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Man in a suit stands before a brick building with a bicycle outside and one in the window
Neil Armstrong visited Greenfield Village on August 16, 1979, and graciously posed for several photographs, particularly near the Wright Brothers’ Home and Cycle Shop. / THF128243


Watching the moon landing on TV on July 20, 1969, was a defining moment for most baby boomers. I know it was for me. My brothers and I were glued to the TV set for hours, hanging on to every word uttered by broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite, waiting for the exciting moment that the Lunar Module Eagle would land on the moon and its crew members would take their first steps into uncharted territory.

Black-and-white photograph of the moon landing on a TV set with watchers reflected in the glass
Photograph of the TV broadcast of the moon landing, July 20, 1969, with TV viewers dimly reflected on the screen. / THF114240

Three Apollo 11 crew members—Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr., and Michael Collins—embarked on this mission on July 16 and returned safely to earth on July 24. In between, each crew member contributed his utmost to the tasks at hand. But one name eternally sticks out—Neil Armstrong, the mission’s commander. As commander, he accepted his role as spokesperson for the crew and the mission. And, as commander, he became the first man to step on the moon, voicing the now-immortal words, “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” After that time, he relentlessly shunned the limelight and hated being singled out. When Armstrong passed away in 2012, his family released a statement that reinforced these sentiments: “Neil Armstrong was a reluctant American hero who always believed he was just doing his job.” Yet, like it or not, he was—and will forever be—singled out as the “first man.”

Magazine cover with illustration of astronaut in space suit with an American flag on the moon; also contains text
Artist Louis Glanzman captured the spirit of the momentous occasion for the July 25, 1969, cover of Time magazine, despite having no real photographs to reference (none were available yet and, in fact, no photographs of Neil Armstrong were ever taken on the moon). It became one of Time’s most popular covers ever. / THF230050

Neil Armstrong was from Ohio—as I am. I have always been proud of that connection. In the 1990s and early 2000s, when my daughter was young and we would often drive down I-75 to visit family members in Dayton, we would stop at the Armstrong Air & Space Museum (founded in 1972)—located right at the freeway exit for Armstrong’s hometown of Wapakoneta. There we would enjoy viewing personal artifacts of his, reliving the story of the Apollo 11 mission, and reacquainting ourselves with the timeline of all the missions leading up to and following that one.

So, when the opportunity arose to write a blog post about Neil Armstrong, I enthusiastically volunteered. I figured I would enjoy reading up on him again. This time around, however, I particularly looked for insights into what made him that reluctant hero.

Armstrong was born in a farmhouse about six miles from the small town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, on August 5, 1930. He didn’t actually live in Wapakoneta until he was 14 years old. Because his father was an auditor for the state of Ohio, his family often moved around—in fact 16 times before they finally settled in Wapakoneta! Other small Ohio towns—like Upper Sandusky and St. Marys—were just as influential in shaping his character. As a boy, he was considered calm, serious, determined, and always on task.

Passengers sit, one on either side of the aisle, looking out the windows of an airplane
Interior of a Ford Trimotor during a passenger flight, 1929. / THF116296

Being an astronaut was not Neil Armstrong’s great ambition in life. He wanted to fly airplanes, and wistfully envied earlier pilots like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart with their record-setting flights. When he was only six years old, he thoroughly enjoyed the ride he took on a Ford Trimotor (his father was downright terrified). (For more on Trimotors, see this expert set.) A few years later, he began building and flying model airplanes; in fact, he filled his bedroom with them. He read countless books and magazines about airplanes. He also worked various jobs to earn money to take flying lessons. At only 15, he earned his pilot’s license and made his first solo flight soon after.

Neil Armstrong was different from many other airplane pilots and, later, astronauts in that he was not only interested in flying, but also in learning how planes were built and how to make them more efficient, faster, better. So, he decided to study aeronautical engineering, attending Purdue University on a Navy scholarship.

Armstrong’s college years were interrupted by his being sent to fight in the Korean War. He was assigned to Fighter Squadron 51, flying small jets off an aircraft carrier to bomb enemy bridges and railroads and to scout areas where other planes would attack later. After college, Armstrong flew high-speed, high-altitude experimental airplanes at Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, California—not because he loved speed (as many other test pilots did), but because he wanted to use planes as tools to gather information and solve problems.

Armstrong loved this work, but in 1962 he switched gears and applied to become an astronaut. Some say this was because of his need to make a dramatic lifestyle change after the tragic death of his two-year-old daughter. But he himself claimed, “I decided that if I wanted to get out of the atmospheric fringes and into deep space work, that was the way to go.”

Either way, before long, Armstrong was chosen to become one of the so-called “New Nine”—that is, the second group of men (women were not allowed to become astronauts until 1978) that NASA picked to fly missions to outer space. (For more on the initial Mercury Seven astronauts, see this blog post.)

Trading card with image of seven people in silver suits; also contains text
Before the “New Nine,” there were the Mercury Seven, the first seven astronauts chosen by NASA to attempt to place a man in space through a program known as Mercury. Here they are posing in their space suits for this circa 1963 trading card. / THF230119

That was seven full years before Armstrong became a household name with the Apollo 11 mission. What did he do during all that time? In fact, a great deal needed to be figured out and perfected if there was to be any hope of meeting President John F. Kennedy’s vision to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Armstrong spent much of his time practicing, training, and undertaking the many tasks that prepared him and others to fly to outer space and attempt a moon landing. During these years, Armstrong also willingly talked to members of the media, not only because they never seemed satisfied with NASA’s updates, but also to help allay negative public opinion about the government’s focus on the space program when so many domestic issues seemed more pressing.

Poster with text and hand held up with fingers forming a "V"
Many people felt that such pressing issues as poverty, Civil Rights, and the war in Vietnam (as reflected by this 1968 protest poster) should take precedence over the space program. / THF110904

Meanwhile, Armstrong patiently waited his turn—like the other astronauts—to participate in a real mission to outer space. He finally got that turn in March 1966, when he was assigned to command NASA’s 14th crewed space mission, Gemini 8—with the goal to “dock” or connect with another satellite already in space. In 1968, he was also named the backup commander for the Apollo 8 lunar orbit mission (but did not go on that mission).

During that time, Armstrong repeatedly practiced with the Lunar Landing Training Vehicle (LLTV)—the prototype module for landing men on the moon. The LLTV was an ungainly, unstable wingless aircraft, powered by a turbofan engine, which took off and landed vertically. It was highly experimental and extremely dangerous. As Buzz Aldrin later remarked, “…to train on it properly, an astronaut had to fly at altitudes of up to five hundred feet. At that height, a glitch could be fatal.”

Armstrong faced constant risks and dangers in his career as an airplane pilot and then as an astronaut—including flying 78 missions in the Korean War; piloting the world’s fastest, riskiest, most experimental aircraft; and encountering close calls while commanding Gemini 8 and while practicing on the LLTV. But he never panicked. He concentrated on the tasks and remained cool under pressure. His mind was always focused on analyzing and solving the problems, then on moving forward.

And that is exactly why he was chosen to command Apollo 11—the space mission that would finally attempt a landing on the moon. As Chris Kraft, NASA’s director of flight operations at the time, explained, “Neil was Neil. Calm, quiet, and absolute confidence. We all knew that he was the Lindbergh type. He had no ego. He was not of a mind that, ‘Hey, I’m going to be the first man on the Moon!’ That was never what Neil had in his head."

Neil Armstrong brought to the Apollo 11 mission all of his training, practice, and knowledge. His ability to keep calm under pressure particularly came in handy when he and Aldrin landed the Apollo’s Lunar Module Eagle onto the moon’s surface with only 20 seconds of fuel remaining.

Which brings us back to the moment when I—along with about 500 million other people—sat on the edge of my seat and watched on TV as the Eagle landed, and, several hours later, as the Eagle’s hatch opened, as Neil Armstrong wriggled out and began to descend the ladder toward the moon’s surface, and as he took his first step on the moon.

Poster of astronaut in spacesuit on the moon; also contains text
Neil Armstrong took this famous photograph of Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin on the moon. His own reflection can be seen in Aldrin’s helmet. / THF56899

The moon landing was considered a success. Americans were ebullient as they celebrated the Apollo 11 astronauts’ achievements, with only months to spare before the decade ran out. The three Apollo 11 crew members were honored and celebrated for months afterward.

Four clear glasses with white, red, and blue designs, text, and spaceflight-related images
This set of tumblers, commemorating the Apollo 11 space mission, depicts such iconic images as the Lunar Module Eagle and Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon. / THF175132

But most of the adulation, it seemed, was directed at Neil Armstrong. He even received the Medal of Freedom, the highest award the U.S. government bestows on a civilian. But he never liked the attention. He felt he did not deserve the fame and always attributed the success of the mission to the entire team of people who had made the dream of reaching the moon possible. Ever modest, he once tried to argue, “I was just chosen to command the flight. Circumstance put me in that particular role.”

Blue satin ribbon with gold text, topped by medallion with photo of three astronauts inside blue and red semicircles containing text
This button would have likely been proudly worn by someone attending a public celebration of the Apollo 11 astronauts. / THF189959

In the end, I believe that Neil Armstrong should be remembered for so much more than being the “first man.” For his modesty, his quiet humility, over to advance the course of human progress, he modelled values and behaviors for which we can all strive. He may have been a reluctant hero, but these qualities, to me, are exactly what make Neil Armstrong heroic.

That, and the fact that he was from Ohio (just kidding)!

Woman sits on bench next to statue of seated person, in front of a large lawn and low building
The author posing with a statue of Neil Armstrong (with model airplane fittingly in hand) on a bench in front of the Armstrong Air & Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio, November 2021. / Photo courtesy of Donna Braden.


Donna R. Braden is Senior Curator and Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

aviators, travel, space, popular culture, flying, by Donna R. Braden, airplanes

Man in leather jacket and cap sits beside woman in hat, veil, and long coat among the structure of an apparatus
Katharine Wright and Wilbur Wright Preparing to Fly, Pau, France, February 15, 1909 / adapted from THF112388


It’s an old story: women keeping the home fires burning for their loved ones. Katharine Wright handled household responsibilities for her family, giving her brothers, Wilbur and Orville, the freedom to focus on achieving the first heavier-than-air flight in 1903. Yet along the way, she pushed a few boundaries of her own—experiencing things most women of her era did not.

After her mother’s death in 1889, Katharine took over running the Wright home for her father and older brothers at age 15. Later, after Wilbur and Orville had established their aircraft company, she also handled much of their business correspondence.

Two women wash dishes among tubs of water in front of a window with a closed blind
Katharine Wright and Harriet Silliman Washing Dishes, Wright Home, Dayton, Ohio, 1896 / THF243313

Unlike her quiet mother, Katharine was spunky, encouraged by her father to seek education and a profession. She did, graduating not only from high school—something most people, men or women, didn’t do at this time—but college as well, which was even rarer. She was, in fact, the only Wright child to complete college.

A Latin teacher at Dayton’s Steele High School, she walked away from her beloved profession to help Orville convalesce after a plane crash in 1908. A year later, she would join her two brothers in France as they held public demonstrations of their latest airplane. Unafraid and heedless of the February cold, she made several flights with Wilbur at the controls, flying longer and farther than any American woman at that time. Witty and extroverted, she also delighted foreign reporters with her unaffected Midwestern manner and quickly became a celebrity in her own right—the only woman ever invited to a dinner at the Aéro-Club de France during aviation’s early years.

Matted photograph of woman in dress and hat walking between two men in coats and bowlers
Orville Wright, Katharine Wright, and Wilbur Wright in France, 1909 / THF112379

She later would serve on the board of Oberlin College, devote time to causes such as women’s suffrage, and eventually marry for the first time at age 52. With domestic responsibilities always tugging, she never stopped pushing boundaries.


Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from an article in the June–December 2019 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

flying, Wright Brothers, home life, women's history, The Henry Ford Magazine, by Jeanine Head Miller

Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) is best remembered for his work to develop the telephone, but he had a pioneering role in aviation as well. In 1907, Bell assembled a small team to design, build, and pilot some of the earliest flying machines. Working together at the dawn of manned flight, the members of Bell’s Aerial Experiment Association made extraordinary developments in a remarkably brief period of time.

Founding the Aerial Experiment Association


As his 60th birthday approached, Alexander Graham Bell finally had the time and means to pursue his long-time interest in solving the problem of flight. Bell had supported and closely followed the failed efforts of Samuel Langley to develop a practical flying machine beginning in the 1890s. He also knew of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s successful 1903 flight. The Wrights were working in secret, refusing to collaborate with could-be competitors as they shopped their Flyer around to potential buyers in the United States as well as Europe—where other aeronautical pioneers were making progress with flying machines of their own design.

Bell believed tetrahedrons—triangular pyramids—held the answer. Convinced a practical flying machine could be produced by motorizing a tetrahedral kite, he began a series of experiments at Beinn Bhreagh, a summer estate owned by Bell and his wife Mabel, overlooking Bras d'Or Lake on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada. As his investigations progressed, Bell decided to assemble a team of talented young enthusiasts to help bring them to completion.

Black-and-white photo of two men in suits and hats talking to each other among a crowd
Aerial Experiment Association Members Thomas Selfridge and Alexander Graham Bell, 1908. / THF285504

The Bells warmly welcomed these four recruits to Beinn Bhreagh in the fall of 1907, and all reached an agreement to form the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA):

  • J. A. D. McCurdy (1886–1961), Treasurer—The son of Bell’s secretary, this Cape Breton Island native and University of Toronto student became fascinated by the tetrahedral kite experiments at Beinn Bhreagh during a visit home. Bell recruited McCurdy to assist.
  • F. W. “Casey” Baldwin (1882–1948), Chief Engineer—A recent mechanical engineering graduate from Toronto, Baldwin visited Beinn Bhreagh with McCurdy, a college friend. Bell appreciated Baldwin’s enthusiastic interest in his tetrahedral kite projects and invited him to take part.
  • Glenn Curtiss (1878–1930), Director of Experiments—Known for building lightweight, powerful engines, Curtiss manufactured motorcycles in Hammondsport, New York. Bell purchased his first aeronautical engine from Curtiss and, considering him to be the preeminent motor expert in the United States, persuaded him to formally participate in the experiments at Beinn Bhreagh.
  • Thomas Selfridge (1882–1908), Secretary—A promising U.S. Army lieutenant assigned to the Signal Corps’ newly established Aeronautical Division, Selfridge saw a future in military aviation and asked to observe Bell’s kite experiments. Immediately impressed, Bell petitioned his friend President Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of War William Howard Taft to allow Selfridge special permission to join the Aerial Experiment Association.


The members agreed to work together over the course of one year, effective October 1. Mabel Bell (1867–1923) supported the venture from its beginning, providing the starting capital. With the understanding that experiments would soon move to a warmer location, Beinn Bhreagh served as Aerial Experiment Association headquarters.

The Aerial Experiment Association’s articles of agreement outlined some financial details: McCurdy and Baldwin would earn $1,000 and Curtiss $5,000—an acknowledgment of his special expertise and compensation for time away from his manufacturing company. Bell and Selfridge declined a salary. Each member would receive a share of any profit from the group’s experiments. But these specifics were ancillary. The Aerial Experiment Association’s primary objective was clear: “to get into the air.”

Experiments of the Aerial Experiment Association


The group agreed to begin formal experimentation with Bell’s tetrahedral kite, Cygnet, and then move on to build and test “aerodromes” (Bell’s preferred term for what would come be to be called “airplanes”) designed by each of the other members.

Cygnet
tested as a glider on Bras d'Or Lake, Cape Breton Island, December 6, 1907
Nearly 3,400 “tetrahedral cells” constructed of aluminum and red silk formed Bell’s massive kite. Though it was built to be motorized, Bell wanted to first test the Cygnet as a glider. Towed by boat, with Selfridge aboard, the delicate craft remained aloft for seven minutes before coming down and being pulled into the water. The Cygnet was a total loss, but “Bell’s Boys,” as they became known, were satisfied with the results.

 

Bell planned to continue tetrahedral kite experimentation after the Cygnet test, but as agreed, the Aerial Experiment Association would first begin work on aerodromes. After Christmas 1907, everyone relocated to Hammondsport, New York, for milder weather and access to the facilities of the Curtiss Manufacturing Company. Excitement about the arrival of a famous inventor rippled through town, and Bell’s Boys quickly became the stars of Hammondsport’s social scene. The younger men enjoyed easy access to Curtiss motorcycles by day, and evening discussions about how best to tackle the problem of flight—often held in a room of the Curtiss home they dubbed the “thinkorium”—deepened the group’s bond.

Because Selfridge had piloted the Cygnet, his aerodrome design would be built next. Though the members of the Aerial Experiment Association—especially Selfridge—had studied contemporary advances in aviation, none had seen an airplane. After weeks of glider practice and careful construction at Hammondsport, the Aerial Experiment Association was ready to test its first one—the Red Wing.

Black-and-white photo of an early glider on snow or ice with a number of people around it
Before the first flight of the Red Wing, 1908 / THF265979

Red Wing
first flown on Keuka Lake, Hammondsport, March 12, 1908
The Aerial Experiment Association suppressed expectations for the Red Wing—named for the red silk fabric of its curved wings (left over from the Cygnet). The group recognized the fixed-rudder craft as a first attempt. To everyone’s surprise, the Red Wing, piloted by Baldwin, took off on the first attempt and flew more than 300 feet before coming down.

 

As pilot of the Red Wing, Baldwin was selected to design the Aerial Experiment Association’s second aerodrome. He decided to partner with Curtiss. The men incorporated findings from the Red Wing experiment into their improved design for the White Wing.

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aviators, by Saige Jedele, flying, airplanes

Small silver plane suspended from the ceiling in a room containing painted backdrops on the walls and other objects

The Dayton-Wright RB-1 is a dramatic presence in Heroes of the Sky. / THF39666

“Racing breeds innovation.” It’s a time-tested saying that we often associate with auto racing, where things like rear-view mirrors and disc brakes proved themselves on the track before making their way into production cars. But that line holds just as true for early airplane racing. The proof is in competition craft like the 1920 Dayton-Wright RB-1.

Above all else, the RB-1 was built for speed. Designers Howard M. Rinehart (the “R” in “RB-1”) and Milton C. Baumann (the “B”) designed the airplane specifically to compete in the 1920 Gordon Bennett Air Race in France. First staged in 1909, the Bennett race was the premier venue for showcasing the latest in aircraft design and aviation technology. The competitions were held annually through 1913, but World War I forced a pause. The 1920 Bennett race, held in Orléans and Étampes, France, marked the first (and, as it turned out, last) running after the wartime hiatus.

Close-up of gray plane wing with triangular metal pieces attached to long rods
Rods and linkages moved flaps that changed the shape of the RB-1’s wing. / THF1463

Rinehart and Baumann gave the RB-1 several features—taken for granted today—that were absolutely cutting edge for the time. To start, it was a monoplane (single wing) design in an age when double wing biplanes dominated. The RB-1’s wing was cantilevered, meaning that it was entirely self-supporting via an internal framework. The wing didn’t require struts or cables to hold it in place. Both the wing and fuselage (the body of the plane) were made from laminated balsa wood covered with plywood and varnished linen. The designers equipped the RB-1’s wing with flaps on the front leading and rear trailing edges. Moving the flaps changed the wing’s camber—the shape of its curve. The flaps hung down during takeoffs and landings to produce maximum lift at low speeds, and they turned up flush with the wing during flight to reduce drag at high speeds.

GIF featuring three rotating images of small silver plane extending retractable wheels and lowering wing flaps
Notice how the RB-1’s wing flaps and wheels move together. / THF169298, THF169299, THF169300

Rinehart and Baumann realized that the wheels and struts used in an airplane’s landing gear produced significant wind resistance. They solved that problem with a pair of retractable wheels that could be pulled up into the fuselage when the plane was in flight. The RB-1 is believed to have been the first land-based airplane to use retractable landing gear. (Some earlier floatplanes—airplanes equipped with pontoons for water-based operation—had auxiliary retractable wheels.) The RB-1’s wing flaps and wheels were interlocked. When the pilot turned a hand crank on the control panel, the flaps and wheels moved simultaneously—wheels and flaps up after takeoff, or wheels and flaps down for landing.

Plane cockpit with large wooden panel of instruments and gauges above legroom with pedals; no windows in front but large windows to the left and right
The pilot’s view—or lack thereof—from the RB-1’s cockpit. / THF15954

Rinehart and Baumann also gave the RB-1 an enclosed cockpit. This further reduced drag, but at a significant cost. The design left the pilot with absolutely no forward vision, and with only limited lateral vision through a set of portholes on either side of the fuselage. The pilot had to fly in a zigzag pattern to see what was ahead.

The RB-1’s specifications were as impressive for 1920 as its appearance. The plane was equipped with an inline six-cylinder, water-cooled engine capable of 250 horsepower. Top speed recorded in competition was 165 miles per hour, but observers at the time thought the RB-1 was capable of 190 or even 200 miles per hour. The airplane measured 22 feet, 6 inches long, with a wingspan of 23 feet, 3 inches. The plane measured 6 feet, 2 inches high at its tallest point. Range was estimated at 275 miles—though that would’ve been cut considerably when flying at top speed.

The Dayton-Wright Company of Dayton, Ohio, built the RB-1. Dayton-Wright had been founded by a group of Dayton-area investors in 1917. Orville Wright served as a consultant to the firm, and he lent it the use of his name, but beyond that Dayton-Wright had no connection to the Wright brothers or their earlier Wright Company. (Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912, and Orville Wright largely retired from business a few years later.) General Motors purchased the Dayton-Wright Company in 1919.

Black-and-white photo of man standing on top of end of wing of small airplane parked in large open field
Howard Rinehart demonstrates the strength of the RB-1’s cantilevered wing. / THF270970

The work of piloting the RB-1 in the Gordon Bennett Air Race fell to Howard Rinehart. He had learned to fly in 1914 and, by the time the RB-1 project came together, Rinehart’s resume included stints as an exhibition flyer, a flight instructor, and a test pilot. Rinehart was a capable and experienced pilot well suited for the demanding Bennett competition, and the RB-1 was as fine an airplane as one could wish in 1920. When Rinehart took off on race day, September 28, 1920, he was America’s best chance to take the Bennett Trophy back from French pilot Maurice Prevost, who’d won the 1913 contest. But, in the words of poet Robert Burns, “the best-laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry.”

Soon after Rinehart left the ground, the RB-1’s variable wing camber system gave him trouble. He could not get the wing flaps moved into racing position. And because the flaps were interconnected with the wheels, he couldn’t get the landing gear pulled completely into the fuselage either. To make things worse, Rinehart started having problems with the control rod. One of its connecting cables broke, and he found himself unable to turn the plane to the left. After about 20 minutes of struggle, Rinehart brought the RB-1 in for a landing. He touched down safely, but his chance for a victory was gone. Newspapers reported that “there were tears in the pilot’s eyes as he stepped from his machine.”

Black-and-white photo of small airplane parked in field with trees and buildings in the distance behind it
The Dayton-Wright RB-1, photographed in August 1920. / THF270958

In the RB-1’s defense, mechanical problems were common in racing airplanes of that era. For that matter, technical gremlins continue to haunt racing vehicles of all types to this day—it’s just the nature of the game. The RB-1 never raced again. But in the years to come, its innovative features became commonplace.

Following the disappointment in France, Milton Baumann presented the RB-1 to the University of Michigan, his alma mater. It’s possible that engineering students used the aircraft for hands-on experiments. The university gifted the airplane to The Henry Ford in 1940. Knowing that the RB-1 had been modified several times leading up to the Bennett race, and that students may have made further alterations, museum staff members were eager to return the airplane to its race-day configuration. They turned to Charles Kettering, then the general manager of General Motors’ Research Laboratories Division in Detroit, for advice. Gearheads know Kettering for automotive innovations like the electric starter and leaded gasoline. But he was also one of the Dayton-Wright Company’s founders in 1917, and he was involved in the RB-1 project in 1920.

Today visitors will find the Dayton-Wright RB-1 on display in Heroes of the Sky, where it anchors our collection of early record-breaking aircraft. It may not have won any prizes in 1920, but the RB-1 continues to win admiration from those who see it.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

aviators, racing, Heroes of the Sky, Henry Ford Museum, flying, engineering, design, by Matt Anderson, airplanes

Large piece of beige metal equipment with round yellow screen (?) at one end and buttons and switches

THF154728

The growth of commercial aviation in the United States presented a challenge—how could airports control aircraft within the increasingly crowded space around them? The earliest efforts at air traffic control were limited to ground crew personnel waving flags or flares to direct planes through takeoffs and landings. Needless to say, this system needed improvement.

The first air traffic control tower opened in 1930 at Cleveland Municipal Airport. Pilots radioed their positions to the tower, where controllers noted the information on a map showing the positions of all planes within the airport's vicinity. Controllers radioed the pilots if a collision seemed possible and gave them permission to land or take off. Soon, all large American airports employed towers operated by the airports' respective municipal governments and staffed by growing crews. Smaller airports, though, remained dependent on a single controller (who might also handle everything from the telephone switchboard to passenger luggage). Additionally, some pilots treated controllers' instructions as mere suggestions—the pilots would land when and where they pleased.

Two planes and several people in open field near low building
Before air traffic controllers began communicating with pilots by radio, airports relied on ground crew personnel to direct planes through takeoffs and landings. / detail of THF94919

Airlines recognized the need for formal oversight and attempted to supply it themselves. They formed Air Traffic Control, Inc., in 1936 to regulate traffic at larger airports. This new agency worked well but applied only to commercial aircraft. It became clear that only federal supervision could regulate all commercial and private air traffic at the nation's airports. The Civil Aeronautics Act, passed by Congress in 1938, established the Civil Aeronautics Authority—the forerunner of today's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—to establish safety guidelines, investigate accidents, regulate airline economics, and control air traffic.

The post-World War II economic boom brought a surge in air travel, as well as larger and faster jet aircraft. But the nation's air traffic control system remained unchanged. Upgrades came only after a tragic mid-air collision between two passenger planes over the Grand Canyon in 1956. All 128 passengers and crew aboard both flights perished. Public outrage forced the widespread implementation of radar, a technology greatly improved during the war, into the management of U.S. skies.

Into the 1960s, air traffic controllers augmented radar signal displays with hand-written plastic markers that identified each plane and its altitude. Integrating computers with radar eliminated the need for written markers, as information about each plane automatically displayed on radar screens. This improved radar system, referred to as the Automated Radar Terminal System, finally made its way to metropolitan airports in 1969, when the FAA contracted with Sperry Rand to build control computers and radar scopes.

Large piece of beige metal equipment with round yellow screen (?) at one end and buttons and switches; open panels on top and sides showing complex wiring
This computer-integrated radar scope, used at Detroit Metro Airport from 1970 to 2001, was one of the first units capable of displaying an airplane's identification number and altitude directly on the screen. In this photograph, panels have been removed to reveal the unit’s internal components. / THF154729

This radar scope display panel is the first of those scopes to be produced. It was installed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in 1970. This unit, and others like it, sat in the tower's radar room. It was used to monitor and control aircraft within 35 miles of the airport. Two people worked the unit in tandem, sitting on either side of the display screen. While this arrangement made maximum use of expensive equipment, it led to inevitable difficulties—users sometimes disagreed on screen contrast settings. With the introduction of single-user LCD displays in the 1980s and 1990s, this unit was downgraded to training use and then retired from service in 2001.

Today, radar itself is facing retirement from air traffic control. Aircraft can relay their positions to each other and the ground without radar through Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, which combines GPS technology with high-speed data transfer. Required in most controlled airspace as of January 1, 2020, this new system provides more accurate location information. It also allows closer spacing of aircraft in the skies, increasing capacity and permitting better traffic management.

Though it was outpaced by newer technologies, this computer-integrated radar scope—the first of its kind—survives in the collections of The Henry Ford as evidence of the critical developments that produced the safe and efficient aviation system we rely on today. To discover more aviation stories, visit the Heroes of the Sky exhibition in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, or find more on our blog.


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

computers, technology, Michigan, flying, Detroit, by Matt Anderson, airplanes

Plane with white wings and body painted like a green-scaled fish, hanging upside from ceiling in front of yellow-and-red striped tent

The Curtiss JN-4 always turns heads in “Heroes of the Sky.” / THF39670

Walk into the barnstormers section of our Heroes of the Sky exhibit and odds are the first airplane to catch your eye will be our 1917 Curtiss JN-4 “Canuck” biplane. Whether it’s the airplane’s inverted attitude, its dangling wing-walker, or its fishy-looking fuselage, there’s a lot to draw your attention. And well there should be. The Curtiss Jenny was among the most significant early American airplanes.

Conceived by British designer Benjamin D. Thomas and built by American aviation entrepreneur Glenn Curtiss, the JN airplanes combined the best elements of Thomas’s earlier Model J and Curtiss’s earlier Model N trainer planes. New variants of the JN were increasingly refined. The fourth in the series, introduced in 1915, was logically designated JN-4. Pilots affectionately nicknamed it the “Jenny.” The inspiration is obvious enough, but even more so if you imagine the formal model name (JN-4) written as many flyers first saw it—with an open-top “4” resembling a “Y.”

Man standing at back of airplane with large text "CURTISS" painted on side
This Curtiss JN, circa 1915, left no doubt about its manufacturer’s identity. / THF265971

Despite not being a combat aircraft, the Curtiss Jenny became the iconic American airplane of the First World War. Some 6,000 units were built, and nine of every ten U.S. military pilots learned to fly on a Jenny. The model’s low top speed (about 75 mph) and basic but durable construction were ideal for flight instruction. Dual controls in the front and back seats allowed teacher or student to take charge of the craft at any time.

Our JN-4 is one of approximately 1,200 units built under license by Canadian Aeroplanes, Ltd., of Toronto. In a nod to their Canadian origins, these airplanes were nicknamed “Canucks.” While generally resembling American-built Jennys, the Canadian planes have a different shape to the tailfin and rudder, a refined tail skid, and a control stick rather than the wheel used stateside. (The stick became standard on later American-built Jennys.)

Man with arms upraised standing outside airplane in front of wing in midair
Barnstormer “Jersey” Ringel posed while (sort of) aboard his Jenny about 1921. / THF135786

Following the war, many American pilots were equally desperate to keep flying and to earn a living. “Barnstorming”—performing death-defying aerial stunts for paying crowds—offered a way to do both. Surplus military Jennys could be bought for as little as $300. The same qualities that suited the planes to training—durability and reliability—were just as well-suited to stunt flying. The JN-4 became the quintessential barnstormer’s plane, which explains why our Canuck is featured so prominently in the Heroes of the Sky barnstorming zone. As for the inspiration behind our plane’s paint job… that’s another kettle of fish.

Lure shaped and colored like a fish, with three-pronged hooks hanging from the tail and belly
Fishing lures, similar to this one, inspired the unusual paint scheme on our Curtiss JN-4. / THF150858

Founded in 1902, James Heddon and Sons produced fishing lures and rods at its factory in Dowagiac, Michigan. Heddon’s innovative, influential products helped it grow into one of the world’s largest tackle manufacturers. That inventive streak spilled over into Heddon’s advertising efforts. In the early 1920s, the company acquired two surplus JN-4 Canucks and painted them to resemble Heddon lures. These “flying fish” toured the airshow circuit to promote Heddon and its products. While our Canuck isn’t an original Heddon plane, it’s painted as a tribute to those colorful aircraft. (Incidentally, the Heddon Museum is well worth a visit when you’re in southwest Michigan.)

Every airplane in Heroes of the Sky has a story to tell. Some of them are even fish stories!


Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

Heroes of the Sky, popular culture, Henry Ford Museum, flying, by Matt Anderson, airplanes

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Braniff Airliner with "Jelly Bean" Orange Livery Designed by Alexander Girard, circa 1965//THF275594

Let’s set the scene: it’s the late 1960s, you need to book a flight, and you fancy yourself a stylish and forward-thinking consumer. Which airline do you choose? One airline in particular catered to just such a savvy passenger. Flying with Braniff International Airways in the late 1960s into the 1970s was a fashionable—and colorful—experience. 

In 1965, Braniff International hired designer Alexander Girard to completely and comprehensively redesign its image and each step of the airline passenger’s experience. Girard was a trained architect who became one of those Modernist designers to try his hand at everything—textiles, furniture, objects, interiors, toys, graphics, and more. He was known for a humanistic approach to design. Departing from the white-walled minimalism of the earlier Modernists, Girard valued color, folk art, and designs that evoked joy and delight. In 1965, he was known primarily as the director of design for Herman Miller Furniture Company’s textile division, as well as for his encyclopedic 1960 design of La Fonda del Sol restaurant in New York City’s Time & Life Building.  For La Fonda del Sol, Girard designed everything from the matchboxes to the menus, the dishware to the large-scale murals and sculptural objects.

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Left:
Set of Braniff International Airways Playing Cards, circa 1973//THF175414
Right: Braniff International Airways Bar Soap, 1965-1975//THF172360

Girard’s approach to the Braniff redesign was similar. Braniff named the campaign “The End of the Plain Plane.” It was an absolutely appropriate name, too—Girard implemented over 17,000 design changes in total. Girard wanted to “destroy the monotony” of the traditional airplane and instead, “do something to make the performance lively and interesting.” The exteriors of the airplanes were perhaps the most immediately obvious change. There were seven exterior paint colors: yellow, orange, turquoise, dark blue, light blue, ochre, and beige—each with a black nose, white wings, and white tail. Girard explained, “The idea was to make a plane like a great racing car—with the fuselage painted a solid color clearly expressing its shape.” The airplane interiors featured seven different coordinating color palates. Girard designed 56 new upholstery fabrics for the project, featuring solids combined with patterns of checks and stripes. Television ads for Braniff boasted, “you can fly with us seven times and never fly the same color twice…”

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Undigitized textile samples by Girard for Braniff International Airways in The Henry Ford’s Collection.

The changes didn’t stop at the airplane’s paint scheme and upholstery. Girard designed a new logo, ticketing areas, and airport lounges which featured furniture designed by his friends and colleagues Charles and Ray Eames as well as new furniture that Girard himself designed. His new line was futuristic and colorful with contrasting upholstery, rounded edges, aluminum legs, and cantilevered arms. A plethora of small objects—soap packaging, blankets, playing cards, sugar packets, ticket holders, dishware, luggage tags, litter bags, and more—rounded out the comprehensive redesign.  

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Ottoman Footstool, 1966-1967, from The Girard Group Series//THF93606

To top it all off, Girard suggested the commission of Italian fashion designer Emilio Pucci to create a line of uniforms for Braniff pilots and flight attendants. The futuristic space age-themed uniforms were colorful and included go-go boots and translucent plastic helmets. Braniff International’s new flying experience was no longer simply travel between two points, but instead it became an immersive journey. As one television advertisement concluded, “Braniff International announces the end of the plain plane. We won’t get you where you’re going any faster, but it’ll seem that way.”

Katherine White is Associate Curator, Digital Content, at The Henry Ford.

by Katherine White, travel, flying, design, airplanes

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The “Barnstormers” section of the
Heroes of the Sky exhibit in Henry Ford Museum covers early 20th century pilots and aerialists who would perform daring airplane stunts to entertain audiences watching below.  The Laird Biplane Boneshaker that appears in the exhibit was flown by Katherine Stinson, an aviator in her mid-20s, on international exhibition tours in 1916 and 1917.  We’ve just digitized a couple dozen photographs and clippings that relate to Stinson and the various planes she flew, including this image taken at the Tri-State Fair in Memphis in fall 1916—the back of the photo notes that she flew that day wearing this same ensemble, with the addition of a helmet and goggles.  View all the Stinson-related materials by visiting our Digital Collections—and to learn even more about Katherine Stinson, watch for her to be featured in a segment of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation later this year.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

Heroes of the Sky, Henry Ford Museum, The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation, women's history, airplanes, flying, aviators, digital collections, by Ellice Engdahl

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In 2014, the Detroit News donated over 220 photographic negatives to The Henry Ford. They depict photos of and taken from various News aircraft between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s, including a Lockheed Orion and a Lockheed Vega.  A substantial number relate to the 1931 Pitcairn-Cierva Autogiro, which has been in The Henry Ford’s collection for over 80 years and is currently on display within Henry Ford Museum in the Heroes of the Sky exhibit. The image shown here includes a hand-written note on the envelope: “Airplanes to ship newspapers.” We have just digitized the complete set of negatives, so you can now visit our online collections to browse the Autogiro-related images, or everything related to the Detroit News, including all of these images.

Ellice Engdahl is Digital Collections & Content Manager at The Henry Ford.

newspapers, Michigan, flying, digital collections, Detroit, by Ellice Engdahl, airplanes