Air travel came into its own after World War II, as passenger airlines upgraded their fleets to include larger airliners that could carry dozens — and, later, even hundreds — using more powerful engines.
Hundreds of airports with antiquated systems struggled to keep track of the newly congested airways, making the sky a dangerous place. The whole process was more art than science.
The need to make skies safer as air travel grew was a job given to the Airways Modernization Board, which took over Egg Harbor Township’s Naval Air Station Atlantic City in July 1958. The board, a precursor to the modern Federal Aviation Administration, renamed the airfield the National Aviation Facilities Experimental Center, or NAFEC; from there the base developed into today’s William J. Hughes Technical Center.
After World War II, many airports were using a physical map laid out over a table to follow traffic. Air traffic controllers would move paper shrimp boats based on messages relayed by the pilots themselves, according to aviation historian Stan Ciurczak.
“Where’s that flight?” A supervisor would call out over the radio.
“Halfway over the Rockies now,” the pilot’s voice would chirp over the receiver. Then another air traffic controller would slide the corresponding shrimp boat a little farther across the map.
In the air, pilots relied primarily on maps and what they could see from the cockpit. They depended on the airports to tell them if another airplane was overtaking them from any other direction.
“As long as nobody sneezed, I guess it worked,” said Ciurczak, 59, of Upper Township.
The system, which hadn’t changed in decades, often failed, as it did June 30,1956, when two airliners collided over the Grand Canyon. All 128 passengers and crew were killed, marking a crisis point in commercial aviation that prompted the U.S. government to intervene.
“Congress realized, ‘If we don’t get this sorted out, people won’t buy plane tickets,’” Ciurczak said.
At the same time, the advent of jet engines meant that Naval Air Station Atlantic City, which had opened in Egg Harbor Township in 1943, was facing closure.
Officials lobbied Congress to keep the facility running, knowing that the region was as dependent on the Navy base’s payroll — now as much as $10.5 million with 400 civilian employees — as ever. Their efforts were to no avail.
The announcement that the base would close by July 1960 came in 1957. It cited the faciility’s proximity to expanding suburban populations, the need for additional target practice areas and the cost to upgrade deteriorating World War II-era buildings.
An Atlantic City Press editorial compared the loss of the base to “the feeling New Yorkers will have when, and if, the Giants and Dodgers move to the West Coast.”
The closure, much like the relocation of the New York baseball teams (they moved in 1958), was inevitable. But just as the Navy scaled back operations, an even larger and more influential entity — the Airways Modernization Board — moved in with its mission of making aviation, and passenger service in particular, safer.
“If you’ve flown on an airplane and set foot back on land in one piece, it’s thanks to the technologies developed right here,” said Ciurczak, unofficial historian for the modern William J. Hughes Technical Center. Like most of the FAA’s current employees, Ciurczak’s official title is a variant of the vague-sounding “analyst.”
Ciurczak said the AMB’s top priority was to find an efficient and safe method of air traffic control.
“They had to figure out a way to see aircraft no matter where they were or how far away they were from the airport,” he said.
To that end, Ciurczak said, the AMB brought in hundreds of employees from the recently defunct Civil Aeronautics Authority, which had been assigned the job previously, and other military bases.
“To stand up an organization on a dime, you have to come in with people, project work and money,” he said.
Irene Kain, 93, of Mays Landing, likes to tell people that she was the first employee at NAFEC. Originally a member of the U.S. Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, Kain stayed on as a civilian employee through the 1950s and ended up showing one of the incoming AMB officials around the base.
“He asked me if I wanted a job and I said ‘yes,’” she said. “I viewed what I was doing as a now thing. I wasn’t just a flunkie; I was doing something that mattered.”
As a technical editor from NAFEC’s inception through her retirement in 1977, Kain reviewed most of the project reports before passing them up the chain of command. Every chance she got, she also flew on planes as technicians performed experiments in aerodynamics and radar.
Not all of the testing that took place in the early years was pretty — or successful.
“There used to be a saying that you know NAFEC is open when you see the smoke,” Ciurczak said.
One early experiment was an attempt to make airplanes more visible in the air. Ciurczak said NAFEC engineers painted the wing tips of airliners orange — similar to traffic cones — to determine if that color made them more visibile. Painting the wing tips, it turned out, made the planes more colorful but not demonstrably safer.
“That was the nature of the place — this was a place where you could try ideas,” Ciurczak said.
While the airlines had no financial incentive to perform the tests themselves, he said, a government agency had the capital to conduct these experiments for the common good.
One of the first substantial new technologies came in 1965, when NAFEC engineers developed the first radar data compression. The technology allowed for an alpha-numeric data tag to track alongside targets on radar displays. The tags conveyed important information identifying planes flying into a control tower’s airspace.
Ciurczak said the FAA’s labs have led to other breakthroughs in fire detection and prevention, ground-based navigational aids, collision avoidance and warning systems, and automated air traffic control.
“Much of aviation’s future began right here,” he said.
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