Wednesday, November 9, 2011

U.S. Federal Innovation 34: Aviation Safety 

The First Air Traffic Controller
As I board an airplane bound for Charlotte, North Carolina, it's only fitting to examine the birth of the Federal Aviation Administration:

Despite limited post-World War I technical developments, early aviation remained a dangerous business. Flying conditions proved difficult since the only navigation devices available to most pilots were magnetic compasses. Pilots flew 200 to 500 feet above ground so they could navigate by roads and railways. Low visibility and night landings were made using bonfires on the field as lighting. Fatal accidents were routine.

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 series of legislative and administrative actions during the 1930s added additional layers of federal protection to aeronautics. Chief among those was the Civil Aeronautics Act signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. The act established the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) and an Air Safety Board that would conduct accident investigations and recommend ways of preventing accidents.

In spite of the CAA, safety issues remained:

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.

This high-profile accident prompted passage of the Federal Aviation Act. Signed into law in 1958 by President Dwight Eisenhower, the act created the Federal Aviation Agency (now called the Federal Aviation Administration).

Steven Moore, Ph.D., CEO, Science Approach

Source: FAA.

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