Aviation industry leaders believed the airplane could not reach its full commercial potential without federal action to improve and maintain safety standards. At their urging, the Air Commerce Act was passed in 1926. This landmark legislation charged the Secretary of Commerce with fostering air commerce, issuing and enforcing air traffic rules, licensing pilots, certifying aircraft, establishing airways, and operating and maintaining aids to air navigation. A new Aeronautics Branch in the Department of Commerce assumed primary responsibility for aviation oversight, and William P. MacCracken, Jr., became its first director.
In 1934, the Department of Commerce renamed the Aeronautics Branch the Bureau of Air Commerce to reflect the growing importance of aviation to the nation. In one of its first acts, the Bureau encouraged a group of airlines to establish the first air traffic control centers (Newark, New Jersey; Cleveland, Ohio; and Chicago, Illinois) to provide en route air traffic control. In 1936, the Bureau took over these centers. Early en route controllers tracked the position of planes using maps and blackboards and little boat-shaped weights that came to be called “shrimp boats.” They had no direct radio link with aircraft, but used telephones to stay in touch with airline dispatchers, airway radio operators, and airport traffic controllers. Although en route ATC became a federal responsibility, local government authorities continued to operate airport towers. While the Department of Commerce worked to improve aviation safety, a number of high profile accidents called the department’s oversight responsibilities into question. A 1931 crash that killed all on board, including popular University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, elicited public calls for greater federal oversight of aviation safety. Four years later, a DC-2 crash killed U.S. Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico.
To ensure a federal focus on aviation safety, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Civil Aeronautics Act in 1938. The legislation established the independent Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), with a three-member Air Safety Board that would conduct accident investigations and recommend ways of preventing accidents. The legislation also expanded the government’s role in civil aviation by giving CAA power to regulate airline fares and determine the routes individual carriers served. In 1940, President Roosevelt split the CAA into two agencies, the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which went back to the Department of Commerce, and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The offshoot of the original CAA retained responsibility for ATC, airman and aircraft certification, safety enforcement, and airway development. CAB responsibilities included safety rulemaking, accident investigation, and economic regulation of the airlines.
On the eve of America’s entry into World War II, for defense purposes, CAA extended its ATC system to include operation of airport towers. In the postwar era, ATC became a permanent federal responsibility at most airports. The postwar era also witnessed the advent of commercial jets. The British Overseas Aircraft Corporation introduced the first commercial jet service in 1952. The 36-seat Comet flew at 480 miles per hour. The top cruising speed of the DC-3 piston aircraft, in comparison, was about 180 miles per hour. By the mid-1950s, U.S. companies began designing and building their own jet airliners.
On June 30, 1956, a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation and a United Air Lines DC-7 collided over the Grand Canyon, Arizona, killing all 128 occupants of the two airplanes. The collision occurred while the aircraft were flying under visual flight rules in uncongested airspace. The accident dramatized the fact that, even though U.S. air traffic had more than doubled since the end of World War II, little had been done to mitigate the risk of midair collisions.
Birth of Federal Aviation Agency
On May 21, 1958, Senator A. S. “Mike” Monroney (D-OK) introduced a bill to create an independent Federal Aviation Agency to provide for the safe and efficient use of national airspace. Two months later, on August 23, 1958, the President signed the Federal Aviation Act, which transferred the Civil Aeronautics Authority’s functions to a new independent Federal Aviation Agency responsible for civil aviation safety. Although the Federal Aviation Agency technically came into existence with the passage of the act, it actually assumed its functions in stages. Under the provisions of the act, the Federal Aviation Agency would begin operations 60 days after the appointment of the first Federal Aviation Agency Administrator. On November 1, 1958, retired Air Force General Elwood “Pete” Quesada became the first Federal Aviation Agency Administrator. Sixty days later, on December 31, the Federal Aviation Agency began operations.
With no dedicated office space for the Federal Aviation Agency, employees of the growing agency were housed in several widely dispersed buildings around Washington, DC, including some “temporary” buildings of World War II vintage. The Federal Aviation Agency worked to obtain a headquarters building to consolidate employees in one location, and on November 22, 1963, the Federal Aviation Agency’s Washington headquarters staff began moving into the newly completed Federal Office Building 10A, at 800 Independence Avenue, SW. Excitement about the new building quickly evaporated on move day as employees heard the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Texas.