In the Museum: Flying Outside the Boundaries

In the Museum: Flying Outside the Boundaries

In the Museum’s newly renovated Pioneers of Flight Gallery.
In the Museum’s newly renovated Pioneers of Flight Gallery. Eric Long

In 1931, as Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh prepared to survey overseas routes for Pan American Airways, Charles told a surprised Anne that she would be their radio operator. She later wrote in North to the Orient that the intricacies of Morse code reminded her of French dictation in school, and she had to “let the dark torrent of language stream over me without trying to stem the tide.” The initially reluctant Anne became so skilled at sending and receiving Morse code that she was awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal in 1935 for exceptional radio work.

The radio and telegraph key from that trip, as well as the Lindberghs’ Lockheed Model 8 Sirius and dozens of other artifacts, are among the items on display in the National Air and Space Museum’s Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery, newly reopened after a nearly two-year renovation made possible by the generous support of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The gallery, which commemorates the spirit and resolve of early pioneer pilots, features technological and social advances in civilian and military aviation during the 1920s and 1930s.

“They’re all pushing the boundaries somewhere,” says Dorothy Cochrane, one of the Museum’s aeronautics curators, of the pilots who flew the airplanes exhibited here. During the 1920s and 1930s, pilots were “really proving aviation as a mode of transportation, as an important arm of the military, and as something that the general public could do,” she says.

In the gallery, the Lindberghs’ Lockheed Sirius appears to be afloat in its specially designed dock. It is fitted with its modified EDO floats, which were needed during the Lindberghs’ journey to Asia in 1931 and also for their 1933 transatlantic flights; on each, they landed on the open sea, bays, and rivers.

On their second trip, in 1933, the Lindberghs flew a total of 33,000 miles while checking out airline routes and gathering information on weather conditions for Pan American Airways. Because of the duration of their trips, they had to be extremely careful of the weight of the items they packed. An interactive display within the gallery allows visitors to learn about and choose supplies and equipment they think the Lindberghs packed. If the airplane gets too heavy with selected items, the game starts over.

Other highlights of the gallery include the Black Wings display, on the history of African-American pilots in the United States; the first official Piper J-2 Cub; the Curtiss R3C-2 Racer that Jimmy Doolittle flew to win the Schneider Trophy; the Douglas World Cruiser Chicago, one of two airplanes to make the first flights around the world; and Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 5B Vega.

The Earhart section of the gallery covers some of the lesser-known aspects of the famous aviator’s life after her solo Atlantic crossing. “She promoted the interests of women,” says Cochrane, “and she wrote for magazines, counseled young female engineering students at Purdue University, and did fashion design.”

One of the items on display is a flightsuit that Earhart designed for the Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots that was founded in 1929. Although the women didn’t adopt Earhart’s design (“The women were all too individualistic,” says Cochrane), the logo she devised is still in use today.

One of the stipulations of the Hilton donation was that the Museum create early childhood education programs within the gallery, “with the hope that future generations of young people let their own dreams soar to new heights.” To achieve that goal, the Museum will help its youngest visitors learn about aviation and spaceflight in a children’s hangar located next to Earhart’s Vega. Elsewhere in the gallery, young visitors can watch puppet shows, sing along with music, and explore vintage airplane models and games in toy boxes.

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