Until you've stood at the front landing gear, right beneath the nose of a Boeing 747, you don't realize how colossal the first "jumbo jet" is. Now you can do just that, then go up a long escalator and walk into the cockpit, thanks to Northwest Airlines, which donated a 747 nose section to the new "America by Air" gallery at the National Air and Space Museum. A century ago, passenger air travel didn't exist; now hundreds of millions of people worldwide fly every year—an astonishing technological triumph. Almost fourteen hundred 747s have been built; they have revolutionized travel by making even intercontinental trips widely affordable.
Through seven complete airplanes and many other artifacts, simulators and interactive displays, this fascinating gallery tells the dynamic story of air travel in America, from the earliest, fairly primitive aircraft to today's supersleek, ultracomfortable behemoths. A four-part narrative (The Early Years of Air Transportation, 1914-1927; Airline Expansion and Innovation, 1927-1941; The Heyday of Propeller Airliners, 1941-1958; and The Jet Age, 1958 to today) takes visitors through time as they experience a Ford Tri-Motor's numbing noise and shudder, a luxurious Douglas DC-7 interior and an Airbus A320 cockpit simulator during a takeoff and landing.
America's airline industry began May 15, 1918, when a tiny biplane loaded with mail clawed its way skyward from a Washington, D.C. polo field. The plane was destined for New York City but headed south in error and landed in a Maryland field. Despite this unpromising start, the U.S. Air Mail Service was born; by the late 1920s, mail delivery was turned over to commercial carriers, which evolved into today's airlines.
Changing uniform designs help tell the air travel story too, as for example, 1950s military styles gave way to the wildly colorful uniforms of the turbulent 1960s. Among the many interactive displays, animated maps on high-definition screens present a compressed bird's-eye view of today's complex airline routes and the effects of bad weather. The same displays show how air traffic control cleared the skies over the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, in just a few hours of unprecedented activity.
The technological developments, safety and convenience in air travel are a direct result of government and business cooperation, particularly in the work of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and its successor, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—NASA—the primary sponsor of "America by Air." If you can't come to Washington right away to see it, take a virtual tour at http://www.nasm.si.edu/americabyair/.
Cristián Samper is Acting Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.