Golden Age of Flight

Americans were wild about aviation in the 1920s and '30s, the period between the two world wars that came to be known as the Golden Age of Flight. Air races and daring record-setting flights dominated the news. Airplanes evolved from wood-and-fabric biplanes to streamlined metal monoplanes. The military services embraced air power. Aviation came of age.

Aircraft displayed here include planes used for racing, record setting, business travel, and exploration. The Wittman Buster midget racer hangs near the entrance. Inside is Howard Hughes' sleek, record-setting Hughes H-1 Racer; the Curtiss J-1 Robin Ole Miss, which stayed aloft for 27 days; a Beech C17L Staggerwing, designed for business travelers; and the Northrop Gamma 2B Polar Star, which traversed Antarctica.


Highlights:

Northrop Gamma 2B "Polar Star"

Northrop 2B Gamma Polar Star
On November 23, 1935, explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, with pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon, took off in the Polar Star from Dundee Island in the Weddell Sea and headed across Antarctica to Little America. Fuel exhaustion forced them to land 40 kilometers (25 miles) short of their goal on December 5, and they walked for six days to reach their destination. They settled in the camp abandoned by Richard E. Byrd several years earlier.

The British Research Society ship Discovery II sighted them on January 15, 1936, near the Bay of Whales. Hollick-Kenyon later returned to recover the Polar Star. The dent in the fuselage behind the engine was caused by a hard landing on the polar ice. The total distance flown by the Polar Star before its forced landing was about 3,862 kilometers (2,400 miles).

More information: Northrop 2B Gamma Polar Star

Beech Model 17 Staggerwing

Beech Model 17 Staggerwing
Called the Staggerwing due to the placement of the lower wing ahead of the upper, the Beech Model 17 first flew in 1932 and became popular as a luxury private and business transport. Staggerwings set many records and won several major air races prior to World War II.

The Museum's Staggerwing, serial #93, was delivered late in 1936 to E. E. Aldrin (father of astronaut Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin) of the Standard Oil Development Company, who used it as a high-speed corporate transport.

More information: Beech Model 17 Staggerwing

Wittman "Chief Oshkosh"/"Buster"

Wittman Chief Oshkosh/Buster
The aircraft that enjoyed what was perhaps the longest and most successful career in air racing history was Steve Wittman's Chief Oshkosh, known in the post-World War II era as Buster. From 1931 until its retirement in 1954, this midget racer set records and took numerous trophies in class races and free-for-alls.

Although Wittman was plagued with several problems in this, his first homebuilt racer, he placed high each year in major races in Los Angeles, Cleveland, Miami, and Chicago. In 1937 Chief Oshkosh set a new world's speed record for its class over a 100-kilometer (60-mile) course at Detroit with a speed of 383 kilometers (238 miles) per hour.

More information: Wittman Chief Oshkosh/Buster

Curtiss Robin J-1 (Model 50H) "Ole Miss"

Curtiss Robin Ole Miss
In 1935 this Curtiss Robin established a world record for sustained flight, using air-to-air refueling. After two unsuccessful attempts the year before, Fred and Algene Key took Ole Miss up from Meridian, Mississippi, on June 4 and did not touch ground again until July 1, for a total time in the air of 653 hours and 34 minutes, or 27 days. During the flight, the Keys received fuel and supplies 432 times from another aircraft. They braved severe thunderstorms and an electrical fire in the cabin before returning to a safe landing at Meridian.

The Curtiss Robin series was produced in the late 1920s and early 1930s as a three-place general aviation aircraft. Ole Miss varies from a typical Curtiss Robin by virtue of modifications made for the flight, including a new fuel tank, engine servicing catwalk, and a sliding top hatch for receiving supplies in flight.

More information: Curtiss Robin Ole Miss

Hughes 1B (H-1)

Hughes H-1
The Hughes H-1 racer, designed by Howard Hughes and Richard Palmer and built by Glenn Odekirk, was developed to be the fastest landplane in the world. On September 13, 1935, Hughes achieved this design goal by flying the H-1 to a new world speed record of 567 kilometers (352 miles) per hour at Santa Ana, California.

Hughes broke the transcontinental U.S. speed record in the H-l on January 19, 1937, flying from Los Angeles to Newark, New Jersey, in 7 hours, 28 minutes, and 25 seconds. His average speed for the 4,000-kilometer (2,490-mile) flight was 535 kilometers (332 miles) per hour.

Also known as the Hughes 1B, the H-1 was designed with two sets of wings: a short set with a span of 7.6 meters (25 feet) for speed record flight, and a long set with a span of 9.2 meters (31 feet, 9 inches) for transcontinental flight. The aircraft as it is exhibited here is equipped with the long set.

More information: Hughes H-1


During the 1920s and 1930s, the U.S. Navy acquired a number of aircraft and experimented with various ways to adapt aircraft to naval usage. Photos and models exhibited in this gallery show how the Navy accomplished this. A similar display illustrates the growth and development of the Army Air Corps and its theory of strategic bombardment during this time.

Don't Miss the Golden Age Theater. Here, Jimmy Doolittle reminisces about aviation in that era.