The letters come in by the thousands. Some ramble for several pages, others are succinct. A few are handwritten—occasionally scrawled, usually neatly printed—although the majority are typed or sent electronically. But they all want the same thing: information.
From This Story
On May 22, 1963, my family flew on a commercial flight from Joplin, Missouri, to Chicago, Illinois, with stops at Springfield MO, St. Louis MO, and Springfield IL. Is there any way that you can find out the airline on which we flew, the type of aircraft on which we flew, our departure time in Joplin, and our arrival time in Chicago? (See response to this and all other questions below)
"At first I thought, 'Yeah, right,'" says Brian Nicklas, who has worked in the National Air and Space Museum's archives division for 20 years. "But then I realized that our volunteer Guy Halford-MacLeod would be able to answer it. Guy knows timetables and such, and he sent the gentleman a marvelous response."
"It was nothing," says Halford-MacLeod. "In the 1960s, airlines were tightly regulated, and only one airline would have flown the route from Joplin, Missouri, to Chicago. It didn't take very long to establish that the airline in question was Ozark, an airline that has long since disappeared." (See "Home Grown," Dec. 2000/Jan. 2001.)
With 15 permanent staff members and eight part-time volunteers, the archives handles more than 3,360 such queries each year. While the letters are enough to keep a task force busy, the staff also preserves the collections and works with donors to acquire items, frequently going on site to collect materials. (They've dug through the contents of attics, roamed dusty basements, and liberated knee-deep stacks of documents.) And while the bulk of the archives' collections is stored in a metal, no-frills building in Suitland, Maryland, the center of reference operations is in the Museum on the National Mall.
The queries are as varied as the archives' content. Hobbyists frequently ask for technical and scale drawings, which have been donated to the Museum over the decades by manufacturers, the armed services, and individual illustrators.
Researchers like to peruse the archives' voluminous holdings, which include everything from Operation Paperclip correspondence (the 1945 U.S. effort to identify and evacuate German scientists and engineers ahead of the advancing Soviet army) to NASA pre- and post-launch mission reports for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights to the 1937 logbook of U.S. fighter ace Gregory "Pappy" Boyington, later the commander of the famous U.S. Marine Corps "Black Sheep" squadron.
"The archives is committed to helping anyone and everyone," says supervisory archivist Marilyn Graskowiak. "If you are a modeler or the Imperial War Museum, we'll treat you the same way."
Although people have always been able to get answers to their aeronautical queries, there hasn't always been a place for researchers to visit. The collections were scattered throughout the Institution archives, in off-site storage, and in the hands of various curators. But by the mid-1980s, the archival collections had been gathered into the care of a single division, provided with a sunny room on the Museum's third floor.
We need an image of a pilot, or a pilot-like man. Might you have any photographs?
Indeed they do. The collections include nearly two million photographs, 700,000 feet of motion picture film, and two million technical drawings. The data spans the history of flight from ancient times to the present day, with an emphasis on the technical aspects of air- and spacecraft.