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Heroes of the Sky

By Janis Johnson | HUMANITIES, September/October 2003 | Volume 24, Number 5

"Learning the secret of flight from a bird was a good deal like learning the scret of magic from a magician. After you know what to look for you see things that you did not notice when you did not know exactly what to look for."
--Orville Wright

"Not within a thousand years would man ever fly,” Wilbur Wright told his brother Orville in 1901. Two years later on December 17, 1903, Orville would prove him wrong and make the first successful controlled flight in history, traveling one hundred and twenty feet in a heavier-than-air glider with a home-built gasoline engine. The journey at Kitty Hawk may have lasted only twelve seconds, but it launched the aerial age.

The daring innovations of well-known and little-known aviation pioneers--and the perils they faced--are recounted in “Heroes of the Sky,” an exhibition commemorating the centennial anniversary of flight. It opens September 18 at the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.

Courageous “birdmen” and “birdwomen” performers, the new “aerial” beat in journalism, souvenirs, the cult of movie stars and flight heroes, and a young girl’s scrapbook of barnstormer Lillian Boyer illustrate how flight enchanted the public and fostered a culture that was increasingly “airminded,” as contemporaries termed it.

“Crowds assembled at the smallest airfield to watch planes take off and land, while the public voraciously consumed the many stories about aviation in newspapers and magazines,” project consultant Joseph Corn writes in The Winged Gospel. “So central was the airplane in the American imagination, in fact, that many people expected that they would soon take to the sky, flying their own family plane or helicopter. But more than anything, the airplane symbolized the promise of the future.”

Covering the years 1903 through 1939, the permanent exhibition focuses on the stories of aviators as they faced personal and technological challenges. It also investigates the role of the media and the rapidly evolving economic and social factors that propelled aviation into America’s consumer culture by World War II.

“We want the widest possible audience to be engaged, not just flight enthusiasts,” says Donna R. Braden, project director. “So in every topic there are multiple ways to become engaged emotionally--it’s not an exhibit in which one size fits all.”

The Ford Museum complex was created in 1929 by automobile magnate Henry Ford to house his collections highlighting the history of American innovation, and to document how the lives of ordinary people were affected by new technologies. Ford may never have really liked airplanes, but he was an aviation pioneer nonetheless. He and his son Edsel, who was a flying enthusiast, appreciated the potential commercial value of aviation.

“Henry Ford was the first commercial airmail contractor,” says W. David Lewis, professor of history at Auburn University and consultant to the project. Manufacturers brought their planes to be tested for safety in Detroit. “In 1920 it was important to demonstrate that flight was safe, especially in light of the barnstormers and stunt travelers popular after World War I. And, because he was a pacifist, Ford manufactured civilian aircraft to show the peaceful use of aviation.”

Henry Ford’s contributions to aviation resulted in the Ford Tri-Motor fourteen- and sixteen-seat planes--the first viable passenger planes--and many safety features, including the radio range beacon for navigation. He developed the single-seater “air flivver,” named for his Model T. He hoped a personal plane would be as affordable as a personal car, but when one version of the air flivver crashed, killing the pilot, Ford lost interest in small planes. He eventually quit the aviation business entirely in 1932.

In evaluating Ford’s aircraft collection and after consultation with scholars, educators, and potential visitors, the museum project team chose themes and personal stories over chronology. The exhibition is organized into five aviation archetypes--inventors, barnstormers, explorers, record-breakers, and entrepreneurs.

“For years we followed the traditional practice among aviation museums of ‘park plane, place plaque,’” says Robert H. Casey, curator of transportation. “This time we decided to make the connections between the larger story of aviation within our culture and the specifics of people’s individual stories. What was it about aviation, for example, that made Charles Lindbergh the greatest celebrity of the early century?”

At the beginning of the twentieth century, aviation inventors in the U.S. and Europe were transforming imagination into reality. Bicycle mechanics Orville and Wilbur Wright became fascinated with flight at the ages of seven and eleven when their father gave them a small toy helicopter. They were engineers by nature, and experimented with aircraft methodically and persistently until their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk.

Frenchman Louis Blériot failed ten times before he became the first man to fly across the English Channel, piloting a 1909 Blériot XI monoplane. “The most beautiful dream that has haunted the heart of man since Icarus today has become reality,” he said.

Another inventor, the Russian Igor Sikorsky, built his first helicopter at age nineteen. It failed to lift its own weight--or his. Years later, in 1939, as a major aircraft builder in the United States, Sikorsky developed the VS-300, the first successful helicopter flown in the Western Hemisphere. Both aircraft are on display in the exhibition.

“These inventions came in fits and starts,” says Casey. “There were dead ends; some things worked and some things didn’t. But like all inventions, uses for aircraft had to be developed. Then there was the question of profit. Ultimately the major use of the airplane was an attempt to haul people and things and to make profit on a regular basis. It turns out that is extremely difficult to do, even today.”

Barnstormers introduced the masses to the possibility of flight by creating a high-risk spectacle. They provided entertainment for people in big towns and small, mesmerizing crowds with acrobatics at circuses, carnivals, and county fairs. Barnstorming was a line of work in which many women gained fame, freeing themselves from traditional roles and seeking status equal to men.

Lillian Boyer left her job as a waitress to become a wing-walker. Katherine Stinson barnstormed through China and Japan in a 1915 Laird biplane. “My mother never warned me not to do this or that for fear of being hurt,” she said. “Of course I got hurt, but I was never afraid.”

“In an age where some men didn’t think a woman should drive a horse and buggy, much less drive an automobile, it was a job to prove that females could fly,” said Louise Thaden, who with Amelia Earhart in 1930 cofounded an international organization of women pilots called the Ninety-Nines.

Bessie Coleman confronted gender and racial discrimination to become the only black pilot in the world in 1921. “The air is the only place to be free from prejudices,” she once said. One of nine children in a poor Texas family, Coleman saved money to travel to France for flying lessons. She later barnstormed to make money to set up her own flying school--a dream that died with her when she crashed in 1926 in the first plane of her own, a four-hundred-dollar Jenny.

“In our research with potential visitors, we learned that the role of women in flight was one of the top-ranked interests of women,” said Braden.

Flight gave women new power in the face of considerable skepticism about their abilities. After becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger in 1928, Amelia Earhart said, “Women must pay for everything. . . . They do get more glory than men for comparable feats, but also, women get more notoriety when they crash.”

Earhart crossed the Atlantic again in 1932, this time piloting a Lockheed Vega alone, and finished the journey in a record fourteen hours and fifty-six minutes. Five years later she aimed to set a further record by circling the globe in a twin-engine Lockheed Electra with her navigator, Fred Noonan, but after completing two-thirds of the trip, they disappeared in the central Pacific near the International Date Line.

Pilots were breaking distance and speed records, becoming famous along the way. Pilot and explorer Richard E. Byrd, born into a prestigious “first family” of Virginia, was a man thrilled by adventure, glaciers, and publicity. Byrd’s claim that he and his pilot Floyd Bennett reached the North Pole in 1926 is now highly disputed; but at the time Byrd became a national figure. The 1926 Fokker trimotor flown in that trip is on display in the exhibition at the Henry Ford Museum. His trip to the South Pole in a plane piloted by Bernt Blachen in 1929 is not disputed, however, and advanced knowledge of that barren region; while Byrd demonstrated that he knew how to take advantage of the cult of celebrity. “A static hero is a public liability,” he once said. “Progress grows out of motion.”

None was more celebrated than Charles Lindbergh, who was the first to fly alone, nonstop, from New York to Paris. He accomplished the flight in thirty-three and half hours on May 20 and 21, 1927, winning a prize of $25,000 that had been left unclaimed since the challenge was issued in 1919.

Having decided that the best method to cross the Atlantic consisted of minimizing the weight of his plane, Lindbergh flew unaccompanied, with no life raft or radio, in a single-engine plane. He filled his fuel tanks to capacity--four hundred and fifty gallons--and packed five sandwiches, of which he would only consume one. In his biography, The Spirit of St. Louis, he writes of his landing at Le Bourget airport near Paris: “I climb to a thousand feet. There are the lamps of Paris again, like a lake of stars. . . . In spite of my speed, the Spirit of St. Louis seems about to stall. My lack of feel alarms me. I’ve never tried to land a plane without feel before. I want to open the throttle wider, to glide faster, to tauten the controls still more. But--I glance at the dial--the needle points to eighty miles an hour. The Spirit of St. Louis is lightly loaded, with most of its fuel gone. . . . It’s only a hundred yards to the hangars now--solid forms emerging from the night. I’m too high--too fast. Drop wing--left rudder--sideslip--Careful--mustn’t get anywhere near the stall. I’ve never landed the Spirit of St. Louis at night before. It would be better to come in straight. . . . A short burst of the engine--Over the lighted area--Sod coming up to meet me--Deceptive high lights and shadows--Careful--easy to bounce when you’re tired--Still too fast--Tail too high--Hold off--Hold off--But the lights are far behind--The surface dims--Texture of sod is gone--Ahead, there’s nothing but night--Give her the gun and climb for another try?--The wheels touch gently--off again--No, I’ll keep contact--Ease the stick forward--Back on the ground--Off--Back--the tail skid too -- Not a bad landing, but I’m beyond the light--can’t see anything ahead--Like flying in fog--Ground loop?--No, still rolling too fast--might blow a tire--The field must be clear--Uncomfortable though, jolting into blackness--Wish I had a wing light--but too heavy in the take--off--Slower, now--slow enough to ground loop safely--left rudder--reverse it--stick over the other way--The Spirit of St. Louis swings around and tops rolling resting on the solidness of earth, in the center of Le Bourget.

“I start to taxi back toward the floodlights and hangars--But the entire field ahead is covered with running figures!” Lindbergh was greeted by a crowd of 100,000. “Other fliers became heroes for a day so to speak but then faded from popular memory. But not Lindbergh,” writes Corn. “For millions of Americans in the twenties, Lindbergh’s flight appeared as a confrontation of man and nature and thus recalled the country’s wilderness beginnings. Contemporaries hailed him as a ‘pioneer’ and as the conqueror of a ‘new frontier.’” The exhibition contains a replica of the 1927 Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis, which appeared in the movie starring Jimmy Stewart.

Others not as fortunate as Lindbergh sometimes received recognition. Edward F. Schlee and William S. Brock tried to fly around the world in 1927 in a Stinson SM-1 Detroiter that Schlee, an oil millionaire, had recently sponsored in the Ford Air Reliability Tour. They hoped to be the first private citizens to circle the globe in fifteen days. They made it across the Atlantic, over Europe to Tokyo, but the trip home over the Pacific became too dangerous because of a developing typhoon. The exhibition displays telegrams pleading with the two men not to try the final leg of their journey; eventually they agreed to finish their trip by ocean liner. Nonetheless, back home in Detroit, Schlee and Brock received a hero’s welcome for their eighteen-day adventure.

The first entrepreneurial use of airplanes was to transport airmail. The U.S. Mail Service began in 1918 and was transferred to commercial airliners in 1925. One of the pioneers was Bill Boeing, a wealthy businessman in Seattle’s thriving lumber industry who became enamored of flight after taking a barnstorming ride. Boeing decided he could build better airplanes by himself. His Boeing 40, which carried 1,200 pounds of mail and two passengers, provided a new money-making opportunity.

Military plane manufacturer Donald Douglas developed commercial planes that not only performed well, but were also comfortable. His first “Douglas Commercial” model, the twelve-passenger DC-1, boasted soundproofing, upholstered seats, carpeting, individual reading lamps, and thermostatically controlled seats. In 1936 the longer and sleeker DC-3 changed everything. The twenty-oneseat plane allowed airlines to make money for the first time by carrying passengers only--without the extra burden of transporting airmail for a government subsidy.

On the eve of World War II, passenger airlines were a thriving part of modern consumer culture. By 1939 a national network of airports was emerging, air traffic control systems were being established, and airport amenities rivaled the grand railroad stations. That year a twin-engine Douglas DC-3, the most produced plane in history, was first completed. By the time this DC-3 was donated to the Henry Ford museum in 1974, it had spent more time in the air than any other single plane in history--nearly 95,000 hours.

The advent of aviation created an opportunity for the adventurous to push their limits with ever-improving technology. Wilbur Wright once said, “The desire to fly is an idea handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air.”

About the Author

Janis Johnson is a writer in Los Angeles.

Funding Information

The Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, has received $290,000 in NEH support for the exhibition “Heroes of the Sky.”