Did you know that the first airline began flying only 11 years after the Wright brothers’ flight in 1903? That the first stewardesses were nurses meant to help relieve the public’s fear of flying? That the arrival of nonstop transcontinental service in the 1950s freed major league baseball to expand into new markets west of the Mississippi? That in 1965, Marlon D. Green became the first African American commercial pilot, and it was eight more years before Emily Howell broke through the gender barrier? Find out about the story of air travel and its impact on U.S. history, culture and everyday life at the National Air and Space Museum’s latest permanent exhibition “America by Air.”
With a wide-ranging array of artifacts, photographs, artwork and interactive displays, “America by Air” shows how paying passengers got off the ground after the development of airmail; how air travel went from the realm of intrepid adventurers to an everyday necessity; and how current events will affect the way people fly for years to come. The exhibition is divided into four thematic sections: Early Years of Air Transportation, 1914-1927; Airline Expansion and Innovation, 1927-1941; the Heyday of Propeller Airliners, 1941-1958; and the Jet Age, 1958-present.
Visitors will be able to cross a 30-foot-high pedestrian bridge and step inside the forward fuselage of a retired Northwest Boeing 747, getting a close-up look at the cockpit and the view from the upper deck of the wide-body airliner that became an icon of the jet set era. In addition to the nose of a 747 and the forward fuselage of a DC-7, seven complete airplanes from the early years of aviation are on display: the Ford Tri-Motor; a Curtiss JN-4D Jenny; a Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing; a Fairchild FC-2; a Northrop Alpha; a Boeing Model 247D; and a Douglas DC-3.
While most of the aircraft is displayed hanging from ceiling trusses, the Jenny is much closer to eye level on supports just outside an airmail hut. Surplus Jennys from World War I became the first aircraft used in regular service by the U.S. Post Office Department. The museum’s JN-4D, in pristine, unrestored condition, was last displayed by the Smithsonian during the 1960s. Several key passenger airplane engines from the 1920s to the 1970s will be displayed in the gallery, including the pioneering 1926 Wright Whirlwind and a Rolls-Royce RB.211 high-bypass turbofan.
With the help of a specially built platform installed in the gallery, visitors looking up at the hanging Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor can feel and hear the continuous heavy vibrations that rattled travelers aboard the classic “Tin Goose” in the 1920s. They also will experience modern aviation technology in a life-size interactive cockpit simulation of an Airbus A320 taking off and landing at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The graphics seen through the windshield show the nation’s capital and its landmarks in remarkable detail.
An airline chewing-gum dispenser, a travel insurance vending machine and stylish stewardess uniforms from the 1960s and 1970s help show the social and historical context of the story. Special photo opportunities will be available throughout the gallery, including cutouts of soot-covered airmail pilots and traveling stars from Hollywood’s golden era.
Among the many interactive features, animated maps on large, high-definition screens present a compressed day-in-the-life of today’s complex airline routes and how they can be affected by bad weather. The same displays will show visitors how air traffic control cleared the skies over the United States Sept. 11, 2001, in just a few hours. Many of the exhibition’s interactive features will be available on the museum’s Web site, www.nasm.si.edu.
On opening day, the museum will host an “America by Air”-themed Family Day, with such activities as curator talks and storytimes for young visitors.
“America by Air” is made possible through the generous support of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; the U.S. Department of Transportation; and Airbus. Additional support is provided by the Federal Aviation Administration, Rockwell Collins and The Boeing Company. Northwest Airlines Inc. generously donated the 747 whose forward fuselage is displayed in the gallery.
The National Air and Space Museum building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is located at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue S.W. The museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center— home to a number of historic commercial airplanes, including a Concorde, the Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner and the “Dash 80” original prototype for the Boeing 707—is located in Chantilly, Va., near Washington Dulles International Airport. Both facilities are open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Closed Dec. 25) Admission is free, but there is a $12 fee for daily parking at the Udvar-Hazy Center.