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MacCracken and Hoover

William P. MacCracken, Jr., was the first head of the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce. He became Assistant Secretary of Commerce for aviation on August 11, 1926. He is shown in this photo with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover .

Early radio tower

The Department of Commerce improved aeronautical radio communications and introduced radio beacons as an effective aid to air navigation. This photo shows the St. Louis Airway Radio Station during the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Indianapolis experimental station

This photo shows the Indianapolis Experimental Station in 1946, the year in which the first radar-equipped control tower for civilian flying was unveiled there by the Civil Aeronautics Administration.

Quesada takes FAA oath

On November 1, 1958, Elwood R. Quesada took the oath as FAA's first Administrator

Airline inspection by FAA

Airlines must have operating certification, which is issued by the FAA.

FAA traffic control tower

The FAA operates about 450 air traffic towers.

The Federal Aviation Administration and Its Predecessor Agencies

The Air Commerce Act of May 20, 1926, is the cornerstone of the Federal Government's regulation of civil aviation. This landmark legislation was passed at the urging of the aviation industry, whose leaders believed the airplane could not reach its full commercial potential without federal action to improve and maintain safety standards. The Act charged the Secretary of Commerce with fostering air commerce, issuing and enforcing air traffic rules, licensing pilots, certificating aircraft, establishing airways, and operating and maintaining aids to air navigation. A new Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce assumed primary responsibility for aviation oversight. The first head of the branch was William P. MacCracken, Jr., who had played a key part in convincing Congress of the need for this new governmental role.


In fulfilling its civil aviation responsibilities, the Department of Commerce initially concentrated on such functions as safety rulemaking and the certification of pilots and aircraft. It took over the building and operation of the Nation's system of lighted airways, a task that had been begun by the Post Office Department. The Department of Commerce improved aeronautical radio communications and introduced radio beacons as an effective aid to air navigation.


The Aeronautics Branch was renamed the Bureau of Air Commerce in 1934 to reflect its enhanced status within the Department. As commercial flying increased, the Bureau  encouraged a group of airlines to establish the first three centers for providing air traffic control (ATC) along the airways. In 1936, the Bureau itself took over the centers and began to expand the ATC system. The pioneer air traffic controllers used maps, blackboards, and mental calculations to ensure the safe separation of aircraft traveling along designated routes between cities.


In 1938, the Civil Aeronautics Act transferred the federal civil aviation responsibilities from the Commerce Department to a new independent agency, the Civil Aeronautics Authority. The legislation also expanded the government's role by giving them the authority and the power to regulate airline fares and to determine the routes that air carriers would serve.


President Franklin Roosevelt split the authority into two agencies in 1940, the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). CAA was responsible for ATC, airman and aircraft certification, safety enforcement, and airway development. CAB was entrusted with safety rulemaking, accident investigation, and economic regulation of the airlines. Both organizations were part of the Department of Commerce. Unlike CAA, however, CAB functioned independently of the Secretary.


On the eve of America's entry into World War II, CAA began to extend its ATC responsibilities to takeoff and landing operations at airports. This expanded role eventually became permanent after the war. The application of radar to ATC helped controllers in their drive to keep abreast of the postwar boom in commercial air transportation. In 1946, meanwhile, Congress gave CAA the added task of administering the federal-aid airport program, the first peacetime program of financial assistance aimed exclusively at promoting development of the Nation's civil airports.


The approaching introduction of jet airliners and a series of midair collisions spurred passage of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. This legislation transferred CAA's functions to a new independent body, the Federal Aviation Agency, which had broader authority to combat aviation hazards. The Act took safety rulemaking from CAB and entrusted it to the new FAA. It also gave FAA sole responsibility for developing and maintaining a common civil-military system of air navigation and air traffic control, a responsibility CAA had shared with others.


The scope of the Federal Aviation Act owed much to the leadership of Elwood "Pete" Quesada, an Air Force general who had served as President Dwight Eisenhower's principal advisor on civil aeronautics. After becoming the first administrator of the agency he had helped to create, Quesada mounted a vigorous campaign for improved airline safety.


In 1966, Congress authorized the creation of a cabinet department that would combine major federal transportation responsibilities. This new Department of Transportation (DOT) began full operations on April l, 1967. On that day, the FAA became one of several organizations within DOT and received a new name, the Federal Aviation Administration. At the same time, CAB's accident investigation function was transferred to the new National Transportation Safety Board.


Even before becoming part of DOT, the FAA gradually assumed responsibilities not originally contemplated by the Federal Aviation Act. The hijacking epidemic of the 1960s involved the agency in the field of aviation security. In 1968, Congress vested in the FAA Administrator the power to prescribe aircraft noise standards. The Airport and Airway Development Act of 1970 placed the agency in charge of a new airport aid program funded by a special aviation trust fund. The same Act made the FAA responsible for safety certification of airports served by air carriers.


By the mid-1970s, the FAA had achieved a semi-automated ATC system based on a marriage of radar and computer technology. By automating certain routine tasks, the system allowed controllers to concentrate more efficiently on the vital task of providing separation between aircraft. Data appearing directly on the controllers' scopes provided the identity, altitude, and groundspeed of aircraft carrying radar beacons. Despite its effectiveness, this system required enhancement to keep pace with the increased air traffic of the late 1970s. The increase was due in part to the competitive environment created by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 . This law phased out CAB's economic regulation of the airlines, and CAB ceased to exist at the end of 1984.


To meet the challenge of air traffic growth, the FAA unveiled the National Airspace System (NAS) Plan in January 1982. The new plan called for more advanced systems for en route and terminal ATC, modernized flight service stations, and improvements in ground-to-air surveillance and communication.


While preparing the NAS Plan, the FAA faced a strike by key members of its workforce. An earlier period of disharmony between management and the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) had ended in a 1970 "sickout" by 3,000 controllers. Although the controllers subsequently gained additional wage and retirement benefits, another period of tension led to an illegal strike in August 1981. The government dismissed more than 11,000 strike participants and decertified PATCO. By the spring of 1984, the FAA had ended the last of the special restrictions imposed to keep the airspace system operating safely during the strike.


The FAA's organizational structure has continued to evolve since its creation. The Agency's first Administrator favored a management system under which federal officials exercised direct control over programs in the field. In 1961, however, his successor began a decentralization process that transferred much authority to regional organizations. This pattern generally endured until a 1988 "straightlining" again charged managers at national headquarters with more direction of field activities. Another notable change occurred in 1987, when Washington National (renamed Ronald Reagan Washington National in 1998) and Dulles International airports passed from FAA's management to that of an authority representing multiple jurisdictions. (National had been opened by the CAA in 1941, Dulles by the FAA in 1962.) 


In November 1994, a reorganization structured the FAA along its six key lines of business to make better use of resources. A seventh line of business was added one year later when the Office of Commercial Space Transportation was transferred to the FAA from the Office of the Secretary of Transportation. The addition of this office gave FAA regulatory responsibilities relating to the launching of space payloads by the private sector. During 1996, reform legislation made further important changes that included increased flexibility for the FAA regarding acquisition and personnel polices.


As the rapid evolution of aeronautics continued. Tthe FAA addressed a wide variety of technical issues. The Aviation Safety Research Act of 1988 mandated greater emphasis on long-range research planning and on study of such issues as aging aircraft structures and human factors affecting safety. In February 1991, the FAA replaced the National Airspace System Plan with the more comprehensive Capital Investment Plan. The new plan included higher levels of automation as well as new radar, communications, and weather forecasting systems. In 1994, the failure of key aspects of its ambitious plans for automation forced the FAA to adopt a different strategy. The Agency shifted its emphasis toward enhancing the ATC system through incremental improvements such as more efficient controller workstations at approach control and en route facilities. At the same time, the FAA worked to apply Global Positioning System satellite technology to civil aeronautics. Other notable ongoing programs include progress toward the implementation of Free Flight, an innovative concept that will greatly increase the flexibility to fly direct routes from one point to another.


The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, dealt a severe blow to U.S. civil aviation. The Government's response included the transfer of aviation security oversight from the FAA to a new organization within the Department of Transportation. Created by legislation two months after the attacks, this new Transportation Security Administration is charged with protecting all transportation modes from terrorism and other criminal threats. Its mandate includes direct responsibility for security screening of passengers at airports, a function previously regulated by the FAA but performed by the airlines and their contractors.


--Edmund Preston



Kent, Jr., Richard J. Safe, Separated, and Soaring: A History of Federal Civil Aviation Policy, 1961-1972. Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration, 1980.

Komons, Nick A. Bonfires to Beacons:  Federal Civil Aviation Policy Under the Air Commerce Act, 1926-1938. Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration, 1978.

Preston, Edmund. Troubled Passage:  The Federal Aviation Administration During the Nixon-Ford Term, 1973-1977. Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration, 1987.

____________, ed., FAA Historical Chronology: Civil Aviation and the Federal Government, 1926-1996. Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration, 1998. Available at http://www.faa.gov/apa/history/ChronIntro.htm

Rochester, Stuart I. Takeoff at Mid-Century: Federal Civil Aviation Policy in the Eisenhower Years, 1953-1961 Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration, 1976.

Wilson, John R. M. Turbulence Aloft: The Civil Aeronautics Administration Amid Wars and Rumors of Wars, 1938-1953. Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration, 1979.


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Standard Designation  (where applicable

Content of Standard

International Technology Education Association

Standard 3

Students will develop an understanding of the relationships among technologies and the connections between technology and other fields of study.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 4

Students will develop an understanding of the cultural, social, economic, and political effects of technology.

International Technology Education Association

Standard 6

 Students will develop an understanding of the role of society in the development and use of technology