Tribute to an Aviation Journalist

If you read airplane magazines, you’ve seen Howard Levy’s photographs.

One of his early photos is of the 1937 M-156 flying boat, which Glenn Martin offered to Pan American World Airways. Instead, Aeroflot took one — the only one.
One of his early photos is of the 1937 M-156 flying boat, which Glenn Martin offered to Pan American World Airways. Instead, Aeroflot took one — the only one. Howard Levy

Howard Levy took his first photograph in 1936, when he was 15 years old. His subject was his sister…and an airplane. From that moment on, Levy built an exuberant career around his favorite pastime, which he called “chasing aircraft.”

When Levy died last January, at 88, he was one of the most accomplished aviation photographers in history. His photos appeared in Look—where he was an assistant editor for 25 years—and most aviation magazines, including Air & Space. When picture editor Caroline Sheen began to work with him last fall on this retrospective, he was assembling a feature for a British magazine—a photographic history of aircraft designed by Burt Rutan.

Levy received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Aviation Photography in 2003, and was a founding member of the American Aviation Historical Society.

When a career is this full, how does one choose the highlights? Levy struggled. He e-mailed last fall, “I am in a real big quandary.” He proceeded to list the types, eras, circumstances, locations, and in some cases histories of the thousands upon thousands of airplanes he had photographed. Should he include the photos from his 30-month trip around the world as a U.S. Army Air Forces photographer during World War II, when he shot military aircraft in Egypt, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, India, and Bengal? “I photo’d military and civilian Grummans from the ’30s to post-WW II days at their Long Island factories, which began in a Quonset hut at Seversky Field,” he wrote. “I also photo’d a number of the industry pioneers. In fact, I photo’d a WW II US, British, French, and German ace together but I can’t remember who each was.” He had hundreds of prints from visits to airports, museums, and factories, and from the Paris Air Show, which he attended every two years from 1951 to 1981. “So you can imagine the amount of pix I have,” wrote Levy. “Any suggestions what might be of particular interest?”

His friend Glenn Stott, who met him at meetings of Experimental Aviation Association Chapter 315, where Levy had been a member for years, says Levy never missed the Sunday gathering at Old Bridge Airport, near the photographer’s New Jersey home. Stott, a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, often looked through Levy’s photo collection. “You just mention an airplane, and he could talk to you for 20 minutes about it—the background of the people who built it and the company that started it that then became this company.” Stott says that Levy intended to donate the collection to a university, where it could be cataloged and preserved.

In the 19 years that EAA media director Dick Knapinski has been with the Wisconsin-based association, he doesn’t remember an Oshkosh fly-in without Levy. “And you could tell he was in his natural habitat,” says Knapinski.

Levy finally settled on the photographs he wanted published in Air & Space, and he wrote this introduction for them:

“Now, here are a few photographs of the many individual company-built aircraft that this photographer has met up with in much earlier days and which possibly not too many of the readers may know of unless they are historians.”

And as for his earlier question, “Any suggestions what might be of particular interest?” All of them, Howard.

The photographer and his clientele, ca. 1980. JACK ELLIOTT
One of Levy's early photos is of the 1937 M-156 flying boat, which Glenn Martin offered to Pan American World Airways. Instead, Aeroflot took one — the only one. Howard Levy
A WACO UEC at New York’s Floyd Bennett Field caught Levy’s eye in 1936. He was taking a photograph of his sister, but it’s the airplane that launched his career. Howard Levy
Frank Piasecki with his first helicopter, the PV-2. Howard Levy
The signature purity of Levy’s photographs captures an airplane’s soul. The RS-1, a humble two-seater offered just before World War II began, won few customers for the New York-based Ross Aircraft Corporation but has been called “an airplane at its simplest.” Howard Levy
Jack Northrop wasn't the only U.S. designer creating tailless aircraft in the 1930s. Levy caught a rare type at Floyd Bennett Field in 1938. Rebuilt by Tuscar Metals after a crash, the H-71 had rudders mounted outboard on the wings. Howard Levy
A long-time member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, Levy paid as much attention to the one-of-akind homebuilts, like the Ra-son Warrior with its glass-enclosed cockpit and widechord wing, as he did to airplanes rolling off a production line. The un-warrior-like Warrior was the third airplane created by Alvis Johns, who, noted a 1958 issue of Sport Aviation, was 21 when he built his first airplane. Howard Levy
Levy snapped this photo of Jimmy Doolittle in the cockpit of a North American B-25 on October 20, 1943, when the general visited the 12th Bomb Group, a B-25 outfit, in Gerbini, Sicily. Howard Levy
Drago Jovanovich started a helicopter company with engineers he lured from Frank Piasecki’s operation. An early product was the JOV-3. Howard Levy
Built for Romanian aerobatic star Alex Papana, the Bellanca tri-motor competed in cross-country races. Howard Levy
Levy’s caption for the Gwinn Aircar shows how connected he was to the activity swirling around Floyd Bennett Field, where this photo was made, in the late 1930s. “Designed by Joseph Gwinn Jr., who was Consolidated Aircraft’s chief engineer when the company was based at Buffalo. [Race pilot] Frank Hawks was demonstrating the airplane around the country, and the day after our photography he flew the aircraft to upstate N.Y. Unfortunately, while conducting a demo flight and with a potential customer aboard, the aircraft tangled with unseen high tension wires, crashed and burned, killing both.” After the accident, Gwinn shut down the plant. Howard Levy
Although Levy liked to go off the beaten path to chase aircraft, he also covered main events, like the roll-out of Canada’s pride and joy, the Mach 2, deltawing Avro CF-105 Arrow. He found number 01 away from the crowds at Avro’s Toronto airport factory in October 1957. The Canadian government cancelled the fighter program in 1959, after six aircraft had been built. Howard Levy
Of this Messerschmitt in Levy’s World War II photo collection, he says simply: “Well-strafed Me 109F at Gerbini, Sicily on August 31, 1943.” Howard Levy
The familiar camera around his neck and camera bag across his shoulder, Levy collected a few more photos last October at an open house and fly-in at the Eagles Nest Airport in New Jersey. He had become a fixture at the EAA airplane celebration in Oshkosh, one of the people you looked for every year. GLENN STOTT