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The Role of The FAA

Nearly every entry on this blog has mentioned, or at least linked to, the Federal Aviation Administration. There’s a reason for that: It’s the governing body of American aviation. Every aspect of every US flight, from who may climb into the cockpit to pre-flighting to tower communication to cruising, landing, and putting the airplane to bed, is governed by the FAA.

The Federal Aviation Administration wields a great deal of power over the US aviation industry and community. Its purview is enormous and includes licensing pilots, authorizing airports, issuing restrictions, overseeing air traffic control, investigating accidents, and even the activities of drone hobbyists and space exploration. Knowing as much as you can about what the FAA does and how it works is a tremendous advantage.


Formation of the FAA

The FAA is based in Oklahoma City, OK, at the Mike Monroney Aeronautical Center. Its training academy is here, and it has headquarters in Washington DC, as well as regional offices throughout the country.

For a government agency, it took the FAA a surprisingly long time to become established, although today it is the template for the creation of national aviation structures in other countries. The Wright Brothers made aviation’s first powered flight in 1902 and early aviation resulted in several deaths, with airplanes staying relatively close to the ground. Rudimentary air traffic control was provided by the operators of airports; large fires were lit to allow pilots to see early runways after dark, and in the daytime, men with flags ran to the field to direct landings. Federal regulation didn’t arrive until 1925, when the Air Mail Act addressed the formation of commercial air service.

The Air Commerce Act followed in 1926. This established guidelines for the federal government in the building of airports and creation of regulations regarding navigation, early air traffic control, the airworthiness of airplanes, and requirements for the certification of pilots. This was the first time airplanes were required to have the predecessor of a tail number.  In 1938, the Civil Aeronautics Act created the forerunner of the FAA. It authorized the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), which dealt with US Post Office contracts, as well as the power to regulate economic and safety matters.

The rapid expansion of the power of the federal government continued during WWII and the post-war era. Unfortunately, it took a massive disaster to address the rising air traffic in the United States: In 1956, two airplanes collided in poor weather conditions over Arizona, killing all 128 on board both. The bill to authorize the FAA in place of the CAB was introduced to Congress in 1958, and the FAA was consolidated under the Department of Transportation in 1967. Because the FAA is a federal agency, its regulations carry the force of law.


Airplane Safety and Accident Investigation

The FAA focuses on safety regulations from the first design phases of airplanes and the initial phases of flight training. Aviation Safety, the arm of the FAA which certifies the people, parts, and airplanes involved with aviation, has a great deal of power. Everyone involved with aviation will at some point come into contact with Aviation Safety. It mandates nearly every aspect of what airplanes can do and how, as well as the whole of general as well as commercial aviation. The goal is to prevent accidents or safety problems before they take place. Aviation Safety has the ability to ground airplanes or to green light new designs. In addition to pilots and flight instructors, it also certifies mechanics.

This applies to not only airplanes. The FAA oversees all aircraft, including light sport airplanes, blimps, gliders, hot air balloons, and drones. At the moment, drones are seeing the most rapid increase in FAA regulations. For example, the FAA recently mandated that those who operate drones must take authorized classes to become licensed.

In the wake of an accident, credentialed FAA inspectors in the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) arrive to document the debris field and to piece together what happened. They interview survivors, penalize those who violate the regulations, and work with foreign aviation agencies. The NTSB issues a report which determines the progression of the accident’s chain of events, as well as recommendations for avoiding a similar one in the future.


Air Traffic Organization

The Air Traffic Organization, otherwise known as the ATO, is the portion of the FAA which oversees the activity of the aviation industry from the first contact with control towers to cruising flight and gate or airstrip arrival. Air traffic control became solidified and nationalized after the 1956 Arizona passenger airline collision. Controllers work in towers, regional centers, and approach areas to coordinate and safely direct traffic. Air traffic controllers are needed in major cities, small airports, on military bases and aircraft carriers, and even on temporary bases for special events.

In addition to directing current traffic, the ATO is concentrating on Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, which is the multi-year modernization of the United States’ air traffic control system. NextGen focuses on using new technology and efficient planning to update procedures, research methods, and policies.


Commercial Space Transportation

Most casual flyers aren’t aware of the FAA’s role in commercial space transportation. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation oversees launches, international coordination, re-entry requirements, and safety. It is referred to as the AST, and permits launches, issues launch site operator licenses and experimental permits, and safety approvals.

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation was established in 1984 as the space shuttle opened a new era of commercial use of spacecrafts. In 1995, it was transferred to the FAA. It also oversees issues of national security and updating of the space transportation’s infrastructure at launch and landing sites.

The AST is an exciting place to be. It works with NASA and the upcoming Space Force. As commercial launches continue to expand, and testing takes place for all kinds of new spacecraft and innovations, it coordinates all operations, safety inspections, and development of the commercial side of space activity.


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