Named the Stars and Stripes by Lt. Commander Richard E. Byrd, the Fairchild FC-2W2 flew pioneering mapping and reconnaissance flights on the first and second Byrd Antarctic expeditions (1928–1930, and after three years’ burial in snow, 1933–35). A successor to Sherman Fairchild’s FC-2, this FC-2W2 provided a steady platform for Fairchild cameras and rescue missions. Later the Fairchild Corporation used it for photo surveys across the United States and Guatemala.
The Museum acquired the collection of parts in 1961 and lent them to the Cradle of Aviation Museum, on Long Island, New York, for restoration from 1982 to 1989. The Virginia Aviation Museum then displayed it until its return to NASM in 2016.
Following his transatlantic flight from New York to the coast of France in the Fokker tri-motor America in June 1927, Lt. Commander Richard Byrd decided to mount an expedition to Antarctica for scientific research and, more important, to become the first to fly over the South Pole. The Fairchild FC-2W2 cabin monoplane was chosen as an all- purpose aircraft for the expedition while the Ford tri-Motor Floyd Bennett was to fly the historic South Pole flight. The Stars and Stripes, as the FC-2W2 was christened, proved to be a sturdy and practical addition to the Expedition's complement of aircraft, providing a steady platform for thousands of aerial photographs of new, unexplored terrain.
In 1922, Sherman Fairchild developed a practical aerial camera, the Fairchild K-3B, that became standard equipment for the U.S. Army. Seeking a civilian use for the camera, Fairchild established Fairchild Aerial Surveys Corporation for aerial photography and mapping services. Seeking a better aircraft for such work than the open-cockpit, under-powered, contemporary aircraft, Fairchild designed and built his own aircraft, the Fairchild Cabin Monoplane, FC-1. The FC-1 offered an enclosed cockpit for the pilot and a large cabin area capable of carrying photographers and cameras, or cargo, or five passengers. Windows in the front, sides, and even the floor of the aircraft provided ample visibility for the pilots and photographers. The wings were semi-cantilever and could fold back along the fuselage to allow easier storage and movement of the aircraft on the ground. The FC-1 prototype was followed by the FC-2 with a Wright Whirlwind J-5 200 hp engine and the initial three-longeron fuselage used on early FC-2s was replaced by a 4-longeron design. Answering the requests of bush pilots, the FC-2W model sported six more feet of wingspan and a Pratt & Whitney Wasp 400 hp engine that improved speed, range, and payload. Though developed for aerial photographic use, the FC-2 series was an immediate hit with bush pilots, utility operators and fledgling air line services.
The FC-2W2 model had a longer fuselage and increased ailerons area to carry either six passengers or additional payload. It received Aircraft Type Certificate #61 in June 1928. Byrd's aircraft, NX8006, was pulled off the production line for modification for its Antarctic work and was delivered August 9, 1928 with the name Stars and Stripes. The cabin was modified to carry a pilot, navigator, radio operator, fuel tank, writing desk, cameras, a drift meter, and survival gear. Pittsburgh businessman and Fairchild investor George Hann paid for the aircraft and its precious cameras, relieving Byrd of the burden. The aircraft was flown to the Naval Air Station at Hampton Roads, Virginia, where it was disassembled, crated, and loaded onboard a Norwegian whaling ship for transport to Antarctica.
The Stars and Stripes made its first flight in the Antarctic on January 15, 1929. On January 25, radio equipment and personnel onboard established a distance record of 10,000 miles for "live" two-way communication, using Morse code, between the Antarctic and New York City, where the New York Times held exclusive publicity rights to the expedition. Throughout the flying seasons of 1929 and 1930, the aircraft flew mapping and general reconnaissance expeditions. Bernt Balchen flew it for several rescue missions, including one for the crew of a downed Fokker in March 1929.
The aircraft was buried, wings folded, in a snow hangar, when Byrd left in January 1930, not to return until December of 1933. Unbelievably the Stars and Stripes was not only located, but also restored to flying condition in December 1934. Only short reconnaissance flights were taken until the entire expedition returned to the United States in early 1935. Unfortunately, the fuselage was severely damaged when the aircraft was loaded aboard ship, after flying a total of 187 hours in the Antarctic.
The veteran Antarctic aircraft was sold to Alton Walker, who had it restored at the Fairchild Hagerstown plant, and then embarked on a barnstorming tour around the United States. Six passenger seats replaced the extra fuel tanks and Walker charged 50 cents a ride per person. He logged 304 hours and carried thousands of passengers before offering the aircraft to the Smithsonian, which declined. He then sold it to Fairchild Aerial Surveys (FAS) of Los Angeles.
Returning to the Fairchild fold, the Stars and Stripes was now engaged in the original purpose of the design, aerial photography. FAS flew the aircraft to Guatemala for two surveys and throughout the U.S., using specialized Fairchild photographic equipment, for 1,534 hours of flight time. In July 1942, the aircraft was retired and cannibalized for two other Fairchild aircraft, standard practice for the era.
Fairchild Aerial Surveys sold the Stars and Stripes and two other Fairchild aircraft to Red Jensen in California in 1954, but Fairchild Aircraft in Hagerstown, Maryland, purchased the parts back in 1957. After evaluating the fuselage, wings, tail and undercarriage assemblies, the company decided not to restore the aircraft. In addition to the poor condition of the parts, there were some doubts as to what were original parts. Disappointed by the decision and impressed with the aircraft's history, Paul E. Garber of the National Air Museum offered to take the fuselage and related parts from Fairchild Stratos Corporation in 1961. From 1982 to 1989, the Cradle of Aviation Museum restorated it with documented original and replacement parts only a few miles from its original factory on Long Island. NASM lent the Stars and Stripes to the Virginia Aviation Museum at Richmond International Airport (formerly Byrd Field) in Richmond, Virginia until 2016. It is displayed at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.