Tribute to an Aviation Journalist

If you read airplane magazines, you’ve seen Howard Levy’s photographs.

One of his early photos is of the 1937 M-156 flying boat, which Glenn Martin offered to Pan American World Airways. Instead, Aeroflot took one — the only one. (Howard Levy)
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Howard Levy took his first photograph in 1936, when he was 15 years old. His subject was his sister…and an airplane. From that moment on, Levy built an exuberant career around his favorite pastime, which he called “chasing aircraft.”

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When Levy died last January, at 88, he was one of the most accomplished aviation photographers in history. His photos appeared in Look—where he was an assistant editor for 25 years—and most aviation magazines, including Air & Space. When picture editor Caroline Sheen began to work with him last fall on this retrospective, he was assembling a feature for a British magazine—a photographic history of aircraft designed by Burt Rutan.

Levy received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Society for Aviation Photography in 2003, and was a founding member of the American Aviation Historical Society.

When a career is this full, how does one choose the highlights? Levy struggled. He e-mailed last fall, “I am in a real big quandary.” He proceeded to list the types, eras, circumstances, locations, and in some cases histories of the thousands upon thousands of airplanes he had photographed. Should he include the photos from his 30-month trip around the world as a U.S. Army Air Forces photographer during World War II, when he shot military aircraft in Egypt, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, India, and Bengal? “I photo’d military and civilian Grummans from the ’30s to post-WW II days at their Long Island factories, which began in a Quonset hut at Seversky Field,” he wrote. “I also photo’d a number of the industry pioneers. In fact, I photo’d a WW II US, British, French, and German ace together but I can’t remember who each was.” He had hundreds of prints from visits to airports, museums, and factories, and from the Paris Air Show, which he attended every two years from 1951 to 1981. “So you can imagine the amount of pix I have,” wrote Levy. “Any suggestions what might be of particular interest?”

His friend Glenn Stott, who met him at meetings of Experimental Aviation Association Chapter 315, where Levy had been a member for years, says Levy never missed the Sunday gathering at Old Bridge Airport, near the photographer’s New Jersey home. Stott, a former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot, often looked through Levy’s photo collection. “You just mention an airplane, and he could talk to you for 20 minutes about it—the background of the people who built it and the company that started it that then became this company.” Stott says that Levy intended to donate the collection to a university, where it could be cataloged and preserved.

In the 19 years that EAA media director Dick Knapinski has been with the Wisconsin-based association, he doesn’t remember an Oshkosh fly-in without Levy. “And you could tell he was in his natural habitat,” says Knapinski.

Levy finally settled on the photographs he wanted published in Air & Space, and he wrote this introduction for them:

“Now, here are a few photographs of the many individual company-built aircraft that this photographer has met up with in much earlier days and which possibly not too many of the readers may know of unless they are historians.”

And as for his earlier question, “Any suggestions what might be of particular interest?” All of them, Howard.

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