Wings Over Washington

In more innocent times, it was okay to buzz the Capitol.

flying near capitol
Library of Congress

These days, you have to be either crazy or confused to fly a private airplane over downtown Washington D.C. But it wasn’t always that way. Early in the 20th century, even the U.S. Capitol building had an open-skies policy, with aircraft of all types regularly flying over the dome or landing near the building’s historic eastern steps.

The first known photo of the Capitol taken from the air was in 1897, courtesy of William Eddy and his kite-flown camera. By 1913, wire-frame aircraft were flying over the building or landing on the plaza near the steps, a practice that continued into the 1920s and 30s. The rules tightened up in 1938 after a U.S. Army airplane crashed on Capitol Hill, and more restrictions were added during World War II.

Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, Washington has been a virtual no-fly-zone, with the restricted area now radiating 30 nautical miles from the dome of the Capitol. As a result, scenes like this one— Lincoln Beachey flying a Curtiss over Washington in 1913—have become distant memories.

Fortunately, we still have pictures (see the gallery below).

Flying Camera

(NASM)

William A. Eddy and his assistant Edward Herbert Young suspended a camera from a tandem line of nine Eddy Kites in September 1897, to snap this photo of the Capitol dome and grounds.

Lincoln Beachey

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(Library of Congress)

A crowd awaits Lincoln Beachey near the Capitol's eastern steps in 1913. A well known daredevil airman, Beachey had flown a route along the National Mall and around Capitol Hill to demonstrate a specially-built Curtiss airplane proposed for the U.S. Army.

Artist Renderings

(Library of Congress)

Around 1906, an artist imagined an airship floating above the dome of the U.S. Capitol, seen here from the east side.

Flivver

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(Library of Congress)

On March 22, 1922, Lawrence Sperry landed on the steps of the Capitol in his 20-foot-wingspan “Flivver.” Two years later Sperry predicted the era of $150 airplanes, which would fly on a thimble full of gas.

Graf Zeppelin

(Library of Congress)

In this undated photo, the Graf Zeppelin (which flew from 1928 to 1937) eases toward the Capitol building during a series of tests to evaluate the possibility of regular commuter service.

Stylish Arrival

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(U.S. Senate)

In July 1931, Senator Hiram Bingham arrives in style on the east plaza of the Capitol as a passenger in an autogiro.

Enterprise

(NASM)

The Goodyear blimp "Enterprise" (NC-16A) hovers over the Capitol dome, circa 1935.

Training Flight Wreck

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(Library of Congress)

On November 9, 1938, two Army pilots, Lt. Col. Leslie MacDill and Private Joseph G. Gloxner, were burned to death in a horrific wreck blocks from the Capitol en route to Bolling Field in Anacostia, Maryland, following a demonstration and training flight in a BC-1 pursuit aircraft. Three automobiles on the ground were also crushed.

Exception

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(Eric Long/ NASM)

A rare exception to flight restrictions over Washington was granted on March 26, 2007, for an Airbus A380 returning to Europe after its U.S. debut at four airports.

Enola Gay

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(Eric Long/ NASM)

The fuselage of the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay passes by the U.S. Capitol on its way from the Mall location of the National Air and Space Museum to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles, Virginia.