It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a day to remember aeronautical history, Wolfsonian style


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

A historical anniversary and a news announcement I heard this morning on National Public Radio had me thinking about airships and aeronautical stunts today. While men first took to the skies in hot air balloons, on this day in 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright successfully launched their home-made, heavier-than-air biplane.

86.19.398.5_101117The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Building on the work of German engineers who had experimented with glider technology as early as the 1890s, in the first years of the new millennium the Wright brothers experimented with hundreds of wing designs, developed a steering rudder, and added a 12-horsepower internal combustion engine to their airframe to enable powered flight. On December 17, 1903, Orville piloted their experimental biplane above the dunes of Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks of North Carolina for a distance of 120 feet in a flight that lasted 12 seconds. Their successful flight ushered in the age of aeronautics.

I had also heard on the radio today that Florida mailman, Doug Hughes has announced his intention to run for a Congressional seat. Hughes—(no relation to the eccentric aviator Howard Hughes)—achieved public notoriety (and arrest) for his self-proclaimed act of “civil disobedience” in flying a single-seat gyrocopter from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to the nation’s capital. Hughes landed his craft on the sloped lawn in front of the Capitol building in April, 2015 with the intention of delivering 535 letters to Congress and garnering public attention and support for his crusade to get lobbyists and special interest money out of politics.

Hughes' gyrocopter sits on the west lawn of the Capitol after he was taken into custody on April 15.

Photograph courtesy of Alex Wong, Getty Images

Hughes was immediately taken into custody upon landing, charged with operating an aircraft without an airman’s license, pled guilty, and has been wearing an ankle monitor while awaiting sentencing scheduled for April, 2016. Hughes’ aeronautical stunt generated incredible press—ironically, less about the doleful influence of lobbyists in Congress, and more about how an individual had been able to fly “under the radar” and to penetrate sensitive airspace in Washington, D.C. despite post-9/11 security measures.

We have a number of items in our rare book and special collections library that document the technology of helicopters and autogiros. The plan below shows the profile design for the Hélicoptère Léger published contemporaneously with the famous Wright brothers’ flight of 1903.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Neither airplane nor helicopter, the autogiro aircraft of the 1920s and ’30s combined attributes of both.



The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Photographic images in one such rare book picture landings made in front of the Capitol building amidst much public acclaim.


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Having taught a course at Florida International University for a number of years on the Great Depression and New Deal Era in Film and History, Hughes’s stunt reminded me of a scene from Stand Up and Cheer!, a 1934 American musical directed by Hamilton MacFadden. The film centers on the character of Lawrence Cromwell, a Broadway director tapped by the President—(the audience never sees his face, but the voice makes it clear that it is Franklin D. Roosevelt)—to serve as director of a newly created “Department of Amusement.” In the movie, the president is convinced that depression-weary Americans have lost their characteristic optimism and he hopes that the Department of Amusement will make them smile again. The new appointee, in keeping with his reputation for theatrics, arrives in Washington for his meeting with the president in an autogiro that lands directly in front of the Capitol building.

Once he takes up his new post, Cromwell is busy auditioning vaudeville acts, reviewing musical revues, organizing circus troupes, song and dance performers (including a tap-dancing Shirley Temple), and other entertainment programs that foreshadow those actually funded by the very real Federal Theatre Project between 1935 and 1939.



The Christopher DeNoon Collection for the Study of New Deal Culture


The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

 Ironically, Cromwell’s efforts to laugh away the woes of the Great Depression are undermined by political opponents and lobbyists intent on destroying what they see as a “frivolous” federal program. Similarly, the Federal Theatre Project was attacked by disaffected Democratic defectors, (like Martin Dies of the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC), and defunded by Congress.




The Wolfsonian–FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

~ by "The Chief" on December 17, 2015.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: