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
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
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
March 16, 1926. First flight of a liquid-fueled rocket, invented by Robert
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
May 2, 1952. The DeHavilland Comet - the first commercial jet service
by British Airways - is launched between London and Johannesburg, South
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.