Confession: I used to think airplanes were boring. When I left my home in Tucson, Arizona this May to begin a summer internship at the National Air and Space Museum, I thought that air and space history had nothing to do with me. And, I must confess, I had very little interest in them, either. My background is in art history, and my goal for the summer was to learn about education programs in a large museum with extremely diverse visitors – airplanes had nothing to do with it.
A few weeks after I arrived at the Museum, however, I was hooked. I talked with anyone who would listen about the things I learned at the Museum every day. I started reading in my free time about pioneering aviators. In short, I had been drawn in by the tractor beam that is created when a museum visitor makes a personal connection with an artifact or artwork. I learned how exciting airplanes can be when I came across a plane – and its pilot, Lowell Smith – that led me to learn about the role aeronautics played in shaping the community I live in and my family’s decision to move there, making it my home.
I had never heard of Lowell Smith until I saw his name painted on the side of the Douglas World Cruiser Chicago in the Pioneers of Flight gallery. Lieutenant Smith piloted the Chicago in the first flight around the world in 1924. As I read further I learned about his impressive career as a decorated Army officer who held 16 records for military aircraft in speed, endurance, and distance. In 1923 he piloted the first plane to successfully refuel in mid-air.
His early accomplishments are impressive, but it is Smith’s life after the around-the-world flight that intersects with mine. In February, 1942, he became the second commander of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson. Under Smith’s command, it became the top training base for B-17 and B-24 crews during World War II. Military airspace was defined from Tucson west to Yuma, near the California border, that is still in place today.
Many things have changed at Davis-Monthan since Smith died in a horseback riding accident in 1945, but the primary purpose of the Base – pilot and crew training – remains. Thanks to the weather (surely you’ve heard about the “dry heat”), pilots can safely fly almost every day of the year in southern Arizona. These days Davis-Monthan is a training base for A-10 pilots, and the nearby Air National Guard base serves as an international training base for F-16 pilots.