The Legacy of Flight

Images from the archives of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

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Otto Lilienthal gliding.

Watch a ghostly airship float by the Eiffel Tower on a foggy morning in 1903. Stand on the dusty grounds of Fort Myer, Virginia in 1908, as Orville Wright makes a test flight for the U.S. Army. Meet the unheralded heroes—the mechanics and ground crews—of the U.S. Air Mail Service as they prepare a flight in 1919.

These evocative photographs are just three of the more than two million images in the archives of the National Air and Space Museum. Can’t visit Washington and peruse the files yourself? Never fear. Melissa Keiser, the Museum’s chief photo archivist, has selected 132 photographs from the collection that span the breadth of aerospace history. Her choices have been published in a new book, The Legacy of Flight: Images from the Archives of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (by David Romanowski and Melissa Keiser, Bunker Hill Publishing, 2010); click on the thumbnails below to see a selection.

Pictured above: "Newspaper and magazine photographs of Otto Lilienthal gliding down hillsides near Berlin in the 1890s stirred excitement around the world," write Romanowski and Keiser. "Lilienthal made nearly 2,000 flights, some extending almost 1,000 feet and lasting 12 to 15 seconds. His success stemmed from more than 20 years of careful research. Lilienthal built and flew many different gliders, including this biplane design. His single-wing gliders, which looked and operated much like modern hang gliders, performed best. But control remained precarious, as a strong gust of wind on August 9, 1896, tragically proved. Lilienthal’s glider nosed up, stalled, and plummeted 50 feet to the ground. The fall broke his spine, and he died the next day."

All captions and images reprinted by permission.

1902 Wright Glider

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The Wrights’ 1902 glider, shown here over Kitty Hawk in the fall of 1903 with their hangar and workshop in the distance, was their last and best experimental glider. They flew it hundreds of times and made many modifications. In its final form, the 1902 glider was the world’s first fully controllable airplane. The glider’s three-dimensional control system was the key to their final success, and it was that system—not the powered 1903 Flyer itself—for which they sought a patent.

Female Factory Worker

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The U.S. Navy opened the Naval Aircraft Factory at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard during World War I to help assure its airplane supply, evaluate contractor costs, and develop experimental aircraft. The Navy soon decided to hire female workers and set up a training program specifically for them. Many, like this young woman, worked on assembling wings; others covered the wings, painted aircraft, or worked in the sawmill or machine shop. By Armistice Day, women made up almost a quarter of the factory’s work force.

Aerial Photography

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Trenches stitched across the patchwork of farmland near a French village mark this World War I aerial reconnaissance photograph. Also caught in the frame is a French or British Nieuport 11, a single-seat fighter also used for observation. Tracking the movement of enemy forces, traditionally done by cavalry, was the first effective military use of aircraft. Observation aircraft played decisive roles in some of the early battles, before the combatants began developing better defenses against them, such as airplanes expressly designed to shoot down other airplanes.

Gladys Ingle

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The postwar barnstorming boom resulted from a huge surplus of government airplanes, aviators, and, apparently, adrenaline. For a few hundred dollars, you could snap up the kind of airplane you learned to fly in the Air Service, then do things with it that would have gotten you court-martialed—and make good money at it too. Many wing walkers developed their own specialties; Gladys Ingle, shown here about to execute a midair transfer from one Jenny to another, liked to perform target practice with her bow and arrow while standing on the top wing.

National Air Races

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The National Air Races were the Indy 500 of the air, the preeminent air racing event in the United States. The multiple-day extravaganza featured numerous aerial events and races, including the Pulitzer Trophy speed race, the main event during the 1920s. Banking around a pylon here at the 1931 Nationals is Johnny Livingston in his clipped-wing Monocoupe 110 Special, an airplane he made famous. One of the Golden Age’s winningest pilots, Livingston rarely placed less than second. He made a lasting impression on a fellow pilot from Iowa, Richard Bach, inspiring him to write the 1970s best-seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

Doolittle Raid

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USS Hornet crewmen watch an Army Air Forces B-25 Mitchell medium bomber lift off from the carrier deck on April 18, 1942, en route to Japan. Led by renowned aviator Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle, the 16 B-25s bombed military and industrial targets in Tokyo and other cities. The "Doolittle Raid" inflicted relatively minor damage, but it electrified the home front, sharply boosting morale after months of demoralizing defeats after Pearl Harbor.

None of the B-25s reached their intended Chinese landing fields. One detoured to Russia, where its five-man crew was interned. The other crewmen either bailed out or crash-landed in China. Three died in the process and eight were captured. The Japanese executed three and a fourth died in captivity. The other crews found their way back to fight another day. Doolittle was promoted to brigadier general and commanded air forces in North Africa, the Mediterranean, and England.

P-51 Mustangs

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Equipped with drop tanks for a long-distance mission, a flight of North American P-51 Mustangs fills the frame. The Mustangs—from top to bottom: Lou IV, unnamed, Sky Bouncer, and Suzy-C—belong to the 375th Fighter Squadron, 361st Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force. Based in England, the squadron accompanied formations of B-17s on bombing missions over Germany.

B-17 Bombers

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Escort fighters paint the sky with their vapor trails above a squadron of B-17 bombers somewhere over Europe in late 1943. B-17s were the “might” of the “Mighty Eighth Air Force” daylight bombing campaign against Germany in 1943-45, which culminated in massive raids by as many as a thousand bombers. A journalist who attended the rollout of Boeing’s new four-engine bomber in 1935 coined the name “Flying Fortress”—and that was when the aircraft only carried five guns.

Thunderjet

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Aided by a booster rocket from a Matador cruise missile, a Republic EF-84G Thunderjet lives up to its name, leaping off its launcher during a “zero-length launch.” Photographer Rudy Arnold captured the moment—vehicles and streaks of clouds neatly arrayed around the aircraft—at Edwards Air Force Base in 1955.

HRS-1 Helicopter

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Servicemen grapple with a cargo load slung beneath a Marine HRS-1 helicopter during the Korean War. The HRS-1 was the Marine designation for the Sikorsky S-55, which entered service in 1951 just in time for the Korean conflict. It served as a transport helicopter and as an aerial ambulance, although that role was more famously filled by the H-13, which ferried wounded soldiers and Marines from the front lines to Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, or MASH units.

John Glenn

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NASA selected Marine Lt. Col. John H. Glenn Jr. for the third Mercury mission, the first to send an astronaut into orbit. Senior in age and rank among the Mercury Seven, Glenn brought to the project both a distinguished service record and a winning smile. As a test pilot and a decorated combat veteran of World War II and Korea, he possessed the nerves of steel required for the unnerving prospect of being strapped inside a capsule atop an Atlas rocket and fired into space.

Saturn V

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On December 7, 1972, at 2:33 a.m., night turns to day at the Kennedy Space Center, as the Saturn V rocket of Apollo 17 ignites and rises past its gantry. Well over a half-million spectators have gathered to witness the only Apollo launch to take place at night. The ground trembles beneath them. The deafening roar and the blinding light overwhelm their senses. As the rocket thunders upward and arcs out over the Atlantic, its fiery glow brightens the sky from North Carolina to Cuba.

F-4 Phantom II

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What the Huey was to the ground war in Vietnam, the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II was to the air war. Although the Phantom was designed to be the Navy’s first Mach 2-capable carrier-based fighter, most F-4s were flown by the Air Force. This Navy Phantom belonged to squadron VF-31 and flew off the USS Saratoga.

SR-71 Blackbird

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Slowed to a mere subsonic speed at a conventional altitude, a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird refuels from a Boeing KC-135 tanker. Once topped off, the reconnaissance plane will disconnect, fire its afterburners, and return to its preferred cruising altitude and speed—as high as 83,000 feet, as fast as Mach 3.3. No other jet aircraft has ever gone higher or faster.