Elwood “Pete” Quesada was born in Washington, D.C., in 1904 to a Spanish father and an Irish-American mother. He attended the Wyoming Seminary, a college preparatory school in Kingston, Penn. After graduating, he attended the University of Maryland and Georgetown University.
Quesada began his military career in 1924, joining the Army as a flying cadet. After a brief break from service, he returned to active duty in 1927, serving as an engineering officer in Washington, D.C. Throughout the next several years, he served in several other parts of the world, including Cuba, Africa and Argentina, as well as various U.S. states. His positions included but were not limited to serving as an aide to the chief of the Air Corps; as an aide to the assistant secretary of war; and as commanding officer of the 1st Bomb Squadron. He also attended the Command and General School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1937.
At the time of U.S. entry into World War II, Quesada was serving as commanding officer of the 33rd Pursuit Group in Mitchel Field, N.Y., where he had served earlier during his career. Later during the war, he flew combat missions in Africa while serving as the commander of the 12th Fighter Command. He also served in England, from which he took part in the Allied invasion of Normandy one day after D-Day while serving as commander of the 9th Fighter Command. He then served as commanding general of the 9th Tactical Air Command for a few months before being promoted to major general.
After returning to the U.S. toward the end of the war, Quesada continued to serve in several high-ranking positions until his retirement from the Air Force in October 1951. Throughout his career, he earned several awards, including a Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Purple Heart and an Air Medal with two silver stars.
His service to his country did not end there, however. After working in the private sector, Quesada returned to government service under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who appointed him to be a special assistant for aviation and, subsequently, as chairman of the Airways Modernization Board. In 1958, he was confirmed as the first administrator of the newly-created Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), presently the Federal Aviation Administration. Although the necessity for a civilian to lead the agency compelled Quesada to resign his commission to claim the role, Congress passed special legislation reinstating his status in the military upon the end of his tenure. During his time as director, Quesada focused heavily on increasing aviation safety — strengthening maintenance as well as pilot qualification standards — and on modernizing air traffic control. Although some of his policies were unpopular among pilots, the public viewed him favorably, perhaps a result of his commitment “to represent the public” and ensure that “the public will be protected.”
After leaving the FAA, Quesada served as president of L’Enfant Plaza Corporation and later became the chairman of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation. He retired in 1978. In addition to his work with L’Enfant Plaza, Quesada served in executive roles at other private corporations, including American Airlines and Lockheed Aircraft.
Quesada died in 1993 at the age of 88.
We honor his service.