Ten Great Moments in Aerospace History

And you can learn about all of them in one trip to the National Air and Space Museum.

The Piper Cub (Dane Penland)
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Forty years ago, on the nation’s bicentennial, President Gerald Ford declared the newly opened National Air and Space Museum a “perfect birthday present from the American people to themselves.” Although the Smithsonian Institution’s aerospace collection had been established much earlier, it wasn’t until the building on the National Mall opened that hundreds of artifacts could be displayed in one exhibition space.

Four decades later, thanks to a $30 million donation from the Boeing Company, the Museum has renovated its entrance hall and begun work on other galleries and educational activities. In recognition of Boeing’s generous gift, the new entrance gallery has been renamed the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.

One of the first changes visitors will notice is an interactive wall that introduces them to objects on display within the Museum. By downloading the accompanying Go Flight app onto a smartphone or tablet, visitors can read stories about the artifacts, watch videos of their history, and learn about connections between the world’s most significant air- and spacecraft.

Because the app (available for Android and iOS) can track your location, when you’re in the Museum, it offers you a map to help direct your visit, hour-long guided tours, and a schedule of daily events. If you open the app at home, you’ll get a list of topics that can be tailored to your interests. Each time you open the app, you’ll get a different set of stories.

To celebrate the Museum’s 40th birthday, we’re highlighting 10 iconic objects of the hundreds on display. Through the Go Flight app, any one of these could lead you on a journey through a dozen historic artifacts, showing how one led to the next.

Sikorsky HH-52A Seaguard

The two sailors climbed onto the tanker’s handrail for one reason: The heat of the ship’s steel deck was melting their shoes. It was November 1, 1979, and the tanker Burmah Agate had collided with the freighter Mimosa in the Gulf of Mexico, igniting the tanker’s 300,000 barrels of oil.

The two sailors watched the tanker burning around them. Then, through the smoke, they saw a Coast Guard helicopter approach: a Sikorsky HH-52, tail no. 1426, piloted by J.C. Cobb and Chris Kilgore, along with Petty Officer Thomas Wynn.

That day the Sikorsky, along with a second helicopter, rescued the two sailors perched on the handrail and 25 other men; they were the only survivors from the Burmah Agate.

The storied helicopter is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum. In 1988, as the Coast Guard was replacing its fleet of HH-52As, Lieutenant Thomas King was asked to find homes for almost 75 of them. King retired the next year but continued his work, as a member of the Coast Guard Aviation Association. Once the Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center opened in 2003, the Smithsonian was able to accept a Seaguard: It was the national collection’s first Coast Guard aircraft. There was one catch: The Museum required the helicopter to be fully restored. In late 2014 the association acquired no. 1426 from the North Valley Occupation Center, a vocational-technical school in Van Nuys, California. In little more than a year, a group of volunteers restored it, and now, at last, it’s on display. 

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