November 21, 2013
There have been other presidential airplanes, but the one known, prosaically, by its serial number — SAM 26000 — is the most famous by far. It’s the one Jackie Kennedy had a hand in designing, the first built specifically to transport the U.S. head of state around the world, and the scene, 50 years ago, of some of the most emotional moments in presidential history.
On November 22, 1963, 28 people crowded into the staff room of this specially outfitted Boeing 707 to watch Lyndon Johnson take the oath of office, with the widow of assassinated President John F. Kennedy standing at his side. Just inside the rear door of the aircraft, in the aft galley, sat her husband’s coffin. The presidential party had arrived in Dallas only three hours earlier, on this same airplane.
The sites associated with that awful day have become part of American lore — Dealey Plaza, the book depository, the grassy knoll. For this 50th anniversary, two writers turned their attention to the airplane that carried one U.S. president to Dallas and brought a different one back to Washington on the same day. Washingtonian editor Garrett Graff has written a slim book, Angel is Airborne, set inside SAM 26000 on the day of the assassination (you can read it here). Esquire writer Chris Jones covers the same subject in his article “The Flight From Dallas.” Both rely heavily on previously published accounts, but they still make riveting reading, if only to remind us of all the accidents of timing that led some 40 people — including future LBJ aides Jack Valenti and Bill Moyers — to be on board the airplane during those climactic hours.
Among them was the man who took the pictures of LBJ’s hastily arranged swearing-in. As a White House photographer, Cecil Stoughton had shot many of the iconic images we associate with Kennedy’s Camelot. Before that, he had been a wartime photographer in Guadalcanal, and had documented the early space program from Cape Canaveral (he was on the recovery ship when the monkeys Able and Baker splashed down in 1959).
At the time of the assassination, Stoughton was riding in the motorcade several cars back from the president. He heard shots, but couldn’t see what had happened. In fact, it wasn’t until he arrived at Parkland Hospital that he learned Kennedy had been hit and was likely dead. Then, as Stoughton recalled it years later in an oral history interview, as he was standing around at the hospital:
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mr. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson, [Secret Service agent] Rufus Youngblood and a couple of other people making mad dashes for the door, which was behind me….I kind of nodded. “Where’s he going?” And [another aide] said “The president’s going to Washington.” That was my clue that the president I came with was no longer there, and I said “Well, so am I.”
Stoughton climbed into a car and raced to Love Field, where the presidential airplane was waiting on the tarmac.
A policeman drove us out. There were four of us in the car. We made a mad dash to the airport using a different route because you didn’t know which way they had gone, really, and they were under security cover anyway, no radios. So we came up to Love Field and we came in the wrong entrance. It turned out that we came in towards the active runway and, actually, we crossed the active runway and came barreling down this active runway, under the guns, we found out later, of security guys who had been posted there just in the last five minutes. We almost got shot, because, “What’s this black car?” It might be official and all that, but here it comes charging towards Air Force One.
The photographer rushed up to pilot Jim Swindal, whom he knew, and got the okay to come aboard. Within an hour, with the plane still on the ground, Stoughton took some of the most recognized photos of the 20th century while standing on a couch looking down. In all the pictures, according to Graff, he was careful to frame Mrs. Kennedy from the waist up so the blood stains on her skirt wouldn’t show.
Stoughton didn’t fly back to Washington with the new president — he rushed off to have his negatives developed instead.
By the time they were dried and we’d made all [the] selections and so forth, the plane had landed at Andrews [AFB] one hour and fifty-two or -three minutes later; fastest time in history, I guess, from Dallas to Andrews because they got into a tremendous tail wind. By the time they got there and they were taxiing on the ground, someone told me [who] was on the plane that they put the pictures on the [TV] screen. AP had moved them. They put them on the screen and the new President then saw himself being sworn in just two hours ago.
Today SAM26000 is retired and on display at the National Museum of the Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. For the 50th anniversary of the fateful flight to Dallas, the museum asked photographer Lyle Jansma, who also created our gallery of inside-the-cockpit views, to make a virtual tour of the inside of the historic airplane.
Look around the (since remodeled) room where LBJ was sworn in, from the photographer’s vantage point:
Or take the full tour of the airplane:
October 16, 2013
Things were going well for the Wright brothers in early 1909, following their first public flights in America and Europe. The U.S. Congress, the Smithsonian Institution and the Aero Club of America all wanted to award them medals, to be presented at the “Wright Brothers’ Home Day Celebration” in Dayton, Ohio, on June 17-18.
The Wrights, though, wanted none of it.
The inventors found the festivities a waste of time, writes Tom Crouch in his 1989 book The Bishop’s Boys. “The Dayton presentation has been made the excuse for an elaborate carnival and advertisement of the city under the guise of being an honor to us,” Wilbur wrote to Octave Chanute on June 6. “As it was done against our known wishes, we are not as appreciative as we might be.”
“The great carnival,” writes Crouch, “included receptions, spectacular parades, band concerts, and fireworks featuring pyrotechnic portraits of Wilbur and Orville, intertwined with the flag, eight feet tall…. A gigantic ‘living flag,’ composed of schoolchildren dressed in red, white, and blue, topped off the festivities with a serenade.” The event concluded with an automobile parade.
Now, a rare poster from this event will be auctioned October 18, 2013 at New York’s Swann Galleries. “They’re old, and they were meant to be ephemeral,” says Nicholas Lowry, director of Swann Auction Galleries, and a frequent contributor to PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, of the three Wright brothers posters in the auction. “The only reason people kept them is they were so damn pretty.”
The Dayton poster isn’t by a known artist. “So as a work of art,” says Lowry, “it has less interest, but as a seminal event in American aviation history it it is hugely important.”
The poster at right, by artist Hans Rudi Erdt, advertises Orville Wright’s flights over Tempelhof Field in Germany. In the summer and fall of 1909, Orville made 19 demonstration flights to promote the brothers’ aircraft, which was being manufactured in Germany. “Keep in mind,” says Lowry, “the German poster is over four feet high. It’s actually so big it’s printed on two pieces of paper. It’s joined in the middle. You can see the seam right below the lower wing. To keep something that big, for so long, that’s impressive. And a little crazy. Poster people—there’s a beautiful kind of mania that’s involved in [collecting posters].”
The third and final poster up for auction is the rarest of all. By René Hermann-Paul, the drawing depicts a Wright brothers’ airplane flying at the Aérodrome de Cannes in early 1909. It was flown by Count Charles graaf de Lambert, who was trained by Wilbur Wright and was the eighth person in France to obtain a pilot’s license. The Wright biplane featured in the poster was constructed by Ariel, the exclusive producer of the Wright brothers aircraft in France. The poster has come up for sale only once before that Lowry can recall. “Hermann-Paul was a very famous artist at the time,” Lowry says. “He mostly did music hall stuff, so this is very atypical for him.” Hermann-Paul must have been interested in aviation; one of his other works is a portrait of Wilbur Wright.
Do other Wright brothers posters exist? Lowry thinks for a second, then replies, “Actually, off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other ones.” The Dayton poster actually came to Antiques Roadshow in 2009; watch Lowry’s appraisal here.
October 4, 2013
In 1858, Félix Tournachon, better known by his professional name, “Nadar,” took a camera up in a tethered hot air balloon and became the first aerial photographer.
Five years later, he launched the world’s largest gas balloon, known as Le Géant (Giant). The 196-foot-tall balloon had required more than 300 seamstresses to assemble its 22,000 yards of silk, and at the time was the most elaborate aerial vehicle ever devised.
Donald Dale Jackson described Le Géant in his 1981 book The Aeronauts:
It was an airborne cottage. Made of wicker, two stories high with a balcony on its roof, it contained six compartments: two cabins, a printing room, a photographic office, a lavatory and a storeroom. The balloon made two ascents from Paris in October of 1863, attracting the largest crowds for any aeronautical event since the historic flight of Jacques Charles 80 years before. But it was just as well that the crowds were not around for the landings.
Nadar and his two deputies, the ballooning brothers Jules and Louis Godard, carried 12 eager passengers on Le Géant‘s much-publicized maiden voyage on October 4. By the time they lifted off, late in the afternoon, spectators had become so impatient with the tedious inflation process that they watched the ascent in petulant silence. Anticipating an all-night ride across Europe, the passengers had thoughtfully provided themselves with guidebooks and passports, but it was soon evident they would not need them: The balloon dropped violently to earth after only 15 miles, dragging the wicker bungalow on its side for a bone-rattling mile.
If the first flight was a disappointment, the second, a fortnight later, was a catastrophe. The audience for this ascent, estimated at half a million, included both the Emperor Napoleon III and the King of Greece. Again the lift-off was delayed, but this time the great balloon sailed gracefully off to the northeast, climbing easily to an altitude of 4,000 feet. The six passengers and three crewmen repaired to the balcony for a fine meal as the balloon floated toward Belgium, then over the Netherlands and into Germany. By dawn they had traveled some 400 miles. As they watched a brilliant sunrise, Nadar, fearing that the sun’s heat would cause the balloon to burst, ordered a descent.
Suddenly the idyll was transformed into a roller-coaster ride as the monster balloon encountered strong winds near the ground. They had valved gas so liberally on the way down that they were unable to reascend. Le Géant bounded across woods and fields, tearing through trees and bouncing off the earth, Nadar said, ‘like an India rubber ball from the hands of an indefatigable player.’ Nadar saw to his dismay that they were on a collision course with a railroad train. ‘A few more revolutions of the wheels and it will all be over,’ he wrote in a fervid memoir. ‘A single cry escapes our throats, but what a cry!’ The engineer whistled in reply and halted the train with feet to spare. Moments later the runaway balloon finally stopped at the edge of a wood, and burst. The passengers, most of whom had jumped or had been thrown from the car, were strewn over the ground like so many fallen apples.”
Le Géant made just five flights. But even after his grand experiment failed, Nadar remained interested in ballooning; during the 1870 Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune (the government that briefly ruled Paris in 1871), he provided, at his own expense, reconnaissance and postal balloons. These efforts bankrupted him, although he regained much of his wealth by 1885.
September 13, 2013
One of the charms of Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds, on view through October 22, 2013 at the National Air and Space Museum, is the Renaissance man’s enthusiasm for the invention of a flying machine:
It will make the first flight this great bird
filling the universe with awe
filling all writings with its frame
and eternal glory to the next where it was born.
That prediction reached across five centuries to captivate Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. This video clip recounts how Elachi made the decision, at the urging of a documentarian from Italian state TV, to send digital copies of da Vinci’s portrait and the Codex to Mars on the Curiosity rover.
Later, Elachi found that da Vinci had anticipated modern spacecraft design. Leonardo’s drawing (below) of a vehicle that would protect soldiers moving onto a battlefield—a Renaissance Humvee, if you will—bears a resemblance, Elachi points out, to the conveyance that brought Curiosity on the last part of its journey.
July 25, 2013
Eighty years ago this month, on July 22, 1933, Wiley Post completed the first solo flight around the world. He made the circuit in seven days, 18 hours, and 49 1/2 minutes, taking off and returning to Floyd Bennett Field on Long Island, New York.
It wasn’t Post’s first around-the-world trip. In 1931, accompanied by navigator Harold Gatty, Post circumnavigated the world in a little over eight days. The attempt was so popular with the public that the duo wrote a book, appropriately titled Around the World in Eight Days.
What Post didn’t reveal in that 1931 memoir, was that he was an ex-con, convicted of highway robbery. As Bryan Sterling and Frances Sterling note in their 2001 book Forgotten Eagle, in April 1921, Post pleaded guilty to highway robbery, and was sentenced to ten years at the Oklahoma state penitentiary.
The Sterlings write:
The robber’s strategem that Wiley employed was basic…. A robber would simply place some lure—be it a small suitcase, a bag of sugar, or a new-looking tire—into the center of a quiet stretch of country road, hide nearby and await the arrival of an inquisitive and acquisitive victim. Seeing by serendipity a relatively costly item that apparently had fallen off some truck, the imminent victim would stop his car to step out and retrieve it. The robber would then pounce from his hiding place with his gun or rifle at the ready, and demand money and valuables.
In June 1922, after serving time for a little over one year, Post was paroled; according to the Sterlings, prison doctors were concerned that Post was “racing toward a state of total psychological failure.”
After his parole, Post headed for the Oklahoma oil fields. While on a drilling job in eastern Oklahoma, write the Sterlings, Post saw a handbill for Burrell Tibbs’ Flying Circus. He promptly asked Tibbs for a job, and was in luck: Peter Lewis, the featured parachute jumper, had been hurt in the previous show. Would Post like the job? (Post’s previous aviation “experience” consisted of seeing a Curtiss Pusher flown by barnstormer Art Smith at the 1912 Lawton, Oklahoma, annual fair.) Post agreed, became a member of the flying circus, and embraced a career in aviation.
On December 27, 1934, then-Governor William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray granted Wiley Post—then a household name for his two around-the-world flights—a full pardon.
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