Early aviation in America was unregulated, with government involvement limited to scientific research and the launching of airmail. But frequent accidents led to public demand for regulatory powers, and the Air Commerce Act of 1926 created an Aeronautic Branch of the United States Department of Commerce. Its functions included testing and licensing of pilots, certificating of aircraft and investigation of accidents.
In 1934, the Aeronautics Branch was renamed the Bureau of Air Commerce, to reflect the growing importance of commercial flying, but was soon divided into two authorities: the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA), concerned with air traffic control, and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), concerned with safety regulations and accident investigation. Under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, the CAA’s powers were transferred to a new independent body, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA). In the same year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was created after the Soviet Union’s launch of the first artificial satellite. The accident investigation powers of the CAB were transferred to the new National Transportation Safety Board in 1967, at the same time that the United States Department of Transportation was created.
In response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, the government launched the Transportation Security Administration with broad powers to protect air travel and other transportation modes against criminal activity.
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 World War I in 1914. During the following year, the United States 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 United States 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 U.S. 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, the Airmail Act of 1925 authorized the Post Office to contract with private airlines to transport mail. The Airmail Act created American commercial aviation and several of today's airlines were formed to carry airmail in the late 1920s (including Trans World Airlines, Northwest Airlines, and United Airlines).
In the early years of the 20th century aviation in America was not regulated. There were frequent accidents, during the pre-war exhibition era (1910–16) and especially during the barnstorming decade of the 1920s. Many aviation leaders of the time 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. Barnstorming accidents that led to such regulations during this period is accurately depicted in the 1975 film The Great Waldo Pepper.
At the urging of aviation industry leaders, who believed the airplane could not reach its full commercial potential without federal action to improve and maintain safety standards, President Calvin Coolidge appointed a board to investigate the issue. The board's report favored federal safety regulation. To that end, the Air Commerce Act became law on May 20, 1926.
The Act created an Aeronautic Branch assigned to the United States Department of Commerce, and vested that entity with the fundamental regulatory powers needed to ensure civil air safety. Among these functions were: testing and licensing pilots, issuing certificates to guarantee the airworthiness of aircraft, making and enforcing safety rules, certificating aircraft, establishing airways, operating and maintaining aids to air navigation, and investigating accidents and incidents in aviation. The first head of the Branch was William P. MacCracken, Jr., who 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 functions such 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 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.
In 1934, the Aeronautics Branch was renamed the Bureau of Air Commerce to reflect its enhanced status within the Department. As commercial aviation grew, 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.
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 with much less drag than previous designs.
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 was restructured into a more unified organizational structure, however, and in 1934 received a new name, the Bureau of Air Commerce. The BAC was to be short-lived and ineffectual during most of its existence, partly because its first director, Eugene Vidal, instituted "coordinate authority" between himself and his two assistant directors in running the bureau. Vidal resigned on February 28, 1937 when he was unable to bring the bureau under control, replaced the next day by Fred D. Fagg, Jr.. Fagg reorganized the bureau immediately and made it an effective organization, but when he retired in April 1938, replaced by Hindenburg crash investigator Denis Mulligan, the bureau had only months remaining before it too was replaced.
The year 1934 also saw a crisis over airmail contracts that former Postmaster General W.F. Brown had used to strengthen the airline route structure. In the Air Mail scandal, Senate investigators 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 BAC 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 system.
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. When a Douglas DC-3A crashed shortly after departing Washington DC on August 31, 1940 the CAB had their first major investigation, that of the Lovettsville Air Disaster set the pattern for subsequent accident investigations.
In 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed L. Welch Pogue as Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board. Pogue served as Chairman until 1946. During his tenure he helped strike down a plan for a single world airline.
After World War II began in Europe, the CAA launched the 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.
A series of mid-air collisions, notably the 1956 Grand Canyon mid-air collision, the first time more than 100 people were killed, set newspaper editorials questioning whether the post-war CAA and CAB were up to the task of air travel at 300 miles per hour. Along with rising concerns over the approaching era of jet travel, this 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 U.S. Air Force general who commanded the early tactical air forces of the Ninth Air Force in Europe in World War II, and served as an advisor to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The same year witnessed the birth of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), created in the wake of the Soviet Union's launch of the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. NASA assumed NACA's role of aeronautical research while achieving world leadership in space technology and exploration.
The accident investigation powers of the Civil Aeronautics Board were transferred to the new National Transportation Safety Board in 1967, at the same time that the United States Department of Transportation was created.
The CAB's remaining authority was to function as a public utilities commission, controlling the routes airlines were allowed to run, and the fares they were allowed to charge. The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 phased out these controls, resulting in the elimination of the CAB at the end of 1984.
As the 21st 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. The September 11, 2001 attacks challenged the air transportation system by presenting a new type of terrorist attack: hijacked airliners were used as missiles that killed thousands of people. The government's response included the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, enacted in November, that established a new DOT organization. The Transportation Security Administration received broad powers to protect air travel and other transportation modes against criminal activity.