FAA History: 1979

Monday, January 8, 1979:The Federal Aviation Administration and Panama’s Department of Civil Aviation signed an agreement under which FAA’s air traffic facilities would be gradually turned over to the Republic of Panama over a five-year period. The transfer process began on October 1, when the Panama Canal Treaty went into effect. The agreement affected over 125 FAA personnel employed at the International Flight Service Station (IFSS), the Center and Terminal Radar Approach Control (CERAP), and in related operational and maintenance responsibilities. As part of the agreement, FAA helped to train Panamanian personnel for their new air traffic responsibilities.
The presence of FAA and its predecessor agency in Panama dated back to 1942, when the Civil Aeronautics Administration established a communications station there at the request of the Navy. A 1949 agreement called for the U.S. to provide air traffic control services for Panama, a function initially performed by the Air Force but transferred to FAA after its creation in 1958.
In a ceremony on April 22, 1983, FAA turned over the CERAP, its last facility in Panama to the government of that country. Only four FAA technicians then remained to perform maintenance and training for another year.
Sunday, January 14, 1979:Braniff Airlines began flying leased Concorde supersonic airliners between Washington Dulles and Dallas-Fort Worth airports, under the terms of a unique interchange agreement with British Airways and Air France. Since the Concordes carried passengers between two American cities, they had to be registered in the United States. This involved FAA certification of the Concorde and a special FAA rule allowing the speedy re-registration of the planes between the two European carriers and Braniff. The Braniff flights were over land and therefore had to be flown at subsonic speeds under U.S. environmental rules, but nevertheless cut the flight time between Dallas-Fort Worth and Europe. The service did not prove to be profitable, however, and Braniff terminated it on June 1, 1980.
Friday, January 19, 1979:To reduce airport noise levels nationwide, FAA recommended a two-segment departure profile for jet aircraft of 75,000 pounds or more. Aircraft using the new procedure would climb under full power to 1,000 feet to get up quickly over airport communities, thus minimizing the noise reaching the ground. At that altitude, they reduced their climb angle to pick up speed and permit retraction of flaps and other high-lift devices before continuing to climb to 3,000 feet under reduced power. The new procedure was intended to replace a variety of practices at many airports, under which the power cutback points varied from 450 to 1,500 feet. FAA did not make the procedure mandatory because safety considerations sometimes dictate that pilots employ other departure procedures. (See August 1, 1972.)
Friday, March 16, 1979:FAA Administrator Bond announced his plan to eliminate the “blanket immunity” provisions of the Aviation Safety Reporting Program (ASRP) while continuing to provide anonymity to those using the program to report hazards and safety-related incidents (see April 15, 1976). The Administrator said he wished to close “the loophole that makes it possible for a violator to escape punishment even if the offense is committed in full public view.” On March 21, Bond issued a notice that the change would take effect on April 30. Before the effective date, however, a sharp reaction in the aviation community produced a compromise under which modified immunity provisions became effective July 1. Reports of hazards or incidents submitted under the ASRP could not be used in any disciplinary action except in cases of accidents or criminal offenses. When FAA learned of a violation of safety regulations from another source, it would take appropriate enforcement action. If the violator had filed a prompt report with NASA, however, FAA would impose no penalty provided the violation was inadvertent and not deliberate, did not involve an accident or criminal offense, or disclose a lack of competency, and the person had committed no prior violation since the initiation of the ASRP. A later modification, effective March 1, 1985, applied the no-prior-violation requirement to only the five years before a reported incident. These provisions did not apply to air traffic controllers involved in incidents reported to NASA, whose cases were governed by internal FAA regulations. An important difference between the new system and the old was that immunity now applied only to the reporter rather than to all those involved in an incident.
Wednesday, March 28, 1979:Effective this date, FAA required the removal of lithium sulfur dioxide batteries from U.S. civil aircraft. The batteries were used primarily to power emergency locator transmitters, known as ELTs (see December 29, 1970). The agency acted because of incidents in which the batteries exploded, burned, or leaked gas that formed corrosive acid. The order affected approximately 60,000 aircraft, most of them privately owned. In September, FAA issued new standards for the batteries, including requirements that they be hermetically sealed and be replaced every two years. The agency ordered users of lithium batteries to re-install their ELTs by March 28, 1980, but later extended the deadline to October 15, 1980, because of a shortage of the improved batteries.
Thursday, March 29, 1979:Effective this date, FAA revised its rules for airport security. In a departure from previous rules (see December 5, 1972), the agency permitted police officers assigned to security checkpoints in some airports to patrol other areas of the terminal, as long as they could respond quickly to trouble at their checkpoints (see September 11, 1981). In another major change, FAA made it a Federal offense for anyone, passenger or not, to carry guns or explosives into the “sterile” areas beyond the checkpoints. Before, regulations only prohibited carrying weapons on board air aircraft. FAA had originally proposed banning unauthorized guns and explosives from all areas of airport terminals, but relaxed the provision after a negative response from various sporting groups. The revised airport-security regulations represented increased concern, since the bomb explosion at La Guardia Airport (see December 29, 1975), for the safety of people in airport terminals as well as aboard airliners.
Wednesday, April 4, 1979:A Trans World Airlines 727 flying at 39,000 feet over Michigan entered an uncontrolled spiral dive and descended to about 5,000 feet in about 63 seconds before the flight crew regained control. Eight passengers received minor injuries. The crew denied that they had caused the dive or erased the Cockpit Voice Recorder tape, most of which was found to be blank. In a June 1981 report, however, the National Transportation Safety Board described the probable cause of the mishap as the crew’s manipulation of the flap/slat controls.
Friday, April 6, 1979:FAA announced award of a contract for acquisition of second generation common radar digitizers, equipment that converts radar returns into computer-readable digital messages that are then transmitted to the appropriate air traffic control facility. The major advantage of the new common digitizers, known as CD-2s, was the addition of a second channel to permit the equipment to keep working if one channel failed or was shut down for maintenance. The contract provided for 106 of the CD-2s to be installed at long range radar sites, while three would be used in conjunction with airport radars, and seven would be used for training and support services. (See March 1986.)
Friday, May 4, 1979:The regional director of the Washington Office of the Federal Labor Relations Authority ruled that a strike fund established by PATCO was legal. His ruling held that while strikes or other overt job actions by Federal employees were prohibited by statute, strike funds were not. PATCO had established a National Controller Subsistence Fund in May 1978, “to provide for the financial support of members whose participation in a nationally sanctioned job action has resulted in suspension and/or dismissal.” FAA, believing the fund was a war chest for financing illegal job actions, filled an unfair labor practice complaint against PATCO. The three-member FLRA panel upheld the regional director’s ruling in December 1980. (See June 21, 1978, and January 7, 1980.)
Friday, May 25, 1979:An American Airlines DC-10 crashed into an open field near Chicago’s O’Hare airport after its left engine and pylon assembly separated from the aircraft on takeoff. The engine and pylon rotated up and over the left wing, taking part of the wing’s leading edge with them and damaging the control system. The ensuing crash and fire killed all 272 persons aboard the flight and two people on the ground, an unprecedented toll for an airline accident within U.S. airspace.
Early in its investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board discovered the presence of a fatigue fracture of a pylon forward thrust link attach bolt. On May 28, FAA Administrator Langhorne Bond ordered all airlines to keep their DC-10s on the ground until they had completed certain visual inspections. The next day, after learning that these checks were turning up potentially dangerous deficiencies in the pylon mountings, Bond grounded the entire U.S. DC-10 fleet pending a more comprehensive inspection. His order included U.S.-certificated Airbus A-300s because of the similarity of their pylon to the DC-10’s.
As these inspections progressed, evidence mounted that the problem might lie in American Airline’s non-standard use of a forklift to dismount and remount engine and pylon as a single unit during maintenance. Similar cracks had been found on DC-10s operated by Continental Airlines, the only other carrier using the forklift method. On June 5, however, the discovery of cracks that appeared unrelated to the forklift procedure strengthened evidence that seemed to suggest the existence of some more fundamental problem. On June 6, Bond suspended the DC-10’s type certificate indefinitely. He then ordered three parallel investigations into the DC-10 issue.
Thirty-seven days later, FAA’s investigative teams concluded that the aircraft destroyed in Chicago had indeed been damaged by the forklift procedure. This was also the cause of the other cracks found in the pylons of DC-10s operated by American and Continental. (The two airlines later received civil penalties of $500,000 and $100,000 respectively for using the procedure.) Other findings of the teams supported the conclusion that the DC-10 should be returned to service, and FAA therefore lifted the grounding order. The agency required a stringent program of inspections, however, and directed the manufacturer to redesign certain engine mount components.
May 1979:A Fokker Company workman discovered a soft spot in aluminum plate manufactured by Reynolds Metals, leading FAA in August to issue a general notice establishing an inspection program to be conducted by FAA-approved production holders and their suppliers. FAA discontinued the program after Reynolds discovered the cause of the problem in early fiscal 1981.
Wednesday, June 13, 1979:The following changes in the FAA Washington Headquarters organization became effective on this date:
  • A new Office of Associate Administrator for Airports was established.
  • The Office of Airport Programs and the position of Assistant Administrator for Airports Programs were abolished.
  • The Office of Airport Standards and the Office of Airport Planning and Programming were established and placed under the executive direction of the Associate Administrator for Airports.
  • Metropolitan Washington Airports were placed under the executive direction of the Associate Administrator for Airports.
Monday, June 25, 1979: The first of a new generation of air route surveillance radars (ARSR-3s) went into operation. The solid-state ARSR-3 was the first new en route radar system acquired in 20 years (see November 20, 1956). It improved radar tracking range by 25 percent, to 200 nautical miles, and could track aircraft flying as high as 61,000 feet. The new radar could also display weather formations without interference with aircraft targets, providing a much clearer picture for controllers. FAA eventually deployed twenty-two ARSR-3s along high density segments of the en route system, commissioning the last in January 1983. An additional unit, delivered in February 1978, was installed at the Aeronautical Center for training purposes. FAA also purchased four mobile units. With their antenna capable of operating from a flat-bed truck, they could be rushed to any location where the existing radar had failed. (See September 1986.)
June 1979:FAA signed a contract with Western Union Telegraph Company to lease a new telecommunications system for 150 of the busiest flight service stations. The new computer-based equipment featured cathode-ray-tube displays and high-speed printers. It would replace teletypewriters used for Service A transmission of weather and aeronautical information (see January 16, 1961). The lease was to be an interim step, pending implementation of full flight service modernization. (See January 1978 and January 25, 1980.)
Sunday, July 1, 1979:Southern Airways and North Central Airlines merged to form Republic Airlines, which in turn acquired Hughes Air West on October 1, 1980. (See January 23, 1986.)
Tuesday, July 10, 1979:FAA reorganized the offices and services under the Associate Administrator for Aviation Standards (see November 2, 1978):
  • The Flight Standards Service was abolished.
  • A new Office of Flight Operations was established and all functions affecting flight operations were lodged under it.
  • A new Office of Airworthiness was established and all functions affecting airworthiness were lodged under it.
  • The Civil Aviation Security Service was renamed the Office of Civil Aviation Security.
  • A Safety Regulations Staff was established in the Office of the Associate Administrator and given all flight standards safety regulation functions.
Friday, July 20, 1979:Brock Adams resigned as Secretary of Transportation. Adams had voiced concerns about the Carter Administration’s transportation policies and his own need for access to the President. After resigning, he stated to the press that he took the action rather than comply with White House demands that included dismissal of one of his aides. Adams’ resignation was part of a Cabinet shakeup that involved the departure of four other secretaries.
Wednesday, July 25, 1979:FAA abolished the Europe, Africa, and Middle East Region. The agency assigned the executive direction of the Europe, Africa and Middle East Office to the Associate Administrator for Policy and International Affairs. On the same day, FAA transferred the responsibility for the flight inspection program in the North Atlantic, European, African and Middle Eastern areas from the Europe, Africa and Middle East Region to the Flight Standards National Field Office.
Wednesday, August 15, 1979:Neil E. Goldschmidt became Secretary of Transportation, succeeding Brock Adams, who had resigned on July 20. Goldschmidt, who had been the mayor of Portland, Ore., at the time of his selection by President Carter, received a recess appointment. The Senate eventually confirmed him on September 21, and he took the oath a second time on September 24. Goldschmidt served the remainder of the Carter Administration and resigned effective January 20, 1981.
August 1979:An engineering model of a new generation of Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE-3) was delivered to FAA for testing and concept evaluation. (See July 5, 1977, and December 23, 1983.)
Thursday, October 18, 1979:The first prototype of the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 series made its initial flight. Originally designated the DC-9 Super 80, the aircraft was a “stretched” derivative of the DC-9. The MD-80 received FAA type certification on August 26, 1980, and the first production aircraft was delivered to Swissair on September 12, 1980.
Sunday, October 28, 1979:Allegheny Airlines changed its name to USAir, reflecting the growing route system of this former local-service carrier. (See January 11, 1949.)
Thursday, November 1, 1979:Midway Airlines began service from Chicago’s Midway Airport. The new airline was the first all-jet air carrier created to take advantage of the new era inaugurated by the Airline Deregulation Act (see October 24, 1978). Midway began with DC-9 flights to Cleveland, Kansas City, and Detroit, with more routes to be added later. (See November 13, 1991.)
Friday, November 2, 1979:FAA re-designated the Office of Accounting and Audit the Office of Accounting. FAA’s audit functions had earlier been transferred to the newly created Office of Inspector General in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation.
Tuesday, November 6, 1979:FAA proposed a civil penalty of $1.5 million against Braniff Airways for numerous maintenance violations. The fine was the largest that the agency had proposed to that date. In January 1981, however, FAA accepted a settlement of $400,000, stating that its decision was influenced by Braniff’s safety improvements.
Saturday, December 29, 1979:Enacted on this date, Public Law 96-171 required the National Institutes of Health to produce a study of FAA’s Age-60 rule (see March 15, 1960) in consultation with DOT. Within one year, NIH was to submit to Congress a study examining questions that included “whether an age limitation which prohibits all individuals who are sixty years of age or older from serving as pilots is medically warranted.”
The issue had come to a head because more airline pilots were reaching 60 than ever before, a trend that was expected to increase. The Pilots Rights Association, a group of some 300 older airline pilots, had waged a strong campaign against the rule. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) was divided on the question, with many members (especially younger ones) favoring the rule. (Later, ALPA’s board endorsed the Age-60 rule in a November 1980 vote that reversed the union’s longstanding position on the issue.) Another factor that may have influenced the congressional debate was a fatal in-flight heart attack suffered by a 59-year-old Braniff captain on March 13, 1979. The outcome was a legislative mandate for a study rather than a change in the rule.
In response to P.L. 96-171, NIH requested the Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, to prepare a study. Released to the public on April 2, 1981, this report did not recommended either retaining or abandoning the Age-60 rule. It did recommend, however, that FAA institute “a more rigorous and comprehensive medical examination” if it discontinued the rule. In August 1981, the National Institute on Aging also submitted a report to Congress with three basic recommendations: that the age-60 rule be retained for major airline pilots; that FAA extend the rule to all other pilots engaged in carrying passengers for hire; and that FAA conduct a systematic program to collect the medical and performance data necessary to consider relaxing the rule. (See March 30, 1984.)
December 1979:At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, FAA installed the first operational ARTS IIIA automated radar terminal system, one of 29 produced under a contract announced on August 10, 1976 (see that date and March 1978). This initial group of ARTS IIIA systems at first used the same A1.01 software package employed at ARTS III facilities, pending completion of computer programs able to realize the full potential of the new equipment. While this software development continued, FAA in November 1980 awarded a contract to upgrade the other 34 operational ARTS III units to the IIIA hardware level. In October 1982, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport became the site of the first ARTS IIIA able to track aircraft not equipped with transponders, a capability made possible by the new A3.01 software (see October 1985). Since December 1978, meanwhile, Tampa International Airport had been the site of operational testing of an ARTS IIIA that used all-digital processing. FAA commissioned this unique system on September 7, 1982, but it did not become a model for use at other locations.
Primary Sources:
Dated items along the left margin of the FAA History Pages were compiled from the series of FAA’s ‘Historical Chronology’ PDF files. For a list and links to uploaded copies of these PDF files, see aiReform’s ‘FAA History’ main page (link above).
Additional content has been compiled from Wikipedia and other sources; these items are presented along the right margin, and include significant accidents, Whistleblower case actions, various news items, ATC technology developments, links to related material, comments, etc. Further content will be added at a later date.