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Library Exhibits: One Hundred Years of Flight

Why would a library care about aviation? One reason is that there is a rich body of literature written on the subject, beginning with the two-volume edition of The Papers of Wilbur and Orville Wright (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953). When the Wright brothers got their plane to fly under its own power for 12 seconds on December 17, 1903, they launched a series of social and scientific advances that profoundly altered the human experience. Not just travel, but politics, diplomacy, emigration, economics, science, warfare, human relations and the environment have been changed, as well as literature, music, the arts, and architecture. What is more, this process has probably only just begun. We have no idea where space exploration will take us.

The focus of the library exhibit on the first 100 years of flight is mostly civilian aviation, concentrating on the planes, places and events that even a casual flyer might have encountered. The library's collections on the subject are even more extensive than the exhibit indicates; a search of Fordham University Library's online catalog under the keyword "aeronautics" produces a list of 650 titles. These include biographies of famous pilots, airport design and construction, histories of flight, and books about individual airplane models. There are also many books about the military history of flight.

Boeing and Douglas started producing passenger planes in a serious way in the 1930's with the DC3 and the Boeing 247. The first transcontinental commercial flight was in 1935 between Los Angeles and New York, and Shirley Temple bought the first ticket. The DC3, with its 21 passenger seats, had the most profitable cost-per-passenger-mile of any plane in the 1930s. It became so popular that by 1939, 90 percent of all passenger planes were DC3s.

The next big step forward, passenger jet service, began in 1952 between London and Johannesburg. The Boeing 707 appeared commercially in 1957, and became one of the most widely used jets in the world.

Supersonic flight became the next advance in passenger service. Britain and France joined forces to produce a supersonic transport airplane (SST). Engineers in the United States also began designing an SST, but abandoned the effort upon realizing they could not make a plane that could break the sound barrier while carrying a sufficient number of passengers to pay for the costs of fuel and crew salaries. The British and the French discovered this also, but went ahead with their design, perhaps for the prestige of being the first to do so. Their product was the stunning, birdlike Concorde. It flew for almost 25 years without a mishap and without a profit, even though a one-way fare could run as high as $12,000.

Initially, the Concorde occasioned angry controversy because of its noise and pollution. It was banned from New York City airports during its first year of service, landing at Dulles Airport in Washington instead. Only the wealthy could afford it, but eventually it built up an avid corps of admirers. On takeoff it bore an uncanny resemblance to a bird, and for westbound travelers it landed before it took off. Its passengers were mostly A-list celebrities. After the fatal accident in Paris in July of 2000, Concorde flights were suspended for a number of months, and the plane was permanently withdrawn from service in 2003. It was the only civilian supersonic transport in service and is not likely to be replaced for decades, if at all. A British Airways Concorde plane has been acquired by the Intrepid Museum on Pier 83 on Manhattan's West Side. It rests on a barge in the river looking somewhat deflated, as if it knows it will never fly again.

The United States, instead of producing an SST, decided to produce a "jumbo jet" that could fly hundreds of passengers at a time. The Boeing 747 probably did more than any other plane in history to make the experience of foreign travel, once the exclusive privilege of the wealthy, available to the masses. The 747 lacked the handsome proportions of the 707 and the slim grace of the Concorde. Yet there is something attractive in its hunchback shape, although on the ground it looks like it could never take off, let alone fly.

Airports had to be refitted to accommodate the heft and popularity of the 747. The plane brought more passengers and families to the airports, so the terminals had to be enlarged. Boarding stairs and gates were replaced, and staff, space and equipment added to the luggage handling service. New highways leading to the airports were constructed, and even the runways had to be strengthened to handle the extra weight of the planes.

As the 20th century replacement for the graceful old train stations and bustling passenger ship docks, airports generally lack the style and pizzazz of the older transportation terminals. Functionality and economy seem to be the driving forces behind their design. New York City is fortunate to have two airport terminal buildings that have some charm and excitement about their design. The older one - the Marine Terminal at LaGuardia Airport - opened in 1939. Its shape resembles the Pantheon, even to the skylight in the center of its domed roof. The interior wall contains an immense mural by James Brooks illustrating the history of flight. It is 12 feet high and 235 feet wide. The terminal is still in use. Shuttle flights to Boston and Washington, D.C., fly in and out of this airport.

Not so fortunately, the former Trans World Airlines Terminal at Kennedy Airport, designed by Eero Saarinen, has been closed for two years and is probably too small to be reopened as a functioning terminal. Opened in 1962, it seems to be everyone's fantasy airport, a space whose shapes and passageways mimic the motion of flight. Jet Blue Airlines hopes to take it over and join it to a new terminal the company plans to build right behind it, allowing people to walk through it and enjoy its design.

The future of flight always seemed limitless - dependent only on new technology to overcome the barriers. With the end of supersonic travel for civilian passengers, however, the future of innovative air travel suddenly seems murky. We know that new planes are in the works, but they are just larger versions of the old planes. Nevertheless, given the history of human invention, it seems very likely that air travel will improve radically in the not too distant future, although no one can say how or when.


December 17, 1903. Orville Wright launches the first powered flight, 12 seconds, 120 ft.

July 25, 1909. Louis Bleriot flies across the English Channel.

January 1, 1914. First scheduled airline service, St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa.

March 16, 1926. First flight of a liquid-fueled rocket, invented by Robert H. Goddard.

May 20-21, 1927. Charles Lindbergh flies solo from New York to Paris, the first non-stop trans-Atlantic flight.

February 8, 1933. First flight of the 10-seat Boeing 247 passenger airliner.

July 28, 1935. First flight of the B17 "Flying Fortress" bomber.

December 17, 1935. First flight of the Douglas DC3, which evolves into the most popular airliner of the 1930's.

June 26, 1936. Heinrich Focke flies the first helicopter.

July 2, 1937. Amelia Earhart attempts first trans-Pacific flight and vanishes. May 15, 1941. Flight of the first jet airplane, invented by Frank Whittle of Great Britain.

October 14, 1947. Chuck Yeager becomes the first pilot to break the sound barrier.

May 2, 1952. The DeHavilland Comet - the first commercial jet service by British Airways - is launched between London and Johannesburg, South Africa.

October 4, 1957. Russian launches its Sputnik satellite into orbit.

December 20, 1957. First flight of the Boeing 707 passenger jetliner.

April 12, 1961. Yuri Gugarin becomes the first human to fly in space. July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong becomes first human to walk on the moon.

January 22, 1970. The Pan-American Boeing 747 "Jumbo Jet" starts service between New York and London.

January 21, 1976. British Airways and Air France begin first supersonic passenger service, running the Concorde to Dulles International Airport from London and Paris. Port Authority of New York and New Jersey ban the Concorde from their airports until November 22, 1977.

April 12, 1981. First flight of the Columbia Space Shuttle.

December 17, 1993. Air Force acquires first Stealth Bomber.

November 20, 1998. Construction of the International Space Station begins.

Airplanes in the Movies

click to enlarge.Many Hollywood leading men got to wear a pilot's uniform and sit in a cockpit, but only a few of them actually ever flew a plane. One of those who did was Jimmy Stewart, 1908-1997, who played Charles Lindbergh in "The Spirit of St. Louis."

At the beginning of World War II Stewart quietly left Hollywood and Joined the Army Air Force. He flew 20 missions over Germany, was decorated with many awards and ended up a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserves. He never spoke in public about his wartime service.




Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1900-1944, was a novelist, poet, and a pilot. He became legendary for surviving dozens of crashes-most of which were caused by his own carelessness. He sometimes forgot to check his gas gauge or to let down his landing gear. He did not survive World War II, however. He was lost without a trace in 1944 in a reconnaissance flight over Nazi-occupied France.

click to enlargeThe Little Prince by Saint-Exupery was first published in New York in 1943. It became his most popular book, selling over five million copies. The drawings are also the work of the author. The Little Prince is a poetic story of a young boy living on a very small planet and his relationship with a pilot whose plane crashes into the planet.



click to enlargeCharles Lindbergh, 1902-1974, was the first pilot to cross the Atlantic, flying non-stop from New York to Paris in 1927. His plane was called The Spirit of St. Louis, which he used as the title of his book describing the flight. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and many other awards, parades, and celebrations. He became even more famous when his infant son was kidnapped and murdered. His reputation was somewhat tarnished later because of his association with Nazi Germany and his anti-Semitism. Recently it has been alleged that he had a second, secret marriage and family in Germany. He wrote a number of books as did his American wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.



click to enlargeAmelia Earhart, 1897-1937, was brought up learning sports and other activities young girls of her times never did. She taught herself auto engine repair and longed to fly a plane. In 1922 she earned her pilot's license and became the first woman to break many flying records. She duplicated Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1932. During an attempt to fly around the world in 1937, she vanished on the second to the last leg of the trip, from New Guinea to Howland Island in the Pacific. At the time she was already world famous, and the U.S. Navy launched a massive search. Neither she nor her co-pilot nor her plane were ever found. She usually wore the hat, jacket, and pants of a pilot and had an uncanny resemblance to Charles Lindbergh. The publisher George Putnam, her husband, encouraged her flying and published her three books.



A Mural by James Brooks
Marine Terminal
LaGuardia Airport

James Brooks, 1906-1992, painted the "Flight" mural at LaGuardia's Marine Air Terminal. It was funded by the Work Projects Administration and was painted in 1939-42. It is the largest WPA mural ever attempted, 12 feet high and 235 feet wide. In the 1952 it was painted over because it was deemed too socialist in the way it depicted strong and muscular workers. Fortunately, the painting was sealed before the coat of grey paint was applied.

In 1977 De Witt Wallace and Laurence Rockefeller donated funds to uncover the mural. With the help of the Port Authority in 1980, it was uncovered, restored, and named a New York City Landmark, as was the entire terminal building. Brooks, who had become one of the leading painters of the New York school of Abstract Expressionism, was then in his 80's and was overjoyed at the restoration.

click to enlargeclick to enlargeclick to enlarge.


click to enlarge.The modernist TWA Terminal (1956-62) was built while Kennedy Airport was still called Idlewild. Although no longer used because of its small size, it is still an exciting building that anticipates your flight and looks like it might take off itself. It was designed by the Finnish born architect Eero Saarinen. Closed since 2001, when TWA went out of business, it will soon be reopened and used as an entryway into a newer, larger terminal to be built by Jet Blue. Saarinen also designed the terminal at Dulles Airport and the Gateway Arches in St. Louis.

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