Federal Aviation Policy Under President Eisenhower

Federal Aviation Policy Under President Eisenhower

March 29, 2020  | Jeff Davis

Author’s note: I have been preparing a comprehensive overview of federal transportation policy under President Eisenhower as part of the build-up to the dedication of the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C., originally scheduled for the first week in May. The dedication and related events have been postponed because of coronavirus, which has also canceled my scheduled research trip to the Eisenhower Presidential Library to finish research on the railroad and maritime issues I didn’t cover in my first trip in 2016. But the aviation policy portion is finished (except for a section on economic regulation of air carriers which is pending the next Library visit).


In contrast to the ways in which highway policy played out under Eisenhower, his major aviation policies wound up being implemented through the exact process the President demanded – study within the Administration, followed by study by outside independent experts, followed by adoption of the recommended policies by the Administration, followed by the enactment of laws by Congress largely in line with the Administration’s proposals.

Boeing 367-80. “Dash 80” was the original prototype for the Boeing 707, America’s first jetliner. Smithsonian Photographic Services NASM Udvar-Hazy Center Photo By Dane Penland.

The jet age dawned under the Eisenhower Administration. Boeing flew its “Dash 80” prototype four-engine jet for the first time in July 1954, and the Air Force ordered 29 of the KC-135 variant as refueling tankers the following month (out of an eventual order of 820). This gave Boeing the guaranteed demand necessary to build assembly lines and start selling the passenger airline variant of the KC-135, which Boeing named the 707. This plane, along with the Douglas DC-8, would transform the airline industry and would require much more sophisticated air traffic control.

At the same time, federal jurisdiction was fragmented. Economic and safety regulations for civil aviation were set by the Civil Aeronautics Board. The Civil Aeronautics Authority, under the Department of Commerce, provided civil air traffic control services, enforced safety regulations, and provided airport development grants. The Air Force, Army, and Navy each operated extensive military aviation systems. An Air Coordinating Committee established by executive order under President Truman[1] tried to keep track of them all, but had little time for long-range planning.

Thorough study.

Under Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, questions of how the federal government should be organized were under the general purview of the Bureau of the Budget. Upon taking office, Eisenhower changed this, creating a President’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization under the chairmanship of Nelson Rockefeller. A key permanent member of the Commission was the President’s brother, Milton Eisenhower.

In January 1955, Nelson Rockefeller wrote to his brother Laurence (the major stockholder in Eastern Airlines and an original investor in McDonnell Aircraft) to complain that “no one has taken a really good look at the Nation’s future air transport problems” and suggesting that an outside group make a confidential study of the problem.[2] Rockefeller’s committee eventually retained William Barclay Harding of Smith Barney (he was also the head of the Aviation Securities Committee of the Investment Bankers Association of America).

Harding recruited other outside aviation experts (including Laurence Rockefeller’s adviser Najeeb Halaby) and performed a preliminary study, which was funded under the auspices of the Budget Bureau. Harding’s group’s final report to the Budget Bureau was released in December 1955 and recommended a much larger official study of long-range aviation facilities needs, “under the direction of an individual of national reputation…in such a way that it is clearly the appointee’s responsibility, backed by Presidential authority, to work through and with existing organizations and avoid duplication of the services which they are able to provide.”[3]

Accordingly, President Eisenhower reached out to retired Major General Ted Curtis, a World War I flying ace who had served under Eisenhower as Chief of Staff of Strategic Air Forces in Europe during WWII. Curtis was appointed as Special Assistant to the President for Aviation Facilities Planning in February 1956.[4] Under Eisenhower’s personal authority, Curtis was able to use the resources of the government and outside engineering consultants to research the future demand for air traffic control and airports that would be needed for the coming expansion of the civil aviation sector.

While Curtis was working, the worst civil aviation disaster in U.S. history to that point took place – a mid-air collision of two passenger airliners over the Grand Canyon, killing all 128 persons on both planes on June 30, 1956. The investigation revealed that better air traffic control would almost certainly have prevented the accident. Accordingly, before his full investigation was finished, Curtis issued an interim report in early April 1957 (in time to have its recommendations considered by the First Session of the 85th Congress).

Modernizing air traffic control.

Curtis’s interim report recommended the immediate creation of an independent and temporary Airways Modernization Board to mediate between the Commerce and Defense Departments and conduct initial research and development of an eventual air traffic control system for the U.S. that would handle both kinds of traffic. The pace at which this recommendation was adopted was extremely rapid – two days after Curtis submitted the report, it was approved by the Cabinet, and the report was transmitted to Congress six days after that.[5]

Bills were immediately introduced in Congress and passed the Senate in June and the House in late July. On August 14, President Eisenhower signed into law the act creating the Airways Modernization Board, which was almost word for word the draft bill recommended by Curtis.[6] Meanwhile, as Congress was considering the bill recommended in Curtis’s interim report, he submitted his final report in May 1957 – a concise 39-page summary document together with much longer technical reports on long-term aviation demand and long-term air traffic control structure and technology.[7]

The final report from Curtis predicted massive increases in demand for airspace use by 1975 (an increase from 65 million takeoffs and landings per year in 1956 to 115 million per year in 1975), at much greater altitudes and speeds than at present, but noted that “Except for the addition of radar control around major airports, the air traffic control system now in use is, in its principal technical particulars, much the same system that was devised two decades ago to accommodate the growth in traffic stimulated by the DC-3 – an airplane that cruised at about 160 miles per hour. It was never meant to cope with the complex mixture of civil and military traffic that now fills the air.”[8]

The final Curtis report’s forecast for how greatly jet travel would increase average airspeeds by 1975.

Curtis recommended the construction of the modern, radar-based air traffic control system recommended by his technical advisory team – but to run the system, he said “An independent Federal Aviation Agency [FAA] should be established into which are consolidated all of the essential management functions necessary to support the common needs of the military and civil aviation of the United States.”[9] The head of the new FAA would be in charge of U.S. aviation policy, airspace policy, and long-range planning, as well as writing aviation safety regulations and investigating accidents (incorporating functions of the Civil Aeronautics Board), and the FAA would incorporate the Airways Modernization Board (which, by law, would expire in 1960, putting a deadline on the timeframe for FAA creation).

Curtis handed in his resignation immediately upon submitting his final report and was replaced as Special Assistant by retired Lieutenant General Elwood “Pete” Quesada, a pioneer of radar-based aircraft control and coordination during WWII under General Eisenhower. Quesada promptly began work on turning Curtis’ recommendations into workable Administration policy and proposed legislation. (Quesada also chaired the Airways Modernization Board and the Air Coordinating Committee.)

Creating the FAA.

Eisenhower and Quesada hoped to get legislation creating the FAA ready for submission to Congress in January 1959, but events forced their hands. A mid-air collision over Las Vegas between a civilian airliner and an Air Force fighter killed 49 people on April 21, 1958, and another collision over Maryland a month later between another airliner and an Air Force training jet killed 12 people. In both instances, better air traffic separation between military and civilian planes would have prevented the collisions.

On May 21, the day after the Maryland collision, bills creating a new FAA were introduced in both chambers of Congress by the chairmen of the House Commerce Committee and the Senate Aviation Subcommittee.[10] Hearings began almost immediately. The testimony of Quesada and other Administration officials was sought by the Senate panel for June 2 and 3, but the Administration asked for a two-week delay.[11]

The issue was immediately put on the agenda for the June 6 Cabinet meeting. On June 3, Eisenhower and Quesada met with the Commerce Secretary and the Deputy Defense Secretary to make sure that both departments were on the same page alongside Quesada in turns of ceding jurisdiction to a new agency. At the Cabinet meeting three days later, Quesada briefed the Cabinet on the situation and the bills now in Congress. “With amendments, he believed, this bill could adequately serve the President’s objectives, and he listed some six items that would require change principally to insure that the agency reported to the President rather than to the Congress and that provision would be made for military participation in it.”[12] Commerce Secretary Weeks and Defense Under Secretary Quarles spoke in support of the plan, which was approved by the Cabinet.

President Eisenhower submitted a formal message to Congress on June 13 asking them to pass a bill creating an independent FAA “at the earliest possible date” and giving great detail as to what that legislation should include.[13] Quesada, meanwhile, worked through the Senate bill line by line and came up with a long list of proposed amendments, which he presented to the Senate subcommittee with his testimony on June 16.

The Senate committee marked up its bill on June 24-25 and amended it largely to the White House’s liking. As an indicator of the urgency of the safety situation, the bill passed the Senate by voice vote on July 14, just five days after the committee filed its report. The Senate bill was then reported in the House with a few minor amendments on August 2 and passed that chamber on August 4 (again, by voice vote). A quick House-Senate conference committee was held and reported back a compromise version of the bill on August 11, both chambers agreed to the final changes quickly (once more by voice vote) and President Eisenhower was able to sign the Federal Aviation Agency bill into law on August 23, 1958.[14]

Due to pressing end-of-session business, there was no formal signing statement for the bill issued, but Eisenhower promptly gave Quesada a recess appointment to run the new FAA, and the Senate confirmed him to be the FAA’s first Administrator on March 11, 1959.

Airport development.

However, the FAA, and its predecessor CAA, didn’t just provide air traffic control and administer safety. They also were in charge of the grants-in-aid program for airport development established in 1946, and on this issue, the Eisenhower Administration and Congress did not always see eye-to-eye.

As originally enacted in 1946, the Federal Airport Act authorized $500 million in annual appropriations for grants over a seven-year period (later extended). Upon taking office, Commerce Secretary Weeks ordered a complete review of the airport program, and no appropriation was made in fiscal 1954. The review panel’s final report (submitted to Congress in early 1954) recommended that federal aid to airports continue,[15] and Congress provided $22.5 million for them. But Eisenhower’s fiscal 1956 budget proposed cutting airport grant funding in half.

Congress disagreed. The Senate passed a bill that not only provided four years of additional authorization for the airport program (boosted to $63 million per year), but also made that funding available immediately in the form of “contract authority” available outside the appropriations process. (This was the funding mechanism used by the federal-aid highway program since 1923.)

The Bureau of the Budget initially opposed the bill because of institutional opposition to increased use of multi-year “backdoor spending,” but when it was presented to the President in July 1955, the Bureau told the President that “a preference for one method of getting funds to eligible sponsors is not, in light of the bill’s objective, a substantial basis for veto.”[16] The President signed the bill into law on August 3, 1955.[17]

Three years later, Congress proposed a reauthorization bill proposing another increase – this one from $63 million per year to $100 million per year – and this time Budget, Commerce, and Quesada all recommended a veto, with Quesada stating “In the foreseeable future, it should be expected that more and more airports will become capable of self-support.”[18]

Because the bill was sent to the White House at the end of the session, Eisenhower was able to issue an unreviewable “pocket veto” of the bill on September 2, 1958. In his veto message, Eisenhower used a military metaphor: “I am convinced that the time has come to begin an orderly withdrawal from the airport grant program…others should begin to assume the full responsibility for the cost of construction and improvement of civil airports.”[19]

A version of the vetoed bill was re-introduced on the first day of the next Congress as S. 1, 86th Congress. The bill would have reauthorized the program for five years at an average of $115 million per year. The White House countered with a four-year proposal to taper the program off from $63 million per year to $35 million per year, an average of $50 million per year.[20]

In February, the Senate passed its bill (shortened to four years), but an amendment cutting funding down to the current law $63 million per year failed by a vote of less than two to one (35 yeas, 53 nays).[21] The House passed a bill providing an average of $74 million per year, but the House narrowly voted down an amendment to cut the House bill’s airport grant funding down to the President’s levels.[22] Eisenhower wrote to a friend the following day saying “The motion lost, but we picked up a surprising number of Democratic votes, and the Republican side stood – almost to a man – firm. That augurs well that any veto on such a bill will be sustained.”[23]

In House-Senate conference, the House position was $74 million per year over four years and the Senate position was $116 million per year over the same period (compared with the Administration proposal of $50 million per year and a current policy “flat-line” of $63 million per year). After almost three months of fruitless House-Senate negotiations, and facing a June 30 funding expiration and a looming veto threat from President Eisenhower, the Senate back-tracked on June 15 and settled for a two-year extension of the existing $63 million per year program, to which the House concurred.

Eisenhower signed the bill into law on June 29,[24] and in his signing statement, the President emphasized that the FAA Administrator should prioritize the use of funding for safety projects.[25]

A new Washington D.C. airport.

Proposed reliever airport site in Burke, Virginia.

Airport aid to local governments was one thing, but the federal government had a special responsibility for the local affairs of the District of Columbia, which Eisenhower recognized. Washington National Airport had been experiencing capacity problems since the end of the war, but the CAA’s plan to build a reliever airport in Burke, Virginia was derailed by local opposition in 1952, and Congress and the CAA spent the next five years going back and forth between the Burke location, possible expansion of Baltimore Friendship Airport, and the possible conversion of Andrews Air Force Base to civilian use.[26]

Eisenhower was personally drawn into the debate in mid-August 1957,[27] and later that month, Congress appropriated the first $12.5 million for construction of a new airport (before a site was chosen), on the condition that no money could be spent until the President recommended a site, and giving him a deadline a January 15, 1958.[28] Eisenhower sent Quesada in fall 1957 to evaluate four sites – Friendship, Burke, and two other Virginia locations (Pender and Chantilly). Quesada chose Chantilly, and Eisenhower backed his decision and sent it to Congress. Congress then appropriated another $50 million for construction in August 1958.[29]

After Secretary of State John Foster Dulles died in August 1959, it was Quesada’s idea to name the new airport after him, which Eisenhower did via executive order in July of that year.[30] The airport opened to the public in November 1962, and while it took longer than expected, by the 1990s, traffic at Dulles was outpacing that at National.

[1] Executive Order 9781, September 19, 1946, as amended by Executive Order 10360, June 11, 1952, and Executive Order 10655, January 28, 1956.
[2] Letter from Nelson Rockefeller to Laurence Rockefeller, January 20, 1955. Located in U.S. President’s Advisory Committee on Government Organization (Rockefeller Committee): Records, 1953-61; Box 22, folder entitled “No. 179 Aviation Facilities 1955-57 Harding and Curtis Study,” Eisenhower Library.
[3] Aviation Facilities Study Group. Aviation Facilities: The Report of the Aviation Facilities Study Group to the Bureau of the Budget, December 31, 1955. Quote from p. 3.
[4] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Letter to Edward P. Curtis on His Appointment as Special Assistant to the President for Aviation Facilities Planning, February 11, 1956.  Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1956. Document 38 on p. 252.
[5] Curtis’s interim report and related Cabinet meeting information are located in DDE’s Papers as President, Cabinet Series, Box 8, folder entitled “Cabinet Meeting of April 5, 1957,” Eisenhower Library.
[6] Public Law 85-133, 71 Stat. 349.
[7] The reports are Aviation Facilities Planning: Final Report by the President’s Special Assistant (Washington: GPO, 1957), together with National Requirements for Aviation Facilities: 1956-75 (final report prepared by Airborne Instruments Laboratory, Aeronautical Research Foundation, and Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory for Edward P. Curtis, Special Assistant to the President for Aviation Facilities Planning) and A Plan for Modernization of the National System of Aviation Facilities by the Systems Engineering Team of the Office of Aviation Facilities Planning, The White House.
[8] Aviation Facilities Planning: Final Report by the President’s Special Assistant – demand stats are on p. 5 and quote is from p. 2.
[9] Ibid p. 20.
[10] The bills were H.R. 12616 and S. 3880 of the 85th Congress.
[11] U.S. Senate. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. “Federal Aviation Act of 1958” (report to accompany S. 3880), Senate Report No. 1811, 85th Congress, 2nd Session, p. 9.
[12] L.A. Minnich, Jr. “Minutes of Cabinet Meeting – June 6, 1958.” Located in DDE’s Papers as President, Ann Whitman File, Cabinet Series, Box 11, “Cabinet meeting of June 6, 1958” folder; Eisenhower Library.
[13] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Special Message to the Congress Recommending the Establishment of a Federal Aviation Agency, June 13, 1958. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1958. Document 135 on p. 466.
[14] Public Law 85-726, 72 Stat. 731.
[15] Airport Panel of the Transportation Council of the Department of Commerce. The National Airport Program: Report on the Growth of the United States Airport System. Reprinted as Senate Document 95, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session.
[16] Memorandum from the Bureau of the Budget to President Eisenhower, July 29, 1955. Located in White House Office: Record Officer Reports to the President on Pending Legislation, 1953-61, Box 57, folder entitled “Appr. 8/3/55 To amend FED. AIRPORT Act, as amended. S. 1855,” Eisenhower Library.
[17] Public Law 211 of the 84th Congress, 69 Stat. 441.
[18] Memorandum from E.R. Quesada to Philip S. Hughes, Bureau of the Budget, August 21, 1958. Located in White House Office: Record Officer Reports to the President on Pending Legislation, 1953-61, Box 143, folder entitled “Vetoed 9/3/1958 To amend the FEDERAL AIRPORT ACT in order to extend the time for making grants under the provisions of such Act, and for other purposes. S. 3502,” Eisenhower Library.
[19] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Memorandum of Disapproval of Bill To Amend the Federal Airport Act, September 2, 1958. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1958. Document 246 on p. 673.
[20] Text of the competing proposals in found in U.S. Senate. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Federal Airport Act, 1959 (Hearings on S. 1, 86th Congress, 1st Session), January 1959, pp. 1-6.
[21] Congressional Record (bound edition), February 6, 1959, p. 2045.
[22] Roll call No. 19 of 1959, Congressional Record (bound edition), March 19, 1959 p. 4665.
[23] Dwight D. Eisenhower letter to Henry Junior Taylor, March 20, 1959. Reprinted in The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, volume 20, document 1114 beginning on p. 1422.
[24] Public Law 86-72, 73 Stat. 155.
[25] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Statement by the President Upon Signing Bill Amending the Federal Airport Act, June 29, 1959. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1959. Document 143 on p. 483.
[26] As best described in Stuart A. Rochester, Takeoff at Mid-Century: Federal Civil Aviation Policy in the Eisenhower Years 1953-1961 (Washington: GPO, 1976).
[27] Eisenhower’s August 15, 1957 meeting with Sen. Spessard Holland (D-FL) is recounted in Eisenhower’s Memorandum for the Record of that date. Reprinted in The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, volume 18, document 288 beginning on p. 369.
[28] Public Law 85-170, 71 Stat. 426.
[29] Public Law 85-766, 72 Stat. 865.
[30] Executive Order 10828, July 15, 1959.

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