Elwood R. Quesada; First Director of FAA
Elwood Ricardo (Pete) Quesada, the retired Air Force lieutenant general who became the first head of the Federal Aviation Agency, died Tuesday at the age of 88.
Quesada died of heart failure in Jupiter Hospital near his retirement home in Hobe Sound, Fla., according to his son, Peter.
A special assistant to President Dwight D. Eisenhower on aviation matters in 1957, Quesada was named by Eisenhower to head the FAA when it was created in 1958. The civilian agency was set up to handle air traffic control and safety regulations during the coming Jet Age after a series of air disasters involving military and civilian aircraft.
“We’re not just patching up an old system,” Quesada said, explaining his 12-hour workdays in the new agency. “This is a whole new system--and we’ve just started on it.”
Quesada headed the agency until 1961, earning praise for persuading the Air Force to let FAA personnel use its radar facilities and for establishing a network of radar-controlled jet expressways across the country. He drew fire for refusing to ground the Electra propjet plane, which suffered several crashes.
Between his military career--which ended in 1951--and his service to Eisenhower, Quesada founded the missile division of Lockheed Aircraft Corp. in Burbank. In the early 1950s, he also worked as a director of Olin Industries and chairman of Topp Industries.
Born April 15, 1904, in Washington, D.C., Quesada excelled at sports and debating. He attended Wyoming Seminar College, the University of Maryland and Georgetown University before dropping out to attend the Army flight school. He flirted with an offer to play first base for the St. Louis Cardinals but satisfied himself with playing baseball and football for the Army at Brooks Field, Tex.
Quesada joined the Army Air Corps when it was set up in 1927 and helped pilot a Fokker tri-motor plane, the Question Mark, in an early endurance experiment above San Diego in 1929. The plane stayed aloft nearly seven days and demonstrated the feasibility of midair refueling.
He next served as military observer and air attache to the U.S. embassies in London, Cuba and Argentina, and shortly before World War II became commander of the First Air Defense Wing at Mitchel Field, Long Island. When the United States entered the war, he became a brigadier general commanding the 12th Fighter Command in North Africa. He later headed the 9th Tactical Air Command in England, which provided air support for the Allied invasion of Normandy.
Quesada flew 90 combat missions as a fighter pilot during the war, including piloting Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower over France. Later chewed out by immediate superiors for landing Eisenhower on a dangerous beach only three days after the Allied invasion began, Quesada responded: “When a five-star general says ‘Go,’ you go!”
After the war, Quesada supervised atomic bomb testing on the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok and served as head of the Tactical Air Command.
In the years after his work for the FAA, Quesada was chairman and chief executive officer of L’Enfant Plaza Properties in Washington, and was co-owner of the old Washington Senators baseball team.
He is survived by his wife, the former Kate Davis Pulitzer Putnam, two sons, Peter and T. Ricardo Quesada, and two daughters, Kate Davis Baxter and Hope Ware Putnam.
Services and burial are being planned at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.