Elwood “Pete” Quesada: A Rare Bird

As we commemorate National Hispanic Heritage Month, FAA Historian Terry Kraus remembers Elwood “Pete” Quesada, the retired Air Force general and Latino leader President Eisenhower chose to become the first FAA administrator.

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Pete Quesada taking the oath of office. Photo credit: FAA Archives

By Dr. Terry Kraus, FAA Historian

On Nov. 1, 1958, retired Air Force Gen. Elwood R. Quesada became the FAA’s first administrator. President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the new agency when he signed the Federal Aviation Act on August 23, 1958 and, on Dec. 31, Quesada’s new agency began operations.

Born in 1904 in Washington, D.C., “Pete” Quesada was the son of a Spanish businessman and an Irish-American mother and attended Maryland and Georgetown universities. He enlisted as a private in the Regular Army in 1924, but soon became a flying cadet and a commissioned officer. By the time he left military service as a three-star general in 1951, at the age of 47, he had spent 25 years in the Air Force and its predecessor branches, the Army Air Corps and the Army Air Forces.

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Lieutenant Elwood “Pete” Quesada on board the Question Mark during its historic air refueling operation, adjusting a gas line.

Quesada was a member of the flight crew of the Army C-2 Question Mark, which, under the command of Maj. Carl Spaatz, broke world endurance marks in January 1929 by remaining in the air for more than 150 hours. During World War II, he flew many combat missions and held a series of important commands, including the 12th Fighter Command, the 9th Fighter Command, and the 9th Tactical Air Command. He also commanded U.S. tactical air operations in Tunisia and later on D-Day and the drive across France.

He flew many combat missions, and his pilots called him “Pete” and “the pilots’ general.” He was proficient on several aircraft within his wing, including P-38s, P-47s and P-51 Mustangs, and took part in planning the invasion of Normandy.

On D-Day plus one, he moved his command to Omaha Beach to direct fighter sorties in support of the advancing tanks and infantry. Eisenhower, then a four-star general who led the invasion, chose Gen. Quesada to fly him over the battlefield on observation missions.

His assignments after the war included: commanding general, Tactical Air Command,1946; chairman of the Joint Technical Planning Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,1949; and commanding general of Joint Task Force Three,1951. He held, with various other awards, the Distinguished Service Medal with one cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross.

After retiring from the Air Force in 1951, with the rank of lieutenant general, Quesada held a variety of positions in private industry before returning to government with the FAA. In a biographical article, Life magazine described him as a “rare bird: a military man with a lively and uncluttered mind, an extrovert capable of surprising introspection, a hot-tempered, driven, and ambitious bureaucrat with a deep sense of public duty and a bullfighter’s sense of private reputation.”

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Quesada “jumps” in a photo by Philippe
Halsman taken in 1958.

Upon becoming administrator in 1958, Quesada worked quickly to organize the FAA. Agency Order 1 established the agency’s basic organizational structure. Assistant administrators for management services, personnel and training, and plans and requirements reported to the administrator, as did the general counsel, the civil air surgeon, and the heads of the offices of public affairs, congressional liaison, and international coordination.

Four bureau directors ran the agency’s major programs: research and development; flight standards; air traffic management; and facilities. The FAA’s initial field structure included six numbered regions and three field facilities the National Aviation Facilities Experimental Center in New Jersey; the Aeronautical Center in Oklahoma City; and Washington National Airport.

With the organizational structure in place, Quesada mounted a vigorous campaign to improve aviation safety. The fledgling agency faced an enormous task in updating decades-old safety standards that covered flight operations, maintenance procedures, and physical and proficiency requirements for pilots. Gen. Quesada’s overriding concern for safety prompted him to come down hard on those suspected of negligence. He cited statistics showing that accidents often were a result of inexcusable human error.

“If I accomplish nothing else,” he once said, “I hope to make the entire FAA staff conscious of our primary obligation to serve the public interest.”

He noticed that pilots and co-pilots sometimes strolled through the passenger cabin when they were supposed to be at the controls. “This practice must cease forthwith,” he ordered.

In one of his more controversial moves, Quesada instituted the FAA’s “age 60 rule,” which barred individuals who had reached their 60th birthday from serving as pilots on aircraft engaged in certified route air carrier operations, or on large aircraft engaged in supplemental air carrier operations. The FAA declared that sudden incapacity due to certain medical defects, such as heart attacks and strokes, became significantly more frequent in any group reaching age 60.

Under his leadership, because of increased inspections of pilot qualifications and airline maintenance practices, flying was becoming safer. As he explained his safety program to Time, Quesada said that when a passenger buys a ticket for a flight, they “don’t know who’s going to fly” them or anything about the pilot’s training or the airline’s equipment:

“The public acts in faith, faith in the system, and we’ll see to backing up that faith. I’m here to represent the public, and dammit, the public will be protected.”

In addition to his safety campaign, Quesada worked to modernize air traffic control systems. During his tenure, the FAA commissioned the first UNIVAC file computers for air traffic control use at the air route traffic control centers. Controllers used these computers to prepare flight progress strips, exchange information with one another, and aid them in their routine “bookkeeping chores.”

To aid in the control of civil and military air traffic, he also put into operation a 64-code air traffic control radar beacon system in the New York area that became known as secondary radar. A descendant of the World War II IFF (identification, friend, or foe), the new equipment reinforced primary radar signals and permitted positive identification of individual aircraft carrying transponders.

He adopted the Airport Surface Detection Equipment (ASDE) radar system, originally developed for the Air Force, to provide air traffic controllers with information on the position of aircraft and other vehicles on the ground, even during darkness and fog. In addition, the FAA awarded the MITRE Corporation, a research institution created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Laboratories, a contract totaling nearly $6 million for advanced experimentation on automated air traffic control.

Quesada also placed in effect the first of a series of regulations designed to minimize aircraft noise at major airports. Special Civil Air Regulation 438 set up rules for both civil and military aircraft operating at Los Angeles International Airport that included minimum altitudes, preferential runways, and approach and departure routes over the least populated areas. He subsequently issued similar special regulations for operations at New York International and at Washington National airports.

Nearing the end of his tenure, in December 1960, Quesada faced a major challenge when a United DC-8 and a TWA Super Constellation collided in midair over Brooklyn, N.Y. All 128 occupants aboard the planes and eight persons on the ground were killed. Civil Aeronautics Board investigators determined that the United flight had proceeded beyond its clearance limit and the airspace assigned to it by air traffic control. The DC-8’s high speed, coupled with a change of clearance that reduced the distance the aircraft needed to travel by about 11 miles, contributed to the crash. CAB concluded that the crew did not take note of the change of time and distance associated with the new clearance. Although the plane’s inoperative VHF radio increased the crew’s workload, the pilot did not report the malfunction to controllers. As a result of this accident, Quesada quickly moved to require that pilots operating under instrument flight rules to report malfunctions of their navigation or communications equipment. He also announced a program to equip all turbine-powered aircraft with distance measuring equipment. A new speed rule prohibited civil aircraft from exceeding 250 knots when they were within 30 nautical miles of a destination airport and flying below 10,000 feet.

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President John F. Kennedy, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and General Elwood R. “Pete” Quesada (second-right) attend the dedication ceremony for Dulles International Airport. Photo credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

When John F. Kennedy became the 35th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 1961, Elwood Quesada resigned from the agency he helped to create. As he left office, the 40,000 employees of Quesada’s two-year-old agency were operating and maintaining 9,500 air navigation and traffic control facilities, including 425 flight service stations, 228 airport traffic control towers, 41 long-range and 21 precision approach radars, 53 airport surveillance radars, and 35 air route traffic control centers. By 1961, U.S. scheduled air carriers were transporting 60 million passengers a year. A number of new and larger airports were opened or under construction to accommodate increasing jet traffic. The integration of civil and military airspace needs was well along. And, the space age had begun — ushering in new technologies ready for adoption by the aviation community.

Quesada
Quesada

After leaving the FAA, Quesada became owner of the Washington Senators in 1961. He sold his stake in the team in 1963. He later became president and chief executive officer of the L’Enfant Plaza Corporation, a private corporation that successfully partnered with the federal government to develop L’Enfant Plaza. He also served as a member of the Temporary Commission on Pennsylvania Avenue, a precursor of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation, established to redevelop Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the U.S. Capitol. He died in his native Washington, D.C. in 1993.

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