The Legacy of Flight

Images from the archives of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

Otto Lilienthal gliding. (NASM)

Watch a ghostly airship float by the Eiffel Tower on a foggy morning in 1903. Stand on the dusty grounds of Fort Myer, Virginia in 1908, as Orville Wright makes a test flight for the U.S. Army. Meet the unheralded heroes—the mechanics and ground crews—of the U.S. Air Mail Service as they prepare a flight in 1919.

These evocative photographs are just three of the more than two million images in the archives of the National Air and Space Museum. Can’t visit Washington and peruse the files yourself? Never fear. Melissa Keiser, the Museum’s chief photo archivist, has selected 132 photographs from the collection that span the breadth of aerospace history. Her choices have been published in a new book, The Legacy of Flight: Images from the Archives of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (by David Romanowski and Melissa Keiser, Bunker Hill Publishing, 2010); click on the thumbnails below to see a selection.

Pictured above: "Newspaper and magazine photographs of Otto Lilienthal gliding down hillsides near Berlin in the 1890s stirred excitement around the world," write Romanowski and Keiser. "Lilienthal made nearly 2,000 flights, some extending almost 1,000 feet and lasting 12 to 15 seconds. His success stemmed from more than 20 years of careful research. Lilienthal built and flew many different gliders, including this biplane design. His single-wing gliders, which looked and operated much like modern hang gliders, performed best. But control remained precarious, as a strong gust of wind on August 9, 1896, tragically proved. Lilienthal’s glider nosed up, stalled, and plummeted 50 feet to the ground. The fall broke his spine, and he died the next day."

All captions and images reprinted by permission.

1902 Wright Glider


The Wrights’ 1902 glider, shown here over Kitty Hawk in the fall of 1903 with their hangar and workshop in the distance, was their last and best experimental glider. They flew it hundreds of times and made many modifications. In its final form, the 1902 glider was the world’s first fully controllable airplane. The glider’s three-dimensional control system was the key to their final success, and it was that system—not the powered 1903 Flyer itself—for which they sought a patent.


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