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FAA celebrates 50 years of watching the skies

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

In 1958, the first microchip was produced and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was established.

Hula-hoops, Barbie dolls and stereos were popular that year.

Something else happened in 1958, though -- the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was created.

On Aug. 27, the agency's Southern Region office in College Park held a brief ceremony to commemorate the anniversary. The event included a video illustrating the history of the agency, and remarks from Doug Murphy, regional administrator for the Southern Region.

"We have a great history," Murphy said. "The FAA has become the gold standard in the world for aviation safety, certification and regulation."

The agency was created two years after two airplanes, one belonging to United Airlines and the other belonging to Trans World Airlines (TWA), collided over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, killing a combined 128 people on the planes. The collision made front-page news across the country, putting aviation safety in the national spotlight.

There were inquiries into why two planes, both of which departed from Los Angeles, collided when they should have seen each other. The TWA plane was supposed to fly at 19,000 feet, while the United flight was supposed to be at 21,000 feet. Following the inquiries, the Civil Aeronautics Administration was re-organized, resulting in the birth of the FAA.

In 1960, the two-year old agency opened an air route traffic control center in Hampton, and the Southern Region office in College Park opened a year later. In 1966, Jack Barker was assigned to the Southern Region office, to act as its spokesperson, and he remained there until he retired in 1991. He vividly remembers a period when highjackings took place on a regular basis, including two occasions where there were three highjackings in one day.

He gave air traffic controllers strict orders to never call him, and start a conversation with "Hi Jack" as a result.

"A lot of those highjackers were Cuban expatriates, who just wanted to go home," Barker said. "They were harmless in the fact that they were not high jacking the planes for some evil deed. They just wanted to get a plane to take them back to Cuba, and once they landed in Havana, the highjacker would get off the plane, and the pilot was free to return to the United States."

Barker remembered several other firsts, such as in 1965 when the old FAA tower at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport became the first tower in the world to use computers and radar to control air traffic. "The FAA was doing an experiment there," Barker said. "As a result, the tower became more efficient. Gradually, every tower put that system in, and what they put in is archaic by today's standards."

Murphy said a time capsule, containing items such as a Blackberry, FAA pencil cases, and an FAA flag, will be sealed and buried on the property of the FAA office in College Park later this month. The goal is to let FAA officials open the time capsule when the agency turns 100, so they can have a glimpse of what 2008 was like.