Heroes of the Sky

By Johnson, Janis | Humanities, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview

Heroes of the Sky


Johnson, Janis, Humanities


"Learning the secret of flight from a bird was a good deal like learning the secret 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. …

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