Travel Tools from The Unofficial Guide™ Team  -  See Our Books Here!
  • Background Image

    105: Golden Age of Flight

The Golden Age of Flight (Gallery 105)

The Golden Age of Flight room covers the public’s expanding fascination with civilian aviation between 1919 and 1939, roughly the time between the World Wars.

The basic principles for powering and controlling an airplane in flight were well-known by the end of World War I. With these mastered, airplane manufacturers and pilots began to push the limits of how fast, far, and high their planes could go. Crowds flocked to the new air shows and air races springing up across the U.S. and Europe; many people were inspired to become amateur pilots themselves. This gallery’s displays includes trophies, photos, and results from these races, and the newspaper and magazine coverage their pilots garnered. At the end of the gallery is another set of aircraft engines, this time from the 1920’s, showing how much larger and more powerful their capabilities had become since the early days of flight.

Five aircraft are displayed in Golden Age of Flight:

Hughes H-1 Long: before he was the reclusive billionaire with the crazy fingernails, Howard Hughes was an aviation legend. Wanting to break the world speed record, Hughes commissioned the design of this plane in 1934. Built with the most modern aircraft design methods of the time, including wind tunnel testing, a retractable landing gear and flush rivets for less drag, and two sets of purpose-built wings, Hughes piloted this H-1 to a then-record speed of 352 m.p.h. in 1935. In 1937, Hughes set a new transcontinental speed record in this H-1, flying from Los Angeles to New York in under 7 ½ hours (current record: 64 minutes by the SR-71 Blackbird displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Center). This H-1 is the last civilian aircraft to hold the world speed record.

Curtiss Robin J-1 Deluxe: In 1935, this airplane used air-to-air refueling to set a world’s record for longest sustained flight: 27 days, 5 hours, and 34 minutes from takeoff to landing (the current record is just under 65 days). You see the small metal catwalk attached to the left side of the fuselage, under the cockpit? The pilots stood on that to perform engine maintenance during their record flight while the plane was flying! We’ll never complain about sitting in the middle seat again.

Wittman Special 20 “Chief Oshkosh” / “Buster”: This Wittman was neither the fastest nor the highest-flying of its time. What’s remarkable about it is that it was designed by one guy, Steve Wittman, and competed successfully in air races for three decades. Among its achievements, this plane won at the 1932 National Air Races, the 1947 and 1949 Goodyear Air Races, and finished third at the 1954 Continental Motors race, before being retired and donated to the Smithsonian.

Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing: By the early 1930’s, people were using airplanes for private transportation instead of trains, ships, or cars. And while most early planes were sparsely furnished, focusing more on basic, safe flying than luxury, Beechcraft outfitted its Model 17s with leather interiors, essentially making it the Depression-era equivalent of today’s private jet. Even though it was posh, the Model 17 still won air races and set speed and altitude records. The example in this gallery was originally owned by the father of American astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Northrop 2B Gamma Polar Star: As the gallery attests, the golden age of flight involved setting speed records and flight “firsts.” For example, the first transatlantic crossing by plane happened in 1919; the first transpacific flight in 1928. With the number of potential “firsts” being crossed off the list quickly, it was inevitable that someone would try to be the first to fly across Antarctica. This plane made that attempt, in 1935, falling just 25 miles short of its 2,400-mile course.

Touring Tips

The gallery’s film, Jimmy Doolittle Remembers, is one of the better in the museum, but not needed on any partial-day tour.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Top