A Closer Look at Early Aviation Safety & Regulation

 Air Crash West of Visalia, Calif., 1920s (Credit: Tulare County Library)
An air crash west of Visalia, Calif., 1920s (Credit: Tulare County Library)

Part 1 of 6

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The coming age of commercial human spaceflight has often been compared to the freewheeling days of early aviation when brave men and women took to the skies in their flying machines and the government stayed out of the way, allowing brilliant designers to take risks and experiment with new designs.

The attractiveness of this narrative is even written into legislation. Federal law strictly limits the ability of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) administration to issue safety regulations to the commercial space industry, despite more than half century of experience with human spaceflight.

Burt Rutan and Richard Branson, who both support the hands off approach by the federal government, have compared the safety of commercial space travel to that of the early airlines in the 1920’s and 1930’s

S0, what exactly was the federal role during that era? In reality, the history of early commercial aviation is a lot more complicated than the stories that surround it. Did you know that:

  • the safest aircraft in the United States during those early days were airmail planes owned and operated by the government?
  • the accident-prone private sector actually wanted government to regulate the industry so it could grow, but Congress just didn’t care enough to pass any of the early legislation?
  • regulation only came into being until after the air mail service was privatized in 1925?
  • efforts to improve safety and save lives were hampered by the tension between the dual federal mandates of regulating and promoting the industry?

I didn’t know any of this, either, until I found a report, “History of Aviation Oversight in the United States,” published by the FAA in July 2008. The 56-page document is an in-depth review of federal efforts to oversee aviation from the beginning through the first decade of the 21st century.

The following is an excerpt from the report covering early efforts at federal regulation from the early 1920’s to 1938.

The Advent of Aviation Safety Oversight

US_stamp_1918_24c_Curtiss_Jenny_-C3The federal role in aviation safety began not as an industry regulator, but rather as the operator of the U.S. Air Mail Service. Beginning in 1918, the Air Mail Service served a progressively larger route system, culminating with the inauguration of 24-hour service on the transcontinental route between New York and San Francisco in 1924. The service used government-owned planes, flown by government-employed pilots, and in a marked contrast to the norms of the day, placed a strong emphasis on safety. Elements of the safety program included strict criteria for selecting pilots and requiring regular medical exams for them, careful aircraft inspections, the use of a 180-item checklist at the end of virtually every trip, and regular engine and aircraft overhauls every 100 and 750 hours, respectively. The activity absorbed tremendous manpower: the ratio of mechanics to aircraft was nearly four to one, and 94 percent of airmail service employees were ground personnel. The safety benefits were obvious: the fatality rate for the Air Mail Service was one per 789,000 miles flown between 1922-1925, while the comparable figure for itinerant commercial fliers (for 1924 only) was one per 13,500.

The level of safety attained by the Air Mail Service was one of many factors that led aviation industry leaders to call for the federal government to provide safety oversight. Unlike other cases of federal intervention, aviation safety oversight was a response to the pleas of the overseen rather than their misconduct. As Herbert Hoover wrote in 1921, “It is interesting to note that this is the only industry that favors having itself regulated by government.” The reasons for this wish ranged from the public-minded to the self-interested. Statistics like those cited above, as well as direct experience with the reality they represented, supported the claims that the public “is likely to suffer from badly engineered, badly built or badly repaired aircraft” and that “a great many fatal accidents are daily occurring to people carried in airplanes by inexperienced pilots using aircraft that have not been inspected.” While unfortunate in themselves, these large social costs also handicapped the development of the industry by suppressing demand and elevating insurance costs. Finally, industry representatives argued that before “anyone would think of investing any substantial amount of money in the air business he must first have some basic law” defining rights of the aviator and the man on the ground, and regulating who may fly what where, that only federal regulation could provide.

These calls were not enough to bring prompt legislative action. During the early 1920s, the aviation sector was too small to attract the level of congressional attention necessary to pass a bill. In 1925, however, Congress passed the Kelley Air Mail Act mandating the U.S. Post Office to turn responsibility for carrying airmail over to private contractors. This made federal air regulation a virtual necessity, and in 1926, Congress passed the original Air Commerce Act (ACA). The ACA established an Aeronautics Branch (AB) in the Department of Commerce. The AB was responsible for licensing and ensuring the airworthiness of all aircraft engaged in interstate commerce, certifying airmen similarly engaged, and developing and enforcing air traffic rules. Within the AB, safety oversight activities were carried out by the Air Regulations Division, which included six sections: inspection, licensing, medical, engineering, statistical, and enforcement.

Charles A. Lindbergh (Credit: Library of Congress)
Charles A. Lindbergh (Credit: Library of Congress)

Because the main impetus for the ACA came from the aviation industry, those in charge of implementing the bill viewed its purpose as “not so much to regulate as to promote.” The legislation left it to the AB to devise the detailed rules regarding airworthiness and certification, and these were developed with extensive consultation with aviation business leaders. The aim was to improve safety but to avoid placing an excessive burden on the industry. Government cost containment was also an important objective: the Coolidge administration, among the most parsimonious in American history, featured an annual presidential economy conference in which Cabinet officers were urged, “Don’t waste paper clips.” Budget pressure continued in subsequent administrations. For example, in 1933 the Roosevelt administration imposed a $500,000 budget cut and a 15 percent workforce reduction on the Air Regulations Division.

Faced with these pressures, early leaders of the AB strived to develop procedures that would further the cause of safety without the need for a huge government workforce, while also satisfying industry stakeholders. For example, airworthiness rules were based on the concept of the type certificate. The Department of Commerce set minimum engineering standards. Aircraft manufacturers sent blue prints and engineering data to the AB. If these met the standards, an inspector would visit the plant to determine whether the manufacturer was following the approved design. This was followed by flight tests, first by a company test pilot and then by the federal inspector. If the test was passed, the AB issued an aircraft type certificate authorizing the manufacturer to produce aircraft with the exact same specifications. Such aircraft were given airworthiness certificates, without federal inspection, if the manufacturer certified in an affidavit that he had followed the specifications of the type certificate and the aircraft had been flight-tested. Manufacturers who opted out of this process were forced to submit every plane they produced for the analysis and tests undergone by a type-certificated model. As aircraft speeds increased, sometimes to the point of causing vibration in the airframe, the certification specified maximum speeds.

Engines posed a somewhat different challenge. Where a single flight test was deemed adequate to demonstrate airworthiness, engines had to be proven reliable. Engines submitted for type certification were subjected to extended endurance tests followed by tear-down and inspection. If the test or subsequent inspection revealed the failure of any major component, certification was denied. The engine tests proved difficult, with around 50 percent of engines failing during the early years.

The ACA required that pilots pass regular medical exams. Again, the AB sought a means of implementing this provision that avoided large government expenditure. The solution was to designate doctors in private practice to perform the exams and leave it to the examinees to cover their fees. This left the AB with the much more manageable chore of designating doctors instead of employing a large medical staff.

Despite these measures, the initial budget provided for AB safety oversight proved completely inadequate for the task. Backlogs for all kinds of inspection and certification services quickly developed. To avoid inconveniencing, and potentially stifling the industry, the AB instituted a policy of issuing temporary certificates and licenses. Although increased budgets in later years enabled the AB to bolster its staffing, the burgeoning interest in aviation, as well as the ever increasing workload associated with renewing licenses, made it virtually impossible for the AB to catch up. Only after the slowdown in aviation in the post-1929 economy did the backlog finally clear.

The oversight system revolved around inspectors. Inspectors were assigned to eleven districts, each controlled by a supervising air inspector. Each inspector was assigned to particular centers of aircraft activity and traveled from one to another based on an itinerary drawn up by a supervisor. At each stop, he inspected factories, tested aircraft, and examined pilots and mechanics. Later, in a 1933 move to reduce the budget, the number of districts was reduced to eight, and users were required to travel to the inspector’s location. Accident investigation was another inspector duty. Inspectors worked long hours and were paid considerably less than those with similar expertise in private industry. Their jobs were also hazardous, particularly when conducting flight testing pilot-licensed applicants. In 1929, three inspector fatalities occurred during flight testing.

Inspectors in the field were often far less lenient than headquarters officials. There are anecdotes of inspectors abusing their authority, cutting a fabric wing with a pocketknife while saying “I don’t think this is strong enough” or stating “I don’t like this plane and I’ll tell you why—I just don’t like it.” Pilot licenses might also be pulled even for minor infractions. The fear and respect accorded inspectors may have been instrumental in keeping some in the job despite its low pay and long hours.

The 32-passenger Fokker F.32 first flew in 1929.
The 32-passenger Fokker F.32 first flew in 1929.

Backlogs were not the only reason for granting temporary certificates and waivers. About 10 percent of pilot license applicants were permitted to fly even though they did not pass medical tests. The general policy was to do this when pilots did not intend to engage in aviation as a business. Likewise, even when an aircraft failed initial certification tests, the AB would sometimes grant temporary certificates to give the manufacturer time to remedy the defects rather than effectively forcing it out of business.

This liberalism had its price. Over a 3-year period, the fatality rate of pilots flying under a waiver was 2.4 percent compared to 1.5 percent for those who met all requirements. There were several crashes in the late 1920s involving catastrophic failures of aircraft operating under the temporary certificates. Confronted by a New York Times reporter writing a story on these incidents, Director McCracken agreed that they reflected the difficulty of reconciling the promotional and regulatory responsibilities. In reply, the reporter observed “You have been confronted with an appalling job.” In addition to the pressure for a liberal approach in interpreting its existing rules, the AB was faced with a variety of calls for changing the rules themselves. Given the rapid evolution of the industry, as well as the many lessons learned from initial experience with the oversight program, it is not surprising that many adjustments were in order. The difficulty was in maintaining the continuity of the oversight program while responding to suggestions and pressures from every corner of the aviation industry. Flying schools sought deferral of medical exams until students were about to fly solo and longer minimum solo flight times for license eligibility. The father of a 16-year-old pilot killed in a crash pushed for increasing the minimum pilot age to 18. Football fans mourning the death of Knute Rockne in an air transport crash argued that air carriers should be required to carry parachutes.

The plane crash that killed Knute Rockne (insert).
The plane crash that killed Knute Rockne (insert).

More significant were changes advocated by the air carrier industry. When many licensed mechanics were found to be incompetent, the AB toughened examinations. A loophole that allowed air transport pilots to have their flight test on any aircraft—even a one or two seater—was modified to make the test and license specific to each type of aircraft. A new pilot category, Scheduled Air Transport, with stricter requirements was established. Crew requirements were modified to require co-pilots, albeit with a Transport rather than a Scheduled Air Transport license, on larger planes used in scheduled transport. The stricter requirements became a factor in labor relations when AB inspectors disqualified half of the replacement pilots hired by Century and Pacific Air Lines to replace those it had dismissed in a labor dispute.

Most importantly, beginning in 1930, certification requirements were extended from pilots, mechanics, and aircraft to the business enterprises that employed them—airlines and flight schools. In response to a series of serious accidents in the later 1920s and a rising sentiment in Congress that airline safety regulation responsibility should be transferred to the Interstate Commerce Commission, the AB ruled that beginning in 1930, companies conducting scheduled air passenger operations had to have a certificate of authority. To be certified, an airline had to have adequate ground organization and maintenance procedures, a sufficient staff of licensed pilots and mechanics, and aircraft that met government equipage and instrumentation requirements. The new rules required the creation of a new inspector force. Four 3-person teams, consisting of two inspectors and a maintenance inspector, were created and assigned to bases in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles.

An additional set of commercial airline safety rules were issued in 1935, by which time the AB had been re-designated the Bureau of Air Commerce (BAC). The new requirements included multiple-engine planes capable of flying on one engine for night flying, multi-engine aircraft with two-way radios for instrument flying, limits on flight hours for pilots, and BAC approval of airline dispatching procedures and personnel. BAC certification of airport controllers, airline employees at the time, also became mandatory.

Looking back on the first decade of the ACA, the BAC could cite some impressive statistics. Its success in promoting aviation could be seen in the several hundred-fold increase in the number of pilots, airmail revenue, and passengers carried between 1927 and 1937. At the same time, the rate of fatal accidents per aircraft mile had decreased by a factor of 10 for scheduled airline service, and a factor of four for other flying.

Boeing 247 airliner operated by United Airlines. (Credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum)
Boeing 247 airliner operated by United Airlines. (Credit: San Diego Air & Space Museum)

Despite these gains, there was rising sentiment during the late 1930s that federal aviation activities should be reorganized. The sentiment was fueled by a number of events, most prominently the crash of a TWA airliner carrying Senator Bronson Cutting in 1935. The BAC investigation suggested that poor weather, a malfunctioning radio, questionable decision making by a TWA dispatcher, and the pilot’s violation of a rule against instrument flying without a working radio all contributed to the event. An investigation by the Senate pointed the blame mainly at the BAC, citing problems with the equipment it provided for instrument landings, as well as irregularities in the Bureau’s regulatory process. The conclusions of the Senate investigation were probably tainted by TWA’s efforts to shift blame and avoid legal liability, but they pointed to a conflict of interest faced by the BAC when it investigated accidents [30]. This combination of circumstances led many to conclude that responsibility for accident investigation, and perhaps all safety matters, should be shifted out of the Department of Commerce. This idea gained further momentum when combined with a package of other aviation reforms that included, for the first time, direct economic regulation—a measure strongly supported by the established airlines but with less broad-based support than actions to promote safety. In the words of Commons, “And so it was that the Bureau of Air Commerce became a sacrificial pawn in a game played by the airlines to ensure their own survival.”

The Series

  • Excellent reporting Doug, Thank you. After Mr. Musk lost his mission and vehicle last summer, I spent a couple of late nights watching the ‘Pioneers in Aviation’ series over and over again series on PBS in Florida, broadcast shortly after the event, either by coincidence or design (you never know about Florida, but it was a big deal down there). That was extremely beneficial for me to put all of this into perspective.

    http://www.pioneersinaviation.com/

  • ThomasLMatula

    Great Article! An appropriate level of regulation is important for building public, and customer, confidence in an industry. In the 1890’s the lack of interest of the federal government in regulating the emerging electrical industry led to the insurance firms creating the Underwriters Laboratory to do so. A firm’s products had to satisfy their standards before an insurance policy was issued. It was a key factor that led to the rapid expansion of the industry in the years following.

    I am especially worried about how the FAA AST is licensing spaceports. The SpaceX facility in South Texas is a good example. Not only are occupied homes too close, but its proximity to the Mexican border will make security difficult. They will have to coordinate with Mexican authorities to ensure the safety of their launches. That was why, when I was working in Texas in the early part of this century, the proposed South Texas Spaceport was located further up the coast just south of Port Mansfield, a much safer site.

  • Vladislaw

    Doug, OFF TOPIC:
    did you catch Buzz talking at CPAC

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=6&v=eQR84KbYIv4

  • Douglas Messier

    I’ve added a link to the FAA report for anyone who wants to read it.

  • LA Julian

    Contrast an era when those involved almost entirely understood that they needed to get their acts together, with the present. (Just read a horrible story on the Hanscom passenger plane crash in which a failure due dangerous flaw in the aircraft design went unnoticed because the pilots never bothered with flight checks in this small local airline because things were always fine — until they weren’t, and everyone died needlessly in the fire that followed.)

  • Enceladus

    It must have made old Vladislaw crap his pants seeing Buzz Aldrin speaking at CPAC……I always enjoy watching a liberal moron wet his pants…….

  • Enceladus

    Did you wet your DEPENDS Vlady? Take a hike Liberal moron…….