Airline Expansion and Innovation (1927 - 1941)

The Beginning of Air Traffic Control

Control Building at Cleveland Airport
National Air and Space Museum Archives

As the popularity of air travel grew, so did the need for better air traffic control along the nation's air routes and especially around airports.

Airlines first developed systems to control their own air traffic. However, a series of highly publicized accidents in the mid-1930s, including the crash of a DC-2 in which New Mexico Senator Bronson Cutting was killed, highlighted the critical need for a national system.

The federal government stepped in, and in 1936 the Commerce Department accepted nationwide responsibility for air traffic control.


Navigation by Radio

New navigation techniques were needed to allow aircraft to fly reliably and safely at night and in bad weather. In the 1920s the first low-frequency radio range beacon experiments were conducted along National Air Transport's New York-Chicago route. By February 1931, the entire New York to San Francisco route was equipped with radio range stations.

First Traffic Control Center
National Air and Space Museum Archives

In December 1935, the airlines established the first Airway Traffic Control Center at Newark, New Jersey. Two more soon opened at Cleveland and Chicago. The Department of Commerce took over their operation in mid-1936, and within a year eight centers were in full operation coast-to-coast.


An airway modernization program was launched in 1938, and airport control towers became a familiar sight. In November 1941, with World War II sweeping through Europe and Asia, the federal government assumed responsibility for all towers deemed vital to the war effort.