Quesada, Elwood Richard
Aviation PioneerEnshrined 2012 1904 - 1993
Elwood Ricardo “Pete” Quesada was born on April 13, 1904, in Washington D.C. to “Lope” Lopez Quesada, and Helen A. McNamara. After High School at Wyoming Seminary in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, Quesada attended the University of Maryland and Georgetown University before leaving college to enlist in the Air Service in 1924.
Upon earning his commission as a Second Lieutenant his first assignment was as engineering officer at Bolling Field, Washington D.C.
He was part of the five-man crew, including Major Carl Spaatz and Captain Ira Eaker, to answer the question, “How long can an aircraft stay airborne?” On New Years Day 1929, flying a Fokker C-2A tri-motor dubbed the “Question Mark,” the crew lifted off from Van Nuys, California to find out. 150 hours later – after 43 air-to-air exchanges and 11,000 miles of flight – the transport and its record-setting crew returned safely to Van Nuys, earning Quesada and his crewmates the Distinguished Flying Cross.
A wide variety of assignments followed, among them flying as an air mail pilot and serving two and a half years as an advisor to Argentina’s air force.
A year at the Army Command and General Staff School prior to World War II convinced Quesada that, “future war will require all sorts of arrangements between the air and the ground, and the two will have to work closer than a lot of people think or want.”
In July 1941, Major Quesada was assigned commanding officer of the 33rd Pursuit Group at Mitchel Field in New York. With the United States’ involvement in World War II, Pete’s duties and rank advanced rapidly. After a stint at Lieutenant General Arnold’s Headquarters and command of a fighter group, Quesada, promoted to Brigadier General, subsequently set up the First Air Defense Wing and soon after deployed to North Africa.
By early in 1943 he commanded the 12th Fighter Command and was deputy commanding general of the Northwest African Coastal Air Force in the Mediterranean. Quesada immersed himself in new technologies such as radar and radio communications, and flew operational flights in the Tunisian, Sicilian, Corsican and Italian campaigns.
By Fall of 1943, Quesada was called to England by Eighth Air Force Commander, Major General Eaker, who appointed him commanding general of the 9th Fighter Command and the 9th Tactical Air Command. In the run-up to D-Day, Quesada put his command through rigorous training in the close-air support techniques of low level armed reconnaissance, train- and tank-busting, and dive-bombing.
By D-Day plus-one, the 40-year-old general was directing the 1,500 aircraft under command from his advance Headquarters on an air-strip carved out just above Utah Beach. New tactics included placing pilots in front line tanks as ‘Forward Air Controllers’ equipped with VHF radios, and using microwave early warning radar to vector fighter-bombers in real time to their targets. Quesada’s leadership was credited by many Army commanders as being a key to the Allies’ victory. By wars end, Quesada, by then known as “the pilots’ General,” had himself flown 90 combat missions.
Postwar, Quesada was promoted to Lieutenant General in March of 1946 and in 1947 was appointed as the first commander of the Tactical Air Command in the newly independent U.S. Air Force. In October 1946, Quesada married Kate Davis Pulitzer Putnam, a war widow with two young daughters. The couple eventually had two sons, Thomas Ricardo and Peter Wickham.
Subsequent assignments after leaving TAC included Special Assistant for Reserve Forces at Air Force Headquarters; chairman of the Joint Technical Planning Committee of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Commanding General of Joint Task Force-Three. After 27 years of service to his country, Lt. General Quesada retired from the Air Force on October 31, 1951.
He then held a variety of positions in private industry before President Eisenhower recruited Quesada to become his Special Assistant for Aviation Matters, and soon Chairman of the Airways Modernization Board. There he organized the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and when on November 1, 1958, the FAA was launched, Quesada was its first administrator, serving until January 1961.
In the years after his work for the FAA, Quesada was co-owner of the Washington Senators expansion baseball team chairman and CEO of L’Enfant Plaza Properties in Washington. He passed away on February 9, 1993, at age 88.
In recognition of his contributions to military airpower and to advancing the safety of aviation in service to his country, Lieutenant General Elwood “Pete” Quesada is honored with enshrinement in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.