Visit to the National Air and Space Museum

by | Oct 8, 2014 | History, Travel

The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. is a repository of our nation’s aeronautical history and achievements. As one tours the facility, you appreciate the origins of aviation in America as accomplished by the Wright Brothers, as well as the achievements of pioneers in the early days of aviation.

The displays at the Museum also recognize the achievements of aircraft designers and airmen in the First World War and the maturing of aviation in the inter-war years (between the First and Second World Wars). The advent of the Ford Tri- Motor signaled the dawn of practical, commercial air transportation in the United States followed by the Boeing 247 and then the ubiquitous Douglas DC-3 series of aircraft. Aircraft of the Second World War are also featured, together with artifacts, memorabilia, and paintings from that era. The origins of rocket and jet flight are explained in displays at the Museum. Final- ly, we have the Apollo and Gemini space flights, as well as some artifacts dealing with vehicles employed by the Russians in space exploration.


The Wright Brothers and Early Pioneers

Wilbur Wright examining canoe attachment to aeroplane before 1st flight over water

Wilbur and Orville Wright were unlikely candidates as the first men who would solve the problem of powered and controlled flight. Only one of the Wright Brothers graduated high school, and they earned their money from a printing busi- ness and a bicycle shop. Nevertheless, they thoroughly researched aerodynamics as that discipline was understood at the time, and they were able to develop an engine with adequate power to get and get the aircraft aloft. The engine had four hori- zontal in-line cylinders with a four inch bore and a four inch stroke, the cast-iron cylinders fitting into a cast aluminum crank- case. The crankcase extended outward to form a water jacket around the cylinder barrels. The Buckeye Iron and Brassworks cast the aluminum crankcase. The raw aluminum was acquired from the Pittsburgh Reduction Company renamed ALCOA in 1907, the world’s leading producer of aluminum.

The engine produced 12 hp and had no fuel pump, no carburetor and no spark plugs. The engine did not have a throttle. Gasoline was gravity fed from a small quart and one-half tank mounted on a strut below the upper wing. The gaso- line entered a small chamber next to the cylinders and mixed with incoming air. Heat from the crankcase vaporized the fuel- air mixture, causing it to pass through the intake manifold into the cylinders. Ignition was produced by opening and closing two contact breaker points in the combustion chamber at each cylinder via a camshaft. The initial spark for starting the en- gine was generated by a coil and four dry-cell batteries not carried aboard the aircraft. A low-tension magneto driven by a 20 pound flywheel supplied electric current while the engine was running.

The Wrights developed their own propellers. They theorized that the same curved surface in airflow that provided lift over the wings would similarly provide thrust from rotating propellers. The Wrights engineered two slow-turning, large propellers that spun in opposite directions to neutralize the gyroscopic forces of the spinning propeller blades. Each propeller was eight feet in diameter and made from two laminations of one inch spruce. The blades were shaped with a hatchet and dry knife, and the tips were covered with fabric and varnished to prevent splitting. Power from the engine was transferred to the propellers by way of a simple chain-and-sprocket arrangement running from the engine crankshaft to a pair of steel propeller shafts. To make the propellers spin in opposite directions, they simply twisted one of the two chains into a figure eight.

Having successfully flown their 1902 glider, the 1903 Wright Flyer included a hip cradle that worked in con- junction with wing-warping and a coupled rudder so as to overcome the effects of adverse yaw. A wooden lever held in the left hand controlled the elevator which was in a canard configuration ahead of the primary wing structure.

The instrumentation aboard the aircraft was rudimentary. There was a Richard Anemometer and a stopwatch mounted on the front strut to the pilot’s right. These instruments recorded the distance through air in meters and the du- ration of the flight, readings from which airspeed could be calculated. A Veeder Revolution Counter was mounted at the base of the engine to record the engine revolutions. The instruments were arranged so that all could be turned off along with the engine the instant the flight was over by the movement of a single wooden level mounted on the lower wing.

Orville Wright accomplished a twelve second flight aboard the Wright Flyer on December 17, 1903. Subse- quently, the aircraft achieved controlled flight lasting 57 seconds at a speed of 31 miles per hour. Orville sent a confirm- ing telegram to the Wright Brothers’ father, Bishop M. Wright, announcing their success and confirming they would be home by Christmas. Their father was asked to inform the press.

While Americans were the first people to accomplish controlled flight in an airplane, aviation quickly spread to Europe where aviation races and demonstrations became popular. In 1909, Louis Bleriot flew the English Channel from France to England aboard his Bleriot monoplane. The European powers placed greater emphasis on military applications for aircraft than did America. Consequently, when America entered the First World War in April of 1917, it had to rely upon aircraft purchased from the Allied powers.

The Display of First World War Aircraft

The Museum has on prominent display six First World War aircraft: (1) a Fokker D. VII manufactured by Ostdeutsche Albatros Werke (1918) captured on November 9, 1918 when its pilot mistakenly landed at the U.S. Air Ser- vices 95th Squadron airfield; (2) a French SPAD XIII “Smith IV” built by Kellner et Ses Files Piano Works (1918) and assigned to the 22nd Aero Pursuit Squadron, six aerial victories having been achieved in this aircraft by various pilots including Arthur Raymond “Ray” Brooks who first flew the aircraft in combat; (3) a Sopwith 7F.1 Snipe built by the Ruston Proctor Company in 1918 and later acquired by Cole Palen in 1951 when it became part of the Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome Museum in Rhinebeck, New York; (4) a Voisin VIII bomber acquired by the United States War Depart- ment’s Bureau of Military Aeronautics in 1917 which subsequently transferred the aircraft to Smithsonian Institution; (5) an Albatros D.Va believed to be manufactured by Ostdeutsche Albatros Werke (East German Albatros Works) in late 1917, and delivered to Jasta 46 (Fighter Squadron 46) in the spring of 1918; and (6) a Pfalz D.XII purchased in 1928 as war surplus and brought to Hollywood for the 1930 version of Dawn Patrol and given the audacious red color scheme with skull and crossbones on the fuselage for the fictitious ace von Richter, Howard Hughes having subsequently pur- chased the aircraft for his film Hell’s Angels. The Pfalz appears above the façade of a motion picture theatre ostensibly featuring a First World War motion picture.

Fokker D.VII
22d Aero Squadron (Pursuit) Spad XIII "Smith IV".

The Inter-War Years – Pioneering Flights

Suspended from the ceiling of the Museum is Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis built by Ryan Aircraft Company. Lind- berg stipulated in donating the aircraft to the Museum that the right door to the aircraft must remain open in order that per- sons viewing the aircraft would have an appreciation for the compact size of the cockpit. A flying gas tank with no direct forward visibility, the aircraft features a telescope mounted on the left door so that the pilot may have some appreciation for the contours of the ground and the geography of the runway during takeoff and landing.

Also on display is Lindberg’s Lockheed 8 Sirius Tingmissartoq. Lindberg and his bride, Ann Morrow Lindberg flew to Asia in this aircraft by way of the Great Circle Route in 1931. The aircraft is a large monoplane aircraft configured with twin pontoons and two tandem cockpits. In 1933, Lindberg working as technical advisor to Pan American Airways used the aircraft to cross the Atlantic. While in Greenland, an Eskimo boy named the aircraft Tingmissartoq meaning “one who flies like a bird.”

Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed 5B Vega is on display. In 1932, five years after Lindberg’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic, Earhart flew the Vega across the Atlantic becoming the first woman to do so.

Air Racing

A Curtiss R-3C-2 Racer (a streamlined bi-plane on floats) is on display. Lt. James Doolittle won the Schnieder Tro- phy Race in 1925 at an average speed of 232 miles per hour and set a straight course world record speed of 245 miles per hour the next day. Ensconced in the portion of the Museum dedicated to the Golden Age of Flight one will find the Hughes H-1 Racer designed by Howard Hughes and Richard Palmer and built by Glen Odekirk. It was developed to be the fastest land plane in the world. On September 13, 1935, Hughes achieved the design goal by flying the aircraft 567 kilometers at an average speed of 352 miles per hour. In 1937, employing a second set of wings designed for long distance flight, Hughes set a transcontinental speed record flying from Los Angeles to Newark New Jersey in 7 hours and 28 minutes at an average speed for the 4,000 kilometer flight of 332 miles per hour. Even by today’s standards, the Hughes H-1 Racer is an impres- sive and very streamlined aircraft. Also on display is the Northrop 2B Gama Polar Star employed in exploration of Antartica. A Beech Model 17 Staggerwing delivered to E. E. Aldrin (father of astronaut “Buzz” Aldrin) is on display, as well as Steve Whitman’s Chief Oshkosh known in the post-World War II era as Buster. The aircraft was flown from 1931 until its retire- ment in 1954 and set a number of speed records as a midget racer.

Commercial Airline Development

The Ford Tri-Motor, the Boeing Model No. 247, and the Douglass DC-3 aircraft suspended from the ceiling of the Museum demonstrate the progress made in airline development in the inter-war years. A navigation lighting system em- ployed during the early years of aviation is on display; and there was an exhibit on Hawaii by air with photographs and mod- els of the Pan American Clipper aircraft which pioneered air routes through Hawaii, Wake Island, the Philippines and South- east Asia during the 1930s.

Lockheed 8 Sirius 'Tingmissartoq' at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington DC
Spirit Of St Louis2

Second World War Aircraft

The World War II Aviation Gallery features a mural Fortress Under Fire by Keith Ferris. The mural acts as a backdrop for five remarkable aircraft: (1) a Spitfire Mk. VII (the second high-altitude version featuring elongated wing tips); (2) the Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero in the markings of the 261st Naval Air Corps which operated in Saipan; (3) A P-51D Mustang in the markings of the 351st Fighter Squadron, 353rd Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force; (4) a Mes- serschmitt Bf. 109G-6 aircraft in the markings of the 7th Squadron, 3rd Group, 27th Wing of the Luftwaffe which oper- ated over the Eastern Mediterranean; and (5) a Macchi C.202 Folgore (Lightning) shown in the markings of 90B0 Squadriglia, 90B0 Gruppo Squadriglia, 4B0 Stormo.

Aeronautica Macchi C.202 Folgore
Supermarine Spitfire LF Mk

Naval Aviation

Directly across the hall from the Second World War aircraft, the Museum features a display of Sea-Air Op- erations. On display are: (1) a Boeing F4B-4 biplane fighter, (2) a Grumman F4F Wildcat, (3) a Douglas SBD-6 Dauntless, and (4) a Douglas A-4C Skyhawk.

Research Aircraft, Rockets, and Space Travel

The Bell X-1 that broke the sound barrier in 1947 and flown by Chuck Yeager is on display along with the X-15 that pioneered the way for American adventures into space. Hitler’s V-2 rocket developed by the team of Wernher Von Braun is on display along with a Mercury space capsule and many other rockets and hardware em- ployed in American space exploration.


The National Air and Space Museum in Washington is a tribute to the energies and genius of this country: (1) the first country where controlled powered flight in an airplane became a reality, and (2) the first country to put a man on the moon. If you are in Washington and time permits a visit to the National Air and Space Museum will be well worth your while.