Every Fourth of July, visitors and locals alike crowd the National Mall to watch the fireworks show with the Washington Monument as one of its focal points. The monument reopened to the public in May 2014 as the last vestiges of scaffolding were removed from it, a visible reminder of the damage caused by a 2011 earthquake. Every year, thousands of visitors photograph themselves on the National Mall with the monument in the background. It is no surprise that it is popular in aviation photography as well.
For one week in June 1906, A. Roy Knabenshue and Lincoln Beachey soared over Washington, DC, in an airship. Making flights at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm, the aviators took off from Luna Park in Arlington, Virginia, and circled the city to the delight of viewers on the ground. According to the New York Times, on the morning of June 14 Beachey circled the monument and headed for the White House. Landing on the lawn, he was informed that President Theodore Roosevelt was two miles away at Georgetown University for commencement ceremonies. After a brief run-in with the White House constabulary, Beachey was in the air again, emptying the chambers of Congress as senators and representatives rushed to see the spectacle.
James “Jim” Ray, Vice-President of the Autogiro Company of America (formerly Pitcairn Aircraft Company), made a habit of flying an autogiro over Washington. His first demonstration was in 1931, on the occasion of President Hoover’s presentation of the Collier Trophy to Harold Pitcairn and associates for the development of the autogiro. On October 2, 1936, Ray landed the AC-35 in what is now Freedom Plaza. There, he converted the aircraft to its roadable configuration and drove it to the main entrance of the Commerce Building.
In 1931, Juan Trippe’s Pan American Airways introduced the Sikorsky S-40 Clipper. With 38 seats and a crew of six, it was the largest plane built in America at that time. Charles Lindbergh commanded the first leg of the first flight of the American Clipper (NC-80V) in November 1931.
In the past, the National Air and Space Museum has exhibited aircraft outside on the National Mall. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first transatlantic flight in 1919 by a Navy Curtiss NC-4 between Long Island and Portugal, the restored plane was on public display in 1969 in several locations including Central Park and Philadelphia. By the summer, the aircraft was on the National Mall, almost in the shadow of the Washington Monument. After the outdoor display, the aircraft was disassembled and placed in storage. The NC-4 has been on loan to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida since 1974.
Whether you’re watching the fireworks or cooking out with friends, enjoy your Fourth!
Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department.