Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum Invites Visitors from the World Over to See "America by Air"

The Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum will open its newest permanent exhibition, "America by Air," on Saturday, Nov. 17. With a dramatic array of artifacts, photographs, artwork and interactives&emdash;many at full scale&emdash;the gallery will tell in sweeping detail the story of passenger air travel in the United States, from the early attempts to form airlines only a decade after Kitty Hawk to the commercial challenges and technical sophistication of the 21st-century jet age.

The exhibition will show how paying passengers got off the ground after the development of air mail; why the experience of air travel changed throughout the years from a luxurious adventure to a less-glamorous necessity; and how current events will affect the way people fly for years to come.

As part of the gallery experience, visitors will be able to cross a 30-foot-high pedestrian bridge and step inside the forward fuselage of a retired Northwest Boeing 747, getting a close-up look at the cockpit along with the view from the upper deck of the wide-body airliner that became an icon of the "jet set" era.

Also featured in the new exhibition will be a life-size interactive cockpit simulation of an Airbus A320 taking off and landing at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. The graphics seen through the windshield show the nation's capital and its landmarks in remarkable detail.

With the help of a specially built platform installed in the gallery, visitors looking up at the hanging Ford 5-AT Tri-Motor will be able to feel and hear the continuous heavy vibrations that rattled travelers aboard the classic "Tin Goose" beginning in the mid-1920s. Next to the platform will be a life-size profile of the airplane with a cutaway showing the interior seating.

"Passenger air travel is so ingrained in our culture, it's natural that we take its development and success for granted," museum director Gen. J.R. "Jack" Dailey said. "'America by Air' reminds us how no other machine but the airliner put the far corners of the world within reach for so many. It's impossible to imagine modern life without it, and it's hard not to relate instantly to this new gallery." 

The exhibition will be divided into four thematic sections: Early Years, 1914-1927; Expansion and Innovation, 1927-1941; Piston-Engine Era, 1941-1958; and Jet Age, 1958-Today.

Among the many interactive features, animated maps on large, high-definition screens will present a compressed day-in-the-life of today's complex airline routes and how they can be affected by bad weather. The same displays will show visitors how air traffic control cleared the skies over the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, in just a few unprecedented hours.

Visitors also will be able to spin and compare models of piston and jet engines and test the differences between control systems from simple lever-and-wires to hydraulics to NASA-developed, computer-based, fly-by-wire technology.

Many of the exhibition's interactive features will be available on the museum's Web site, www.nasm.si.edu.

In addition to the 747 nose and the forward fuselage of a DC-7, whose interior also will be open to the public, the exhibition will display seven complete airplanes to represent the formative years of air transportation in the United States: the Ford Tri-Motor; a Curtiss JN-4D Jenny; a Pitcairn PA-5 Mailwing; a Fairchild FC-2; a Northrop Alpha; a Boeing 247-D; and a Douglas DC-3.

While most of the aircraft will be displayed hanging from ceiling trusses, the Jenny will be set much closer to eye level on supports just outside an improvised airmail hut. Surplus Jennys from World War I became the first aircraft used in regular service by the U.S. Post Office Department. The museum's JN-4D, in pristine, unrestored condition, was last displayed by the Smithsonian during the 1960s.

Several key passenger airplane engines from the 1920s to the 1970s will be displayed in the gallery, including the trailblazing 1926 Wright Whirlwind and a Rolls-Royce RB.211 high-bypass turbofan.

The exhibition also will spotlight some of the personalities who turned air travel into an industry and a culture. Visitors will learn of the less-heralded work of Charles Lindbergh, who helped chart some of the nation's initial airline routes. The gallery also remembers pioneers like Ellen Church, who suggested putting nurses like her in the sky as the first stewardesses; and pilot Marlon Green, who broke the major carriers' whites-only barrier in 1965 with a discrimination suit against Continental Airlines.

Highlights from the museum's extensive air travel poster collection will illustrate how airline advertisements initially focused on issues of safety and comfort but&emdash;as passengers grew increasingly savvy&emdash;gradually shifted their focus to destinations.

"America by Air" also recalls how the federal government's role in commercial air travel evolved from establishing air traffic control and early regulation aimed at encouraging growth to creating valuable technologies through the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor to NASA. A large "NACA" sign on display comes from one of the landmark Langley, Va., wind tunnels that helped produce breakthroughs in aircraft design in the 1920s and 1930s.

With a variety of evocative displays, the exhibition will put in context the airliner's crucial role in swiftly moving time-sensitive cargo like transplant organs, produce and seafood. The Washington Nationals baseball club has donated bats, a helmet, a team jacket and an equipment travel bag to represent how modern aircraft dramatically streamlined the road trip and expanded the reach of professional sports.

Special photo opportunities for visitors will be available throughout the gallery, including cutouts of soot-covered airmail pilots and traveling stars from Hollywood's golden era. An airline chewing-gum dispenser, complimentary flight bags, a travel insurance vending machine and provocative stewardess uniforms from the 1960s and 1970s also help tell the exhibition's story.

To explain the economics of the post-deregulation era, an interactive price "meter" will challenge visitors to spend $300 or less on a plane ticket while deciding whether they can do without such comforts as a non-stop flight, sufficient leg room and food service. An "In the News" section in the gallery and on the exhibition Web site will provide information on the latest innovations and events in air travel.

The "America by Air" exhibition will be the subject of a special themed Family Day on Nov. 17, with activities including curator presentations and storytimes for young visitors.

That weekend before Thanksgiving will be dedicated to the latest Smithsonian offerings as the National Museum of Natural History opens its special "Butterflies and Plants" enclosed pavilion and the Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture unveils the new enclosed Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard.

"America by Air" is made possible through the generous support of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; the U.S. Department of Transportation; and Airbus. Additional support is provided by the Federal Aviation Administration and Rockwell Collins.

Northwest Airlines generously donated the 747 whose forward fuselage is displayed in the gallery.

The National Air and Space Museum building on the National Mall in Washington D.C., is located at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue S.W. The museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center&emdash; home to a number of historic commercial airplanes, including a Concorde, the Boeing Stratoliner 307 and the "Dash 80" original prototype for the Boeing 707&emdash;is located in Chantilly, Va., near Washington Dulles International Airport.

Both facilities are open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (Closed Dec. 25) Admission is free but there is a $12 fee for daily parking at the Udvar-Hazy Center.

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