100 Years Of History: The Federal Aviation Administration

Yesterday, August 20th, marked 100 years since the creation of the Flight Service system, which would eventually become the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that we know today. In August 1920, just 17 years after the Wright brothers first took to the skies, Flight Service stations starting popping up all over the US. But what did they do? And how did we go from a few stations to the modern-day FAA?

History FAA 100 years
The FAA is celebrating 100 years on Flight Service, the predecessor of the FAA. Photo: The FAA

Flight Service stations, otherwise known as air mail radio stations, were located across the US on mail routes. Their purpose was to provide air mail pilots with updates about incoming weather fronts and other aeronautical information. Pilots could radio the stations directly from the air or could call in advance using a standard telephone.

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The first aircraft inspection

In the build-up to the second world war, several federal laws were passed to increase safety and security in the aviation industry. There was the Air Commerce Act of 1926, followed by the 1934 formation of the Bureau of Air Commerce. Both laws helped ensure aircraft and pilots were certified.

Eventually, Flight Service stations became mandatory at all airports under the name of Air Traffic Control towers. And they did so much more than pass over weather reports. The FAA used the towers to communicate and to track aircraft.

Another aspect of the Bureau of Air Commerce was to inspect planes. The Bureau made its first official aircraft inspection on December 7th, 1926, when it examined a Stinson Detroiter before it left for Canadian Air Express. Then in 1938, President Roosevelt signed the Civil Aeronautics Act, which established the official Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA).

NATS AI future aviation
Artificial Intelligence and machine learning technology could assist air Traffic Control in the future. They’ve come a long way from simple weather stations. Photo: Getty Images

The CAA becomes the FAA

During the second world war, very little changed for Flight Service stations and commercial aviation. The start of the war signaled an increase in the number of planes, and a considerable effort went into training new staff. The industry started to expand in support of the war effort.

Then, in 1958, a fatal crash over the Grand Canyon involving a United Airlines DC-7 and a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation resulted in the death of all 128 people onboard. So, on August 23rd, the Federal Aviation Act was signed. This transferred the power from the previous civil authority to the new federal one. The FAA was born.

A shaky start

The agency initially had no headquarters. It had bases spread out across old, disused war buildings as well as the original Flight Service stations. Finally, a new, central office was set up at 800, Independence Avenue, Washington. However, on the day the agency planned to move and start transforming the industry, they heard the news: President Kennedy had been assassinated.

After a less than ideal start, the newly formed FAA went from strength to strength. The agency introduced new regulations to avoid mid-air crashes, deregulated the industry for new airlines, performed checks on new technology, and, in July 1970, it established the Air Traffic Control Systems Command Center. This integrated multiple services into one central hub, minimizing communication issues and allowing for greater collaboration for the benefit of pilots and airlines.

Boeing 737 MAX 7
The importance of the FAA has been brought to light in recent years with the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX. Photo: Getty Images

That’s not to say there weren’t issues. Labor strikes in the early 1970s lead to a huge walkout. This, in turn, led to the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists (NAATS) union representing all Flight Service specialists. There were many other issues such as hijackings, growing environmental concerns, noise pollution, and stowaways, but the most significant event which shaped the FAA happened on September 11th, 2001.

The modern FAA

With the terror attack on the World Trade Centre, the FAA changed overnight. It grounded all aircraft in the US for the first time in history and used its resources to help identify the hijackers. Its systems were able to pass information to the FBI within one day. As a result, in February 2002, the TSA officially became responsible for security instead of the FAA.

Since then, the FAA has continued to regulate, control, manage and check the safety of aircraft, airports, airlines, and aviation technology. It continues to have a considerable impact on the aviation industry and will continue to do so. Thanks to the efforts of the FAA, fatal accidents now only occur 0.18 times per 100,000 departures.