FAA Celebrates 75th
Anniversary Of Air Traffic Control
By Mike Mitchell
July 8, 2011 - The U.S. Department of Transportation’s
Federal Aviation Administration marked the 75th
anniversary of federal air traffic control as American
aviation experiences its safest period ever.
Since its inception with 15 workers operating in just
three control centers in 1936, the agency has become a
world leader, pioneering safety improvements and
developing new technology to speed up flights, save fuel
and improve safety.
“The United States has the safest air transportation system in the world. But as the last 75 years show, we will never stop working to make our system even safer,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “As a pilot, I am in awe of the aviation safety and technological advancements that have been made in the last 75 years,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.
represents the next milestone in aviation innovation. The FAA is
committed to transforming our national airspace system so
passengers can reach their destinations even more safely and
more efficiently than they do today.”
a growing demand for air travel, the 15 employees who made up
the original group of controllers took radio position reports
from pilots to plot the progress of each flight, providing no
separation services. At the time, the fastest plane in the
commercial fleet was the Douglas DC-3, which could fly
coast-to-coast in about 17 hours while carrying 21 passengers.
Since then, the air traffic system has expanded from three control centers to include 131 federal stand-alone airport traffic control towers, 132 towers for terminal area approach control, 29 stand-alone terminal radar approach controls and 21 en route traffic control centers.
of controllers has grown from 15 to more than 15,000, a
workforce that handles an average of 50,000 flights each day.
The DC-3 has given way to jet aircraft that can carry hundreds
of passengers and fly from New York to Los Angeles in about five
The FAA continues to pioneer new technologies that will make air traffic control safer and more efficient. The Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, will transform air traffic control in the U.S. from a system of ground-based radars to one based on satellites.
In parts of the
country, controllers already are beginning to track aircraft via
satellites with a state-of-the-art system called Automatic Dependent
Surveillance – Broadcast, or ADS-B. ADS-B will be available nationwide
in 2013 and will enable more direct routes, saving time and money while
also lowering the industry’s environmental footprint.
This month the FAA
will celebrate the 75th anniversary of federal air traffic control by
highlighting advancements in air traffic controller training, NextGen,
how the FAA handles convective summer weather and aviation
July 6th marks the 75th anniversary of federal control of air traffic in the United States. On this date the federal government began regulating air traffic with the creation of the Bureau of Air Commerce in 1936.
It started with
bonfires. Immense torches miles in the distance guided the first pilots
from grass runway to grass runway as they delivered the most important
commodity of the day, the mail.
In the decades
that followed, bonfires became beacons, land-based lighthouses that
guided a new generation of pilots. Beacons became radar towers,
waypoints in the sky that helped another generation of pilots find land.
With the passage
of the Air Commerce Act of 1926 the U.S. developed air traffic rules
that gave basic instructions to pilots, established navigation aids as
well as standards for aircraft and instrument flight rules. The Act also
granted the federal government the authority to license pilots.
1920s and 1930s, advances in technology led to the beginning of
commercial air service and aircraft began flying during night time
hours. Also during those decades, tremendous advances were made in
avionics, ground-based radio navigation aids, and the manufacturing of
modern commercial aircraft. The invention of the radio reconnected the
pilot to support systems on the ground, providing navigation and weather
Air traffic picked up in the 1930s and so did the need to manage planes at airports and in the sky. This paved the way for the first airway traffic control center in Newark, NJ in December 1935. Chicago and Cleveland centers opened in 1936. These en route controllers tracked the position of aircraft using blackboards, maps and boat-shaped weights. En route controllers had no way of communicating with pilots then, but were in touch with the airport controllers, airline dispatchers and airport radio operators.
Radar had the greatest impact on aviation in the 1950s when controllers started using it to separate aircraft. With radar, controllers could track aircraft on display screens. Air traffic control centers started using the first air route surveillance radar in 1956 when the first air traffic control computer was installed at Indianapolis Center. A year later, the air traffic control radar beacon system came along.
The FAA is the
largest organization under the U.S. Department of Transportation with
nearly 50,000 employees, 5,461 air traffic controllers handle 50,000
flights a day. They ensure that not only passengers, but also that
cargo, which could include medical supplies and mail arrive at their
Air traffic controllers handled 51 million commercial, general aviation and military operations in 2010. Each day 1.7 million passengers board a plane in the U.S. In 2010, 149.6 million passengers flew U.S. and international flights.
critical to our nation's economy. As recently as 2009, the industry
generated more than 10 million jobs, contributed $1.3 trillion annually
to the national economy, and accounted for 5.2% of the U.S. gross
domestic product. 6,071 technical operations specialists maintain the
equipment in the National Airspace System.
Airspace System consists of: 131 federal stand-alone airport traffic
control towers; 246 contract towers; 132 Towers/Terminal Radar Approach
Controls (TRACON) — facilities with both a tower and a TRACON; 29
stand-alone TRACONs; 21 Air Route Traffic Control; and two Center Radar
Approach Control facilities; an Air Traffic System Command Center; and
41,000 facilities that house radars and other air traffic equipment.
The air traffic
facility most people associate with aviation is an airport traffic
control tower. Tower controllers work air traffic within a few miles of
the airport. This is called terminal airspace. The controllers in the
towers instruct pilots during taxiing, takeoff and landing and they
Once the aircraft
leaves the terminal airspace it is transferred to a TRACON controller
who will manage the aircraft for about a 40 mile radius of the airport
it has departed or at which it plans to land. Like tower controllers,
TRACON controllers ensure that aircraft maintain minimum separation
do not actually see the aircraft they are managing. They are located at
Air Route Traffic Control Centers managing traffic on radar screens at
21 different locations throughout the country. En route controllers take
over the aircraft once the plane leaves the terminal airspace. They are
responsible for aircraft in between airports and use sophisticated
tracking systems to maintain a safe distance between planes.
The David J. Hurley Air Traffic Control System Command Center in Northern Virginia oversees the entire air traffic control system. It is where traffic management specialists keep watch over the entire system, managing the 5,000 aircraft that are in the sky at any given moment. The Command Center operates 24-hours a day balancing air traffic demand with system capacity.
with others in the aviation industry to minimize air traffic delays and
congestion and maximize the overall use of the airspace. Air traffic
controllers at all facilities inform pilots of weather conditions but
specialists at the Command Center look ahead at the weather and adjust
traffic demands to meet capacity. They are also apprised of equipment
outages, runway closures, security incidents and other issues that would
impact air traffic.
The FAA is in the
process of completely transforming the nation's airspace. A
comprehensive initiative called NextGen will make air travel even safer,
more dependable and efficient. NextGen integrates new and existing
technologies to bring benefits in all areas of air traffic.
As the advent of radar was a tremendous asset to the aviation community, satellite technology offers even greater benefits. One of the most fundamental elements of NextGen is the movement from ground based radar to satellite based navigation. FAA is deploying a technology called Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), which allows for more precise monitoring of air traffic.
It is a giant leap because it will enable both pilots and controllers to have a common picture of airspace and traffic. ADS-B offers more precision than radar because signals are transmitted once per second. The technology has been deployed at key sites where air traffic controllers are now using it to separate suitably equipped aircraft in areas with ADS-B coverage.
include: the Houston en route center, providing coverage to the Gulf of
Mexico, the Louisville TRACON, Philadelphia, Alaska and South Florida.
The nationwide ground infrastructure is expected to be completed by 2013
and the system is expected to be fully operational by 2020.
create more predictable travel. By 2018, NextGen will reduce total
delays by about 35 percent compared with what would happen if we did
nothing. That delay reduction will likely provide $23 billion in
cumulative benefits to aircraft operators, the traveling public and the
FAA. New efficient GPS enabled flight procedures will save about 1.4
billion gallons of aviation fuel and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by
14 million tons.
The FAA is already rolling out satellite-based approaches called Area Navigation (RNAV) and Required Navigation Performance (RNP), which provide precise approaches to runways. The FAA has published 684 RNAV and 257 RNP procedures. Both RNAV and RNP, like the other tools in the toolbox, allow aircraft to safely land as quickly and efficiently as possible, saving time and money while burning less fuel.
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