A Brief History of Air Traffic
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This page contains a brief history about the development of air traffic data communications.
|One thing man developed early was
written communications. The ability to write down information so it could be used later
was a milestone in civilization. The next logical step was an efficient means of
communicating this information to someone else someplace else.
|The developing air traffic service of this century was no different. Communicating information through a nationwide system had to be accomplished in order to help aviation grow.|
|The early Air Mail
Radio Stations (AMRS) of the 1920s used radio telegraphy to communicate with each other.
The information was written by the radio operator as they translated the dots and dashes
back into English. So Air Traffics first data communications system was
a pencil and paper and the radio. Messages on weather, aircraft positions, airfield
conditions, and other information would be passed up and down the airways in this manner.
the pilots main concern, was often sketchy. In the 1920s the Weather Bureau was part
of the Department of Agriculture. Weather Bureau offices were located downtown in the
business and government districts. Weather observations were taken there, and not at the
airfield. Although the Weather Bureau was part of an extensive teletype network for
collection and dissemination of weather information, the early air traffic system was not
a part of their network. AMRS personnel and the pilots themselves used telephones, when
available, to obtain weather information. The pencil remained an important part of the
data communications system.
|The Air Commerce Act
of 1926 changed this situation. The Weather Bureau was tasked with provided more and
better weather information to pilots. During the 1930s, as municipalities developed
airports, Weather Bureau offices gradually migrated from the downtown areas to the
|Despite having the
Weather Bureau at the airport, its teletype system remained for their sole use. Air
Traffic still used the pencil in conjunction with telephones and radio telegraphy to pass
information up and down the airways.
Transmission Distributor (TD)
|Teletype was first
introduced to Air Traffic in 1928. By 1933, the national system was complete. Information
on weather, aircraft positions, and airport conditions could be sent directly to any
station. Many of the codes developed during the radio telegraphy days were carried over to
teletype. Q Codes, as they were called, were a Morse code shorthand developed to make it
easier for the radio operators to communicate. Many Q codes still exist today and are
still used throughout the world.
with only one circuit dedicated to air traffic use, the system rapidly reached saturation.
Another circuit was added. The alphabet was used to name the circuits. Circuit A handled
only weather and NOTAM (Notices to Airmen) information. Circuit B was used for flight
plans, flight notification messages, and other administrative messages. These circuits
were later called services, and remain with us today as Service A and Service B.
|Teletype was a
mechanical marvel of its day, a forerunner of the computer networks that span the globe
today. Imagine a vast network of equipment that had the ability to transmit and receive
messages over long distances in a matter of minutes. Larger stations had equipment that
could receive different messages at the same time!
|An air traffic
specialist would type out a message be it a weather report, a pilot report, or an
aircraft position report on a small, customized 31 key keyboard. As the specialist
typed, the Model 28 ASR (Automatic Send Receive) would perforate a small tape, similar to
Wall Streets famous "ticker tape", called baudot tape. The tape would
contain all the proper addressing, priority coding and end-of-message codes in addition to
the message text. The specialist would then take the perforated tape and load it into a
Transmission Distributor (TD). The TD unit would feed the tape and read the perforations.
The perforations would be turned into electric impulses that would be transmitted to the
At the destination, the
electric impulses would go into a Model 28 Printer. The message would be typed out onto a
roll of yellow paper.
|The teletype system,
with few modifications, served the Air Traffic Service well for many years. Teletype
served in Flight Service Stations into the late 1980s. Stations still using teletype
received equipment from other stations that were being upgraded to use as spare parts.
Equipment manufactured and purchased in the 1930s performed government service for almost
fifty years. In contrast, the oldest computer system in use with the Air
Traffic Service has only seen slightly more than thirty years.
Learn more about the teletype and fonts.
The forerunners to main frames.
|The introduction of
radar in the en route centers in the late 1950s and early 1960s opened the door to
computerization. The computers were first used to run the radars. Terminal radar systems,
starting in the early and mid 1960s, followed the same pattern. Flight Service remained
with the teletype system for handling weather and flight plan information.
|Growth in air traffic
and strides in computer technology called for a better way of doing business. With the air
traffic system reaching saturation on an almost daily basis in 1968 and 1969, it was
obvious that teletype was not a long range option. It was estimated in 1969 that to expand
the current Flight Service system to meet projected 1983 traffic loads would cost $250
million dollars a year. An initial investment of $60 million for automation would
significantly reduce that cost. Part of the "National Aviation System Ten Year
Plan" unveiled in February 1970 called for $56 million for the reconfiguration and
improvement of the Flight Service system.
long-range problem was addressed, but what about the short range? The aging teletype
system wouldnt last until the new systems came on line in the late 1970s. A
short-term solution was found blend teletype with computers.
LSAS and later LABS
the company that made teletype famous built a computer based data communication
system for the FAA. Called Leased Service A System LSAS it replaced the
paper and baudot tape with CRT screens and regular keyboards. It dealt only with the
Service A functions of weather and NOTAM information. Controllers could request weather
and NOTAM information by typing commands on the keyboard. The reply would be displayed on
the screen. A printer was part of the system so controllers could print out seldom
changing reports, such as Area Forecasts and Winds Aloft Forecasts.
|Running the facility
system and linking it into the national system was a computer console called a GS 200. The
LSAS was lightning fast compared to the slow mechanical circuits of teletype. Weather
reports and forecasts were available in a matter of minutes compared to the slower
transmission of grouped reports called polls that came over the teletype.
Flight plans and other traffic related messages remained on teletype, though.
Western Union equipment.
|Later the system was
upgraded to include traffic messages on Service B. The blended system, called Leased A and
B Service LABS, finally retired the teletype equipment from air traffic. Flight
plans and movement messages could be typed directly on to a CRT screen at a dedicated
Service B position and transmitted from the same screen. Incoming messages printed
automatically on a dedicated printer. Weather briefers, though, still used the paper forms
as they copied flight plans from pilots. The completed form would be passed to the person
on the Service B position. LABS had eliminated some, but not all of the paper used in
McAlester, OK AFSS
|Part of the 1970 plan
called for consolidation in addition to modernization of Flight Service. A final number of
61 was fixed for Automated Flight Service Stations (AFSS) to replace the almost 400 flight
service stations then in existence. Modernization through computers would allow
controllers to provide more and better services at a fraction of the cost.
Fairbanks, Alaska operations floor.
Plan called for three separate models to be phased in during the consolidation
process. Model One was the first to combine Service A and B at the same position. Flight
Services controllers could now provide weather information and file flight plans from the
same position, all without paper. The computer could link the two functions together,
providing a customized display of weather information tailored to the route on the stored
flight plan. The first Model One facility Bridgeport Automated Flight Service
Station opened its doors on March 3, 1984. The paperless era of air
traffic had finally begun in Flight Service.
|The Flight Service Consolidation and Modernization Program was finally completed on September 30, 1997, when the last two Flight Service Stations (FSS) were closed.|
|Changing costs and
technologies modified the original FSS Consolidation and Modernization Plan. The Model One
system was upgraded and renamed Model 1 Full Capacity (M1FC). It incorporated many
suggestions from the controllers who used the Model One system.
|The explosion of
computer technology in the mid and late 1980s opened up new and better ways of doing
business by computer. The next generation of data communications was proposed using
off the shelf equipment instead of expensive custom designed systems. Called
OASIS, for Operational and Supportability Implementation System, it is scheduled for
deployment to Flight Service in 2000.
|Flight Service controllers maintain their heritage daily at the Automated Flight Service Stations across the country. At each computer position some paper and a pencil is maintained for those who still do some business "the old fashioned way."|
|Above article written by John Schamel|
About the author
John joined the FAA in 1984 and has been an Academy instructor since 1991. He taught primarily in the Flight Service Initial Qualification and En Route Flight Advisory Service programs. He has also taught in the International and the Air Traffic Basics training programs at the FAA Academy.
History has been an interest and hobby since childhood, when he lived near many Revolutionary War and Great Rebellion battlefields and sites. His hobby became a part time job for a while as a wing historian for the U.S. Air Force Reserve.
Johns first major historical project for the FAA was to help mark the 75th Anniversary of Flight Service in 1995.
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