOT. At the same time, a new National
Transportation Safety Board took over the CAB's role of investigating aviation
The FAA gradually assumed
additional functions. The hijacking epidemic of the 1960s had already brought
the agency into the field of civil aviation security. The FAA became more
involved with the environmental aspects of aviation in 1968 when it received
the power to set aircraft noise standards. Legislation in 1970 gave the agency
management of a new airport aid program and certain added responsibilities for
By the mid-1970s, the FAA had
achieved a semi-automated air traffic control system using both radar and
computer technology. This system required enhancement to keep pace with air
traffic growth, however, especially after the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978
phased out the CAB's economic regulation of the airlines. A nationwide strike
by the air traffic controllers union in 1981 forced temporarily flight
restrictions but failed to shut down the airspace system. During the following
year, the agency unveiled a new plan for further automating its air traffic
control facilities, but progress proved
disappointing. In 1994, the FAA shifted to a more step-by-step approach
that has provided controllers with advanced equipment.
In the 1990s, satellite technology
received increased emphasis in the FAA's development programs as a means to
improvements in communications, navigation, and airspace management. In 1995,
the agency assumed responsibility for safety oversight of commercial space
transportation, a function begun eleven years before by an office within DOT
As the new century began, issues
facing the FAA included the progress of reforms aimed at giving the agency
greater flexibility. Airline accidents, although rare in statistical terms,
showed the need for further safety advances. The huge volume of flights
challenged the capacity of the airport system, yet demonstrated the popularity
of air travel. In September 2001, however,
the air transportation system was challenged by terrorist attacks in which
hijacked airliners were used as missiles that killed thousands of U.S. citizens
as well as many others from around the world. The government's response
included legislation, enacted in November, that established a new DOT
organization. This new Transportation Security Administration received broad
powers to protect air travel and other transportation modes against criminal
activity. Its creation was the latest
step in the evolution of U.S. government's civil aviation role to meet changing
needs and priorities.
--Edmund Preston, Agency Historian
Federal Aviation Administration
Amick, George. “How the Airmail Got Off the Ground.” American History (August 1998): 48-59.
Bilstein, Roger E. Flight in America. From the Wrights
to the Astronauts. Revised Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University
_____________. Orders of Magnitude: A History of NACA
and NASA, 1915-1990. Washington: National Aeronautics and Space
Administration, 1989. Available at http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/SP-4406/cover.html
Boughner, Fred. Airmail
Antics. Sidney, Ohio: Amos Press Inc., 1988.
Bruns, James H. Mail
on the Move. Polo, Illinois: Transportation Trails, 1992.
Bird--The High-Flying Life and Times of Eddie Gardner. National Postal
Museum, Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998.
Burkhardt, Robert. The Federal Aviation Administration.
New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1967.
Chaikin, Andrew. Air
and Space--The National Air and Space Museum Story of Flight. Boston:
Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company, 1997.
Christy, Joe and Wells, Alexander T. American Aviation--An Illustrated History. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.:
Tab Books Inc., 1987.
Churchill, R.R. and Lowe, A.V. The Law of the Sea.
Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1983.
Clausing, Donald J. Aviator's
Guide to Navigation. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1992.
Cook, Kevin L. “Road Signs for Airplanes.” Invention
& Technology (Winter 2001): 60-63.
Crouch, Tom D. A Dream of Wings: Americans and the
Airplane, 1875-1905. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981;
paperback ed., 1989.
Diederiks-Verschoor, I.H.Ph. An Introduction to Air Law.
2nd Revised Edition. Antwerp: Kluwer Law and Taxation Publishers, 1985.
Ethell, Jeffrey L. Smithsonian
Frontiers of Flight. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Books, New York: Orion
Gibbs-Smith, Charles H. Aviation: An Historical Survey
from Its Origins to the End of World War II. London: Her Majesty's
Stationary Office, 1970.
Gilbert, Glen A. Air
Traffic Control: The Uncrowded Sky. Washington: Smithsonian Institution
Greif, Martin. The
Airport Book, From Landing Field to
Modern Terminal. New York: Main Street Press, Mayflower Books, 1979.
Heppenheimer, T.A. Turbulent
Skies; The History of Commercial Aviation. New York: John Wiley & Sons,
Holmes, Donald B. Airmail,
An illustrated History 1793-1981. New York: Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 1981.
Horonjeff, Robert and McKelvey, Francis. Planning & Design of Airports. New
York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1983.
Illman, Paul E. The
Pilot's Air Traffic Control Handbook. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1993.
Jackson, Donald Dale. Flying
the Mail. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, 1982.
Johnson, D.H.N. Rights in Air Space. Manchester,
England: Manchester University Press, 1965.
Richard J. Safe, Separated, and Soaring: A History of Federal Civil Aviation
Policy, 1961-1972. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Transportation,
Federal Aviation Administration, 1980.
Kershner, William K. The
Student Pilot's Flight Manual. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1993.
Komons, Nick A. Bonfires
to Beacons: Federal Civil Aviation Policy Under the Air Commerce Act, 1926-1938. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.
Leary, William M. Aerial
Pioneers – The U.S. Air Mail Service, 1918-1927. Washington, D.C.:
Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.
_____________. editor. Aviation's Golden Age – Portraits
From the 1920s and 1930s. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1989.
Lipsner, Benjamin B. The
Airmail Jennies to Jets. As told to Leonard Finley Hiltsd. Chicago:
Illinois, Wilcox and Follett Company, 1951.
Mondey, David.The International Encyclopedia of Aviation.
New York, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1977.
O'Connor, William E. An
Introduction to Airline Economics, Fifth Edition. Westport, Connecticut,
Preston, Edmund. FAA
Historical Chronology, Civil Aviation and the Federal Government 1926-1996.
Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration Office of Public
Affairs, Washington, 1998. Available at http://www.faa.gov/docs/A-INTRO.htm
_____________. Troubled Passage: The Federal Aviation
Administration During the Nixon-Ford Term, 1973-1977. Washington: DOT/FAA,
Rochester, Stuart I. Takeoff
at Mid-Century: Federal Civil Aviation Policy in the Eisenhower Years,
1953-1961 Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration,
Rolt, L.T.C. The
Aeronauts: A History of Ballooning - 1783-1903. New York: Walker and
Schmeckebier, Laurence F. The Aeronautics Branch,
Department of Commerce: Its History, Activities and Organization.
Washington: The Brookings Institution, 1930.
Shamburger, Page. Tracks
Across the Sky. New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1964.
Smith, Henry Ladd. Airways:
The History of Commercial Aviation in the United States. New York: Russell
& Russell, Inc. 1965.
Sochor, Eugene The
Politics of International Aviation. Iowa City, Iowa, University of Iowa
Solberg, Carl. Conquest of the Skies: A History of
Commercial Aviation in America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1979.
Spence, Charles F. Aeronautical
Information Manual/Federal Aviation Regulations. New York: McGraw-Hill,
Peter. Air Piracy, Airport Security, and International Terrorism: Winning
the War Against Hijackers. New York: Quorum Books, 1991.
Sullivan, George. How
an Airport Really Works. New York: Dutton, Lodestar Books, 1993.
Taneja, Nawal K. U.S.
International Aviation Policy. Lexington, Massachusetts: Lexington Books,
D.C. Heath and Company, 1980.
of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Office of Civil Aviation
Security. U.S. and Foreign Registered Aircraft Hijackings, 1931-1986.
Washington, D.C.: Federal Aviation Administration, 1986.
Wassenbergh. H.A. Post-War International Civil Aviation
Policy and the Law of the Air. 2nd Revised Edition. The Hague:
Martinus Nijhoff, 1962.
Wells, Alexander T. Airport
Planning & Management. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: Tab Books, 1992.
Whitnah, Donald R. Safer Airways: Federal Control of
Aviation, 1926-1966. Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1966.
Wilson, John R. M. Turbulence
Aloft: The Civil Aeronautics Administration Amid Wars and Rumors of Wars,
1938-1953. Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration,
Note: The listed books
published by government agencies may often be found in libraries' government
documents sections rather than in their general catalog.
“Airline Handbook.” Air Transport Association. Airline
“The Airmail Act of 1925.” http://avstop.com/History/NeedRegulations/Act1925.htm
“The Airmail Act of 1930.” http://avstop.com/History/NeedRegulations/Act1930.htm.
Air Transport World. http://atw.atwonline.com/links.cfm#AIRPORTS
(URLs for airports and airlines worldwide)
Articles about the history of international civil aviation.
(requires free DjVu viewer available from this site)
Security Initiatives Post September 11, 2001.” Fact Sheet, November 2001. http://www.faa.gov/apa/FACTSHEET/2001/fact1nov.htm
“A Brief History of the Federal Aviation
Administration and Its Predecessor Agencies.” http://www.faa.gov/apa/history/briefhistory.htm
“Building A Safer and More Effective Air Traffic Control
System.” National Transportation Library, Department of Transportation. http://www.rppi.org/ps126.pdf
Commercial Aviation History and the Pichs Collection.” National Postal Museum,
Smithsonian Institution. http://www.si.edu/postal/pichs/aviation.exhibit1.htm.
“Denver International Airport Factsheet.” http://www.flydenver.com/z401-3.html
FAA Airports 50th Anniversary.” http://www.faa.gov/arp/annivers.htm.
“FAA Federal Air Marshal Program.” FAA Fact Sheet. September 2001. http://www.faa.gov/apa/FACTSHEET/2001/fact1sep.htm
FAA Historical Album. http://www.faa.gov/apa/history/1album.htm
FAA Historical Chronology, 1926-1996. http://www.faa.gov/apa/history/ChronIntro.htm
FAA historical photo album: http://www.faa.gov/apa/history/grpCaFa.htm.
FAA history: http://www.faa.gov/apa/history/history.htm.
Federal Aviation Administration. Aeronautical Information Manual - Official Guide to Basic Flight
Information and ATC Procedures. http://www.faa.gov/Atpubs/AIM/index.htm.
“Flight Into History: Earle Ovington Was First.” http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/milestone3.html.
Glines, C.V “The Airmail Takes Wing” (condensed). http://www.aerofiles.com/airmail.html.
“History of ICAO.” http://www.icao.int/cgi/goto.pl?icao/en/history.htm
“The Instrument Landing System.” Allstar Network. http://www.allstar.fiu.edu/aero/ILS.htm.
“International Aviation Competition Issues.” Statement of
John H. Anderson, Jr., Director, Transportation Issues, Resources, Community,
and Economic Development Division, General Accounting Office. June 4, 1997. http://ntl.bts.gov/data/GAO/rc97103t.pdf.
“Milestones in Federal Aid to Airports.” http://www.faa.gov/arp/anniv01.htm.
NASA History: http://history.nasa.gov/.
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution: http://www.nasm.si.edu/.
“The Ninety-Nines – Which Airport Is That?” http://www.ninety-nines.org/airmark.html
of Inspector General. Audit Report. "Airport Access Control." Federal
Aviation Administration. Report No. AV-2000-017. http://cas.faa.gov/ig5.pdf.
_____________. Audit Report. "Controls
Over Airport Identification Media." Federal Aviation Administration.
Report No.: AV-2001-010, December 7, 2000. http://cas.faa.gov/pdf/faa_report_redacted_12-19-00.pdf.
Original Air Service Map. http://www.airmailpioneers.org/flightinfo/Mapsoriginal.htm.
Poole, Robert W., Jr. “Building A Safer and More Effective
Air Traffic Control System.” http://www.rppi.org/ps126.pdf.
Remarks by Secretary of State
Colin L. Powell With Lockerbie Family Members, February 8, 2001 Washington,
Thompson, Scott. “The History of Flight Inspection in the
United States of America.” http://avstop.com/Stories/inspection.html.
Also at http://avnwww.jccbi.gov/icasc/fh(united_states).html
“U.S. Airport Emplanement Activity by Rank, Order.” http://www.faa.gov/arp/pdf/vpd.pdf.
“Who's On First?” http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/milestone4.html.
Allison. “On Wings of Faith: Navigating the First Day/Night Transcontinental.” http://www.airmailpioneers.org/history/milestone2.html/
_____________. “The Reluctant Pioneer and Air Mail's