Cities From the Sky

Sherman Fairchild, the photographer who transformed aviation

Fairchild-Camera-Flash.jpg
Smithsonian Institution

Conducting aerial surveys in the 1920s took an intrepid soul. The airplane’s open cockpit—and it was always open—was windy, cold, and frequently wet. The ride could be bumpy, causing the bulky aerial cameras of the day to occasionally plummet over the side. “Pilots and photographers,” wrote Anthony Brandt for Air & Space (“Sherman Fairchild Looks at the World,” Oct./Nov. 1990), “often complained about the harsh conditions: oxygen deprivation, severe cold, and noise and fumes from the engines all had to be endured.” It was an altogether unsatisfactory situation.

So aerial photographer Sherman Mills Fairchild decided he’d build his own airplane.

After spending the summer of 1925 brainstorming in a dank cellar with pilot Richard DePew, Fairchild came up with the perfect camera platform. His airplane, the Fairchild Cabin Monoplane (FC-1), had—oh, luxury!—a heated cabin, excellent visibility, and the ability to fly like a truck. With this aircraft Sherman introduced two innovations: the world’s first fully enclosed cabin, and wings that could be folded for storage or transport. The Curtiss Flying Service immediately ordered six. By 1927, Fairchild had become one of the largest commercial aircraft producers in the world.

For the next four decades, Fairchild Aerial Surveys provided top-notch aerial images to news services, city planners, real estate developers, and other clients. In the mid-1960s, that branch of the company’s business closed, and Fairchild’s huge stock of prints and negatives was dispersed to archives and universities, where they remained—many never looked at again—until urban historian Thomas Campanella of the University of North Carolina began his research. See the gallery below for photographs from his 2001 book, Cities From the Sky: An Aerial Portrait of America, reprinted here by permission of the Princeton Architectural Press.

Boston from the Sky

None
(Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

Fairchild Aerial Surveys would frequently send pilot-cameraman teams to photograph subjects such as skyscrapers and hotels, then try to sell the images. During the 1920s, Fairchild opened sales offices in Los Angeles, Dallas, and Boston (the latter seen here from above in 1932). But even before the Great Depression, most of the company’s real estate contracts had dried up, and Fairchild turned to conducting aerial surveys for the Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of Agriculture.

New York Mosaic

None
(Smithsonian Institution)

By combining 100 aerial photographs, Fairchild produced this mosaic of Manhattan in 1921. Three years later, the company created a map of New York City’s five boroughs so exquisitely detailed it showed cars on Fifth Avenue and crowds on Coney Island. The aerial maps proved expensive to produce, however. An early contract photographing the city of Newark paid a princely $7,000—but to complete the job, Fairchild ended up spending $30,000.

Fairchild FC-2

None
(Smithsonian Institution)

The FC-2 appealed to both civilian and military users, with 50 of the aircraft being built by the end of 1927.* It was much more than a camera platform: The FC-2 (pictured) was used as an airmail hauler and on Pan American Airways’ first international route. One of Fairchild’s monoplanes, named Stars and Stripes and equipped with skis, accompanied Richard Byrd on his 1928 expedition to Antarctica. The FC-2 could carry four passengers in addition to the pilot, and for passenger comfort boasted a cabin heater. Its revolutionary landing gear (incorporating a shock absorber) would remain the standard for 20 years.

Perhaps the most famous FC-2 was the City of New York, which in 1928 circled the globe in 23 days, a new world’s record. Pilot Charles Collyer and passenger John Henry Mears (who handled the travel arrangements) were joined by a small terrier, Tail Wind, who was foisted upon the men at their departure.

The trio averaged 1,400 miles a day, flying between 10 and 16 hours each day. As they flew over Korea, the FC-2 began losing oil. Collyer later wrote for the Fairchild magazine, “The only thing to do was to climb out and investigate. I put the plane in the control of Mr. Mears, letting him take the ‘stick,’ something he had never done before, but it was a case of necessity and I instructed him what to do. I climbed out of the pilot’s window onto the cowling with a pair of pliers. I pulled the pins and opened the cowling, and could see that the oil was coming from a loose tank cap which one of the service men had failed to replace properly. I repined the engine cowling as best I could, climbed back in and decided to land.”

The three completed the trek safely, and Collyer attributed their success to his “pal and buddy” the City of New York, its Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine, and mascot Tail Wind, who “seemed to enjoy the trip, but probably didn’t realize what it was all about.”

*This corrects our earlier version, which indicated a whopping 40,000 FC-2s were produced in the 1920s. We regret the error.

Lower Manhattan

None
(Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

By the 1930s, Fairchild was pursuing work in Asia and South America. Geologists used aerial surveys to identify possible iron mines in Venezuela, and the Peruvian government hired the company to photograph glacial lakes high in the Andes in order to spot potential dam breaks.

Needing to expand, the company purchased a 100-acre property near Farmingdale, New York, quickly adding nine buildings and two 4,000-foot runways.

Among the cityscapes photographed during that period was this October 19, 1931 shot. “In this view across the tip of lower Manhattan,” writes historian Campanella, “Pan American Airways’ Sikorsky S-40 American Clipper, and a smaller companion, pass high above the financial district. Christened only a week before by First Lady Lou Hoover, the American Clipper was used by Pan American on one of its earliest international routes—between Miami and Havana, Cuba. Charles A. Lindbergh piloted the craft on part of its maiden voyage south in November 1931.”

When Pan American needed a medium-size amphibian for an Amazon River run, it also turned to Fairchild. In late 1935 Fairchild introduced the diminutive Model 91 was introduced, which became known as the Baby Clipper.

Aerial San Francisco

None
(Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press)

San Francisco, as photographed by Fairchild Aerial Surveys on April 11, 1931. Two years later, the company built the largest aerial camera in the world. “With ten separate lenses and weighing 300 pounds,” writes Campanella, “the immense ‘aerial eye’ operated at an altitude of 23,000 feet and took a photograph measuring 23 inches on a side, covering 225 square miles in a single exposure.”

Sherman Fairchild

None
(Smithsonian Institution)

By the 1950s, the Fairchild company had expanded beyond aerial surveys and aircraft operations and was producing engines, navigation aids, optical instruments, electronics, even missiles.

Sherman Fairchild’s success had made him a wealthy man, allowing him to pursue his myriad interests, which included cooking lessons at the Cordon Bleu. In his Manhattan townhouse, Fairchild collaborated with vocalist Gene Austin, briefly entering the music business; combining his interest in the arts with his mechanical genius, Fairchild developed early magnetic tape players and high-fidelity amplifiers.

The Fairchild company (and its many subsidiaries) eventually produced more than 40,000 aircraft, including the PT-26, the P-47, the F-84, and the F-105.