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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)

Updated on June 30, 2017

“Observe your enemies for they first find out your faults.”

- Antisthenes

Even though the final 9/11 report was published on July 22, 2004, and had 571 pages, this writer was more interested in the 7th hearing because of the topics: Borders, Transportation, and Managing Risk. We in the airline industry were so perplexed that the Al Qaeda hijacking threat, especially in the summer of 2001, was not shared in any way with us, the front line workers, by those who where charged with maintaining our safety. Why didn’t our airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) do more to protect us? I needed to know more to understand their reasons.

The FAA evolved over the decades because of the accelerated growth in both civilian and military aviation. It officially became the FAA in 1958 and broadened its authority to combat aviation hazards. Its main purpose was to be responsible for ensuring the safety of civil aviation, but it also had a secondary charter to promote commercial aviation in the U.S. It took several acts of Congress to morph it into what we call today the Federal Aviation Administration.

In 1926 under the Air Commerce Act, the government began its quest to govern U.S. aviation. Then in 1938, another act of Congress transferred that agency which was under the Commerce Department to a new agency called the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA). This agency was given the power to regulate airline fares and determine the routes that air carriers could serve. It was also responsible for issuing and overseeing aircraft and pilot certifications and suspensions. (Note 1) But in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt split this Authority into two agencies: The CAA would now be responsible for air traffic control, safety programs and airway development. This new agency would be the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB). The CAB would be in charge of safety rule making, accident investigations, and economic regulations of the airline industry. (Note 2)

As time passed and air travel grew, more regulations were needed. When a horrible mid-air collision occurred over the Grand Canyon on June 30th, 1956, killing all 128 on board, Congress realized with the boom in aircraft technology, the skies were becoming more and more congested and desperately needed more detailed regulation.

In the case of the mid-air in 1956, the events began in Los Angeles on a summer’s morning when United Flight 718, a DC-7, and TWA’s Flight 2, a Super Constellation, were given clearance for take-off just 3 minutes apart. United was heading for Chicago and the TWA was headed for Kansas City. United was given a cruise altitude of 21,000 feet while TWA’s altitude was to be 19,000. Their routes were over different California cities, but once over Utah, their paths would cross. This was not a problem because of the 2,000 altitude separation assigned. Over Barstow-Daggett area in California, the TWA captain asked for a higher altitude because of bad weather. His request was for 21,000 feet, but this request was refused by Los Angeles air traffic control. He asked if he could just go to 20,000 and use Visual Flight Rules (VFR). That request was approved. But somehow, TWA ended up at 21,000 and at 10:13 A.M., the Salt Lake City controller knew these planes were on a collision path. Unfortunately, under VFR rules at the time, that controller was not responsible for letting them know about their collision course. At 10:31, United and TWA collided on the Eastern Gorge of the Grand Canyon. The VFR rule was changed in 1958. (Note 3)

The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon

What really cemented the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 was the mid-air that occurred on the East Coast over Brunswick, Maryland, on May 20th 1958. The incident involved a commercial plane and a military jet. The airliner was Capital Airlines Flight 300, a Viscount, with a crew of 3 plus seven passengers. The two pilots in the military jet ejected. (Note 4)

It saddened me to learn that a little more than a month before that accident, United Flight 736, another DC-7, crashed with 47 passengers on board when it collided with another military jet near Las Vegas. The cause was visibility limitations which airline crews had complained about numerous times. The military was also faulted along with the civilian aviation authorities for not taking measures to reduce well-known collision risk with the rules that were in place at the time. But it was the crash on May 20th, 1958, that got President Dwight Eisenhower’s legislation passed by Congress on August 23rd of that year. This was the beginning of the FAA, with the first director being General Elwood “Pete” Quesada. (Note 5)

Not only were mid-air collisions deadly, so were plane crashes – and they were more frequent. Most crashes happened because of pilot error, weather problems, and/or aircraft malfunctions. With each crash, the FAA would do extensive investigating resulting in changes in safety policies. Our airline manuals were always being updated with new findings. For example, on November 11, 1965, United Airlines Flight 227, a Boeing 727, crashed short of the runway in Salt Lake City, Utah. When the FAA hearings ended, their findings determined that the cause was pilot error because that captain pilot underestimated his excessive descent during the approach. He was convinced he was right, even though the co-pilot tried to encourage another maneuver which probably would have prevented the accident.

The plane crashed 335 feet short of the runway killing 43 passengers out of the total of 91 people on board (including crew). After the crash passengers rushed to the front of the aircraft making it impossible for the flight attendant sitting up front to open her assigned exit door – 1L -- without the help of the Second Officer who was the third pilot in the cockpit. As a result of this incident, the flight attendant commands changed to include the phrase, “STAND BACK, STAND BACK, STAND BACK” while the flight attendants, known then as stewardesses, notified the cockpit by pushing the captain’s button on the panel next to the jump seat and then continue to open their assigned exits. Flight crew manuals also changed adding more awareness of altitude and descent rates, and additional pilot training was also required on approaches and landings. (Note 15)

As the rules were changing to protect against mid-air collisions and aircraft crashes, a new threat had already begun. This threat was hijacking. In May 1961, the first hijacking to Cuba made headlines. The airline involved was National, and the plane a Convair 440. Because of the incredible number of hijackings between the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s, this period was labeled the “golden years of hijacking.”

It is interesting what one remembers over the course of a long career. This writer remembers more about the plane crashes than the hijackings, so it was shocking to me to learn how many had occurred worldwide in the 1960’s and 1970’s. In fact, in 1969 – the worst year, there were 82 hijackings. (Note 6) Memories of plane crashes stood out because of the loss of lives, but in most cases people survived hijackings. (Note 8)

One of the most publicized hijackings prior to 9/11 was on November 24, 1971. It occurred on a Northwest Airline flight from Portland to Seattle. The hijacker was “DB” Cooper. He was the first person in U.S. history to hijack a Boeing 727 and use the lowered back air stairs, along with parachutes, to escape. There were 9 other copycat hijackings using the back air stairs on the Boeing 727. So to prevent more hijackings on this airplane, the FAA ordered Boeing to find a solution. The fix was called a “Cooper vane”. This device, once installed, prevented the ventral air stair from opening in flight. (Note 17)

Boeing 727 with rear airstairs extended
Boeing 727 with rear airstairs extended

By the end of 1972, there had been over 150 U.S. planes hijacked. The most popular regional destination was Havana. Initially, the FBI thought about setting up a fake Havana airport in Southern Florida to trick them. But that did not happen (Note 6) Instead, Cuba and the U.S. worked out a deal to return any hijackers landing in Cuba to the U.S. for prosecution. After that deal, the number of hijackings decreased immediately. Not only because of the new arrangement, but also because in January 1973, metal detectors and luggage searches began. This was a government mandate to tighten security, and the program was successful as the number of hijackings dropped to only 3 domestic hijackings between 1973 and 1974. (Note 6)

Old terminal at Havana airport
Old terminal at Havana airport

In 1974, the Transportation Security Act was implemented. This act added more regulations and redefined penalties for “aircraft jurisdictions of the U.S. as defined in the Federal Aviation Act.” It also set penalties for outside of U.S. jurisdiction and added the death penalty as a possibility if people died during a hijacking. This act also authorized the President to suspend air service to any nation that posed a threat. The biggest change, however, was that passenger baggage was now going to be screened for carry-on items and X-ray machines were installed at airports. The FAA’s control over U.S. aviation was becoming more and more complicated.

Prior to 1978, the Civil Aeronautics Board had extensive controls over airfares, route structures and prices. For example, when United purchased Capital Airlines in 1961, the CAB would not grant permission to merge the two airline’s routes, so when this writer transferred to Miami in early 1966, the cities on my monthly schedule went no further west than Cleveland. This United Miami crew base flew the old Capital routes with mostly former Capital pilots.

By the late 1970’s, deregulation was becoming more of an answer to the expansive growth in commercial air travel. Commercial air traffic from the mid-1960’s to the mid 1970’s, doubled from nearly 100,000,000 to over 200,000,000. (Note 12) In October 1978, airline deregulation was finally passed. The government control could not keep up with all the demands on issues such as high inflation, low economic growth, rising labor costs, and higher fuel costs. It was now time to give the individual airlines more control. As a result, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) no longer had authority to determine the routes the airlines could fly and what fares could be charged. This, however, took time to implement. By January 1983, the CAB authority was phased out, giving airlines more freedom in expanding route structures; however, the FAA authority over safety was not reduced. (Notes 7 & 11)

After the Deregulation Act of 1978, this writer remembers talking to one of our United pilots, who said, “We will be seeing a lot of upstart airlines now, but only the big ones will survive.” The truth of his statement is evidenced by the following. The three largest airlines in world now are American, Delta, and United. These carriers were able to grow by absorbing these carriers plus others: Pan American, Trans World Airlines, Eastern Airlines, Ozark Airlines, Muse Air, Braniff, Alleghany, Frontier, New York Air, People’s Express, Piedmont, Air Cal, Northwest, Morris Air, Valuejet, Reno Air, PSA, Continental and U.S. Air.

As new airlines starting up and giving the air traveler more choices of routes and low air fares, hijackings overseas continued. Our international carriers – Pan Am and TWA – were still facing real danger due to their overseas routes. They continued being hijacked and bombed.

An example of this, before September 11, 2001, the most televised and dramatic hijacking was TWA Flight 847 on June 14th, 1985. This was the third hijacking in the Middle East in just one week. Flight 847, was on nightly news for over 17 days, showing a U.S. Navy diver murdered on board then thrown on the tarmac, some passengers and crew members beaten multiple times, passengers split into groups with some held hostage in downtown Beirut, including a group of Jewish passengers who were eventually freed by U.S. Delta Force. Throughout this dangerous ordeal, the pilot in command, Captain John Testrake, flew multiple segments on his Boeing 727 over the course of three days and remained calm throughout. (Note 13) Another pilot hero!

On December 21, 1988, Pan American flight 103, a Boeing 747, exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board and 11 people on the ground. This hijacking was carried out by members of Hezbollah and Islamic Ji had who were seeking the release of 700 Shi’ite Muslims being held by Israel. (Note 14) These events, like many of the other hijackings and bombings that happened in Europe, were traced back to radical Middle Eastern causes. (Note 16) These events also created an FAA emphasis on preventing explosives aboard aircraft.

When the government directed scrutiny began, crews were not required to go through security. We would enter through a special access point next to the main security gate. But that all changed after December 7, 1987 when passenger David Burke, a recently fired aircraft ground cleaner for U.S. Air was caught taking receipts from inflight liquor sales while the planes were on the ground. He begged his supervisor to give him another chance, but Ray Thomson refused. Supervisor Thomson worked in Los Angeles but lived in the San Francisco Bay area. He often commuted home on PSA, which was now owned by U.S. Air. Knowing that, Burke borrowed a 44 magnum revolver, got a ticket for PSA Flight 1771, and boarded the aircraft. He was able to clear security because he had not turned in his U.S. Air identification badge. When the plane was at cruising altitude of 22,000 feet, Burke entered the bathroom , loaded his gun, confronted his ex-supervisor, shot him twice, shot the flight attendant going into the cockpit, shot the pilot and co-pilot , and then shot a PSA check pilot who tried to make his way to the cockpit to prevent the plane from crashing. The plane went down in the mountains near Paso Robles killing all 38 passengers, plus the five crew members on board. The next day all U.S. airline employees had to turn in in their badges for new ones. It is an understatement to say that the innocent often pay for the actions of the guilty. (Note 9)

As unbelievable as it sounds, the FAA after this terrible crime did not require checkpoint screening for ground personnel. It was only required for Pilots and flight attendants. Burke was a ground personnel! (Note 10)

Before September 11, 2001, there was great confusion on hijacking incidents as to who had jurisdiction or authority – the FAA or the FBI. Once again, there was a clear disconnect between two government agencies. So prior to 9/11, hijackers were able to pull off their crimes against a confused and uncoordinated response. In this writer’s opinion, this was somewhat similar to the CIA and FBI disconnect concerning 9/11.

So as we look back at the aviation industry especially the last 50 years before 9/11, we see the birth of the FAA in 1958 dealing with a variety of issues due to the rapid growth in air travel. During this period, much of the control was transferred from the government back to the commercial airlines. Through the complexity of all of these issues, like hijackings, mergers, and plane crashes, the FAA’s dual purpose focused on protecting the air traveler while still promoting the airline industry.

We, the flight crews, had been told of threats before, but our security training had not been changed in over 20 years. Year after year we viewed film on TWA Flight 847’s ordeal, but nothing new was added to reflect the evolving and growing threat to air travelers and crews.

My search to understand the failings of the FAA in regard to aviation safety and our airlines in particular, led me to the 9/11 Commission and in particular to the Seventh Hearing which dealt with the FAA as well as border protection and security. The Seventh hearing began in Washington DC on January 26, 2004, at 9:30 a.m.

Washington DC
Washington DC


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