Uncover Aviation History by Helping to Transcribe Smithsonian Collections

The papers of pioneering pilot William Powell is a good place to start.

Powell's ID
Powell's American Expeditionary Forces ID card.

By the time William J. Powell recorded his first flight in his commercial pilot’s logbook—45 minutes above Los Angeles in a Travel Air on March 16, 1938—he’d already completed a long journey.

The aviation pioneer had studied engineering at the University of Illinois, but left his studies to fight in the 370th Illinois Infantry Regiment in France during World War I. After being gravely wounded by poison gas, Powell returned to Illinois and finished his degree.

Powell learned to fly in 1928, and would later found Craftsmen Aero News, the first African-American aviation trade journal; become the primary organizer of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club (named for the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license); and establish the “Five Blackbirds,” an African-American aerobatic demonstration team—among other aviation achievements.

“He was a huge booster of Black aviation,” says Patti Williams, acquisitions archivist at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “African-Americans have always been a part of aviation,” says Williams. “The Powell materials highlight the issues Black aviators fought against, but the collection also reveals their passion and perseverance. Their participation makes the history of aviation—and American history in general—so much richer.”

Powell with a JN-4 Jenny
In 1928, William J. Powell enrolled in a Los Angeles flight school, earning his pilot’s license in 1932. Pictured: Powell (at right) with a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny, the first aircraft purchased by the Bessie Coleman Aero Club.

The Museum has some of Powell’s papers in its collection, and archivists are hoping the readers of Air & Space/Smithsonian will join the volunteers who are transcribing them. On September 1, the papers will be posted to the Smithsonian Transcription Center. (See the sidebar, right, for more information.) The Transcription Center’s digital volunteers—more than 23,000 so far—have helped turn some 600,000 pages of historic handwritten and typed documents within the Smithsonian’s collections into searchable resources accessible to everyone. The National Air and Space Museum Archives has posted almost 400 projects, with hundreds more in the pipeline. Recent projects include the papers of astronaut Sally Ride and a Japanese World War II journal, the “Yamada Diary,” written by an aircraft mechanic with occasional flight duties.

“People really like the personal side of things,” says Caitlin Haynes, who oversees the Transcription Center, “so personal diaries and notebooks are very popular.”

William J. Powell
A 1920 portrait of Powell.

One not so personal but historically significant example of information being transcribed is the collection of Apollo spacecraft stowage lists. In advance of each mission launch, NASA prepared a set of printed lists that recorded all government- and contractor-provided equipment stowed on the Command and Lunar Modules for Apollo missions 11 through 17. The lists documented the items meant to be transferred from the Command to the Lunar Module both before landing on the moon and after rendezvous in lunar orbit following a successful launch. Museum curators thought a searchable index of the spreadsheets would be useful. But they had no idea how useful.

NASA lunar geologists working on the Artemis project, an effort to return Americans to the moon in the 2020s, are using the transcribed lists to determine which tools flew, and how they were stored during transit. “This helps them identify design changes over the course of the Apollo program,” says Williams, “the quantities flown, and the weights. The information is useful as they plan for Artemis.”

The archival collections in line to be transcribed cover the breadth of aerospace. If you volunteer, you could be among the first to get a good look at the Arthur C. Clarke collection, which the Archives will post in 2021. The collection contains nearly 200 boxes of letters, diaries, manuscripts, and page proofs from the science-fiction writer’s works. The Smithsonian welcomes everyone to become a part of history. There are only two requirements: Volunteers must be at least 14 years old and have an Internet connection. Join volunteers from all over the world who are transcribing the Smithsonian’s many treasures.

Smithsonian Transcription Center

Want to get started? here’s how:

How it works: Twenty-one libraries, archives, and museum departments from across the Institution contribute projects to the Transcription Center. In other words, there’s a project for everyone!

To get started: Visit transcription.si.edu

Do I need any special skills? All you need is an Internet connection, and to be 14 years of age or older.

What kind of materials are available? Field notes, diaries, logbooks, specimen labels, audio recordings, and much more.

When will the William J. Powell Collection be posted? September 1, 2020.

What’s next? As soon as one project is completed, another is posted. But in 2021, the archives hopes to post the Arthur C. Clarke collection, more than 180 boxes of materials from the sci-fi master.

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This story is a selection from the September issue of Air & Space magazine

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