The first regulations

Those who are familiar with today’s Federal Aviation Regulations know that they are a thicket of rules, occupying four volumes of the Code of Federal Regulations, consisting of 460 sections extending over 3,600 pages.

But 85 years ago, it was a simpler time for aviation. That’s when the regulation of aircraft and pilots began with the Air Commerce Act of 1926. The act instructed the Secretary of Commerce to do almost the same things done today by the FAA, including licensing pilots and issuing airworthiness certificates for aircraft.

To carry out the provisions of the act, the Department of Commerce formed an Aeronautics Branch. It was the aim of the branch to foster, in every way possible, civil aeronautics. The first important accomplishment of the Aeronautics Branch was the promulgation of the Air Commerce Regulations.

These new regulations governing civil aeronautical activities were first published in December 1926 in a document called “Air Commerce Regulations.” This 45-page publication consisted of six chapters covering Licensing of Aircraft, Marking of Aircraft, Operation of Aircraft, Licensing of Pilots and Mechanics, Air Traffic Rules, and a Miscellaneous section.

The first of the Aeronautics Branch’s regulations required all aircraft used in commercial aeronautics to be registered and have a national identification mark. All pilots engaged in interstate commerce were required to obtain licenses. In March 1927 the first aircraft type certificate was issued to the Buhl Airster biplane.

Under the Section “Licensing of Aircraft,” it was stated that aircraft must be licensed before engaging in carrying persons for hire…“Between two or more states, or to or from foreign countries,” as well as “Between two points in one state if a part of the flight is over another state.”

For private pilots, the following provision was made: “Aircraft used solely for pleasure or noncommercial purposes need not be licensed, although engaged in flying between states.”

Aircraft was defined as “any contrivance, now known or hereafter invented, used or designed for navigation or flight in the air, except a parachute.”

The Airworthiness Requirements section was seven pages long. One section alone was concerned with the manufacturer’s data plate.

The first type certificate was issued to the Buhl Airster biplane.

The requirements included airworthiness factors, load-factors, cockpit construction; powerplants and performance.

Flight testing at designed gross loads included the following requirements: “A half-hour flight test at full-load to determine stability. Maneuverability, which includes a flight with full load around two pylons or buoys 1,500 feet apart, making five successive figure 8’s at 1,000 feet without varying more than 200 feet in height.”


The Air Regulations of 1926 stated, “It shall be unlawful to serve as an airman in connection with any aircraft registered as an aircraft of the United States without an airman certificate.”

In 1926 licensed pilots were classified as commercial or private pilots. Flying experience for the private pilot’s license included 10 hours solo time, of which two hours must have been within the last preceding 60 days prior to application. The flight test included a series of five gentle and three steep figure 8 turns from 800 to 1,000 feet, spiral in one direction from 2,000 feet, with engine throttled, and landing in normal attitude by wheels touching the ground in front of and within 200 feet of a line designated by the examiner, plus three full stop landings.

Pilots were also required to keep flight records. “A licensed pilot must keep an accurate record of his flying time in a logbook. It is the pilot’s responsibility to obtain and maintain this logbook.”

By contrast, today’s regulations governing certification of pilots covers more than 100 pages. No doubt current regulations have made better pilots for today’s air traffic environment, but one wonders how much of the current regulations are really necessary.


Chapter Three covered the requirements for the operation of aircraft. It stated that the aircraft owner was charged with “the continuous duty of maintaining the aircraft in a good and proper state of repair and flying condition.” This included a line inspection of the aircraft every 24 hours, with the results entered in the logbook.

After each 100 hours the aircraft was to be given a more detailed “periodic inspection” by the owner. This was to ascertain the working condition and state of repair of the engine, control system, propeller, and fuselage and its fittings.

The regulations also authorized the inspection of licensed aircraft at any time and place by an officer of the Department of Commerce for the purpose of determining its flying condition and state of repair.

In recognition of the pioneering work done in setting a regulated foundation for aeronautics in the United States, the National Aeronautics Association awarded the prestigious Collier Trophy to the Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce in 1928. The award citation stated the following: “Commercial flying could not have progressed to the stage it now occupies had it not been for the establishment of airways, with their intermediate landing fields, night flying aids and meteorological facilities; the examination and licensing of pilots and planes and the encouragement of airports, all of which the Aeronautics Branch has accomplished.”

Though aircraft in 1926 were a lot less sophisticated and had less performance, they certainly flew with a lot less paperwork.

Dennis Parks is Curator Emeritus of Seattle’s Museum of Flight. He can be reached at

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