A series of experiments was conducted in January 1993 in which a pulsed laser beam was propagated from one aircraft to a receiver on board another aircraft. At the receiver, the resulting turbulence-induced scintillation patterns across an 80-cm aperture were recorded. The measured irradiance patterns were used to infer the fundamental performance limits imposed by turbulence-induced amplitude scintillation on imaging systems and laser transmitters employing adaptive optics to perform phase-only compensation. From the data, point and aperture-averaged scintillation statistics and amplitude correlation functions were also obtained. We describe the theoretical basis for the measurements. A theoretical analysis, applicable in the weak scintillation regime, is presented. Predictions based on wave optics computer simulations are also presented, and comparisons of the empirical results with the analysis and simulation predictions are shown. The methodology used to analyze the data recorded during the ABLEX tests is also detailed a description of the experiment and a discussion of the results obtained are presented in a companion paper.© (1994) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.