Common Research Questions
Can you help me identify an old propeller?
Possibly — please send a written request to the Archives Reference Desk. Your request should include as much of the following information as you can provide: dimensions, size and placement of bore holes, text of any labels on the propeller, and a photo (if possible).
Do you have any information on my relative who was involved in aviation?
Possibly, although he or she would have to have been at least moderately famous. You're welcome to send a specific research request to the Archives Reference Desk, and we'll be happy to check our collections for you. Please provide as much biographical information as possible, especially full name; birth and death dates; and the area of aviation or space history involved (air mail, military, space program, etc.).
I'm trying to learn more about my/my relative's airplane. What kind of information do you have?
If the airplane in question was once a military aircraft belonging to the Air Force or Navy, the Archives may have Aircraft History Cards, which give the inventory history (not operational history) of an aircraft. We would need the military serial number. If the aircraft in question was registered as a civilian aircraft in the United States between 1926 and 1946, we may have selected registration information. We would need the registration number. You can submit a request for the information about no more than three aircraft to the Archives Reference Desk.
I'm working on a National History Day project. Can the Archives help?
We'll be happy to help you with your project, but please be sure to narrow your topic enough that you can make a request on a specific subject. For instance, for topic, "Frontiers in History," do not ask us the question "How is space a frontier?" Choose some aspect of the history of space exploration, and, after you've done your initial research, ask us for assistance by contacting the Archives Reference Desk. You may also find the National Archives and Records Administration History Day website of use.
Do you have anything on African-Americans involved in aviation? Anything on the Tuskegee Airmen?
Yes. We have basic information available on both the Tuskegee Airmen as a group, as well as many individual African-American pilots of the past (including Bessie Coleman). While we do not have any prepared information available, you are welcome to send a specific research request to the Archives Reference Desk.
Patrons interested in photographs used in the publication Black Wings should review the permissions page, and be prepared to specify which photographs you would like to use in your project.
Do you have anything on the history of women in aviation? Anything on the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP)?
Yes, we have a large amount of material in our collections relating to women in aviation, both as individuals as well as groups such as the WASP. While we do not have any prepared information available, you are welcome to send a specific research request to the Archives Reference Desk.
I'm trying to find information on the history of a specific military aviation unit. Can you help me?
Possibly. Our coverage of military aviation units is highly variable. For some units we have a lot of information, for others we have nothing at all. In general, we have better coverage of USAF units and their predecessors than for Navy or Marine units. You are welcome to send a specific research request to the Archives Reference Desk for more information. Patrons interested in U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) units may wish to do research in the U.S. Air Force Pre-1954 Official Still Photography Collection, located at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland.
Can you tell me if the National Air and Space Museum has a particular aircraft or spacecraft?
The Museum's Collections pages have useful lists of artifacts on display as well as an extensive Collections Database.
I'm interested in the UFO phenomenon — does the National Air and Space Museum Archives have anything on UFOs?
No. We are predominantly concerned with identified flying objects.
I know you have a photo in your collection. Why can’t I find it online?
The National Air and Space Museum Archives has over 3 million photographs in the collection. Thousands of digitized images are available to search and download online. If you are unable to find the photograph you are looking for on our website, it is possible that it has not yet been digitized. Please contact the reference desk so that we can assist you.
Everything in the National Air and Space Museum collections is in the Public Domain, right?
No, many images in the collections are copyright National Air and Space Museum and/or copyright Smithsonian Institution, and written permission from the National Air and Space Museum Archives is required to reproduce these images. Copyright on some images is held by a third party, and permission would need to be obtained directly from those copyright holders. Most images that originated with the U.S. Government are in the public domain.
What happened to those USAF photos that used to be at the National Air and Space Museum Archives?
The U.S. Air Force Pre-1954 Still Photo Collection has been transferred to the Still Pictures Branch of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and relocated to the National Archives facility at College Park, Maryland.
Still Picture Reference
National Archives at College Park
8601 Adelphi Road
College Park, Maryland 20740-6001
Phone: (301) 837-0561
I'm looking for a photograph of the nose art and/or nickname on a particular aircraft. Can you help me?
Possibly. Please send a written request to the Archives Reference Desk. Please indicate the type of aircraft as well as any unit information you might have. During World War II, the same nickname (Duchess, Shoo Shoo Baby, Pistol Packin' Mama, etc.) was often used on several different aircraft.
Do you have film of the Wright brothers' first flight?
No because it does not exist. No motion picture film was shot of the Wright brothers' first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. The earliest motion picture footage of a Wright aircraft in flight shows the Wright Type A undergoing military trials at Fort Myer, Virginia either in 1908 or 1909.
Where can I buy a copy of the film Powers of Ten?
Powers of Ten (1968), a scientific film essay by Charles and Ray Eames, is available from Pyramid Media.
Do you have a copy of that film with the wacky old aircraft? Those guys are contemporaries of the Wright brothers, right?
Despite its frequent use in documentary films as an illustration of unsuccessful aircraft designs which preceded the Wright brothers' successful 1903 Flyer, the film entitled Aeronautical Oddities in the News (circa 1948) is a compilation of newsreel film clips dating from the mid-1930s. Duplicate copies of this film are not available from the National Air and Space Museum's Archives.
Acquisitions, Donations, and Appraisals
How can I donate archival materials to the Museum?
If you believe that you have material that might be of interest to the Archives, please tell us about your material. Describe what you have as clearly and specifically as possible. Please do not bring or send any donations of material to the Museum without first contacting the Archives staff.
What sort of material does the Archives Division accept?
We are interested in collecting the following types of material that document air and space flight: diaries, journals, scrapbooks, flyers, and pamphlets, annual reports, correspondence, technical manuals, trade catalogs, reports, minutes from meetings, newsletters, engineering drawings, maps, and charts. Non-print media such as photographs, negatives, film, videotapes, and audiotapes are also valuable in documenting the history of aerospace.
Why should I make a donation to the Archives?
Placing your papers in our secure archival environment with a professional staff ensures that your papers will always be a resource for aerospace historians. Making important papers available to future historians is a wonderful tribute to the individual who created the documentation.
Can I take a tax deduction on the material I donate?
Donations may be tax deductible. Please consult your tax advisor and refer to IRS publications 526 and 561, and form 8283.
Can you tell me how much my material is worth?
No, we are not able to make appraisals. For more information, please see Can the Smithsonian provide appraisals of objects? However, we may be able to provide you with some additional historical information if you require it. Please send a written request to the Archives Reference Desk.
Can I make a loan instead of a donation?
No. Unfortunately, we don't have the resources to process, house, and provide reference to materials that do not belong to the Museum.
Do you purchase collections?
Unfortunately, the Archives Division does not have funds available to purchase items for the collection. Instead, we rely upon the generosity of the public to donate archival material that supports the mission of the Museum to chronicle the history of aviation and space flight.
What if I'm contacting you about someone else's collection?
If you're contacting us on behalf of a friend or relative, we will need to communicate directly with him or her regarding the donation process.
How will you acknowledge my gift?
Shortly after we receive your donation, we will send you two copies of a Deed of Gift for your signature. After you sign, date, and return both copies to us, we will return an executed copy for your records.
How will people learn about and use my collection?
We receive thousands of reference requests every year. When someone asks questions that can be answered from your collection, we will tell them about it. Also, an online catalog of many of our collections is available and our website features finding aids and online exhibits. Researchers will use your materials to enhance their understanding of aerospace history, and that knowledge will be used in their books, articles, and reports.
Can some items be restricted?
If the collection includes sensitive materials, it may be restricted for a period of time but there must be a date at which the restriction is lifted.
What about copyrights?
Copyright refers to ownership of the contents of a document rather than ownership of the physical item itself. Thus, copyright resides with the creator of the document unless he/she has legally transferred it to another person or institution. When you sign the Deed of Gift, you will be transferring any copyrights you hold to the Archives. This transfer of copyright is important in terms of making the documents fully available to researchers.
Will I still have rights?
While you relinquish your rights of ownership and copyright, you have the same right to use the materials that everyone else enjoys.
How do you review proposed donations?
In some cases, especially if the material is located near Washington, DC, the Archives staff will review the collections on site. In most cases, we will not be able to review the material in person; therefore, we will ask that you to provide a general description of the material in your collection so that we can make our assessment.
Do I need to go through the collection before I send it?
We prefer to make the final decision on what to keep by evaluating items within the context of the entire collection and our other holdings. Please keep the collection's original arrangement intact.
What will happen when my collection is received by the Archives?
Once we receive your material, the collection will be accessioned; rehoused in acid-free folders and boxes; and a preliminary inventory of the collection will be completed as an initial finding aid. The level of further arrangement and description will be determined based on a variety of issues, including the size of the collection, and any preservation problems inherent in the collection.
Will you keep all of the material?
Not necessarily. For example, books will be transferred to the Museum's Library Division.
What happens to the material you do not want?
We will contact you and offer to return any duplicate or inappropriate items that we find while processing your collection.
Is there a fee for donating material?
No, there is no charge. However, we gladly accept donations that help support the cost of processing and preserving the collections.
Can you tell me where I can buy models, postcards, replica spacesuits, etc.?
The Museum Store can provide an assortment of aviation and space related items.
I can't come to the Archives to do research in person for my project. What can I do?
The Archives Reference Team can help with some aspects of your project — please contact the Reference Desk for initial assistance. We spend no more than one hour of research time on any request, and we will not accept more than one research request per month per person or organization. Some projects may be too large or too complex for us to do for you. We impose these limitations so that we can give assistance to the largest number of researchers in a reasonable period of time. You may wish to hire a professional independent researcher to visit the Archives for you.