AidSpace Blog

Black Wings: The Life of African American Aviation Pioneer William Powell

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When African American pilot, engineer, and entrepreneur William Powell was a young adult, even the skies were segregated. Many would-be African American pilots, such as first licensed African American pilot Bessie Coleman, were forced to go to France for pilot training and licenses issued by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. According to a June 12, 2012 article in the online publication, Air Facts, in 1934 there were only 12 African Americans out of 18,041 pilots in the U.S., and out of 8,651 licensed mechanics, just two were African Americans. Airlines wouldn’t even allow African Americans as passengers. Powell set out to change that, becoming one of the most extraordinary figures in the Golden Age of Flight (1920s and 1930s) in the process. Only an early death brought his career as an aviation pioneer to an end.

Born in 1897, Powell grew up in a middle-class African American neighborhood in Chicago. He was a talented student working toward an electrical engineering degree at the University of Illinois when World War I broke out. He enlisted in the U.S. Army, and served as a lieutenant in the racially segregated 317th Engineers and the 365th Infantry Regiment. He returned home after being exposed to poison gas and finished his engineering degree.

William J. Powell

William J. Powell wearing his United States Army uniform and long coat during World War I. Image: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 2000-10698).

After graduation, he opened several successful gas stations and auto parts stores on the south side of Chicago, but sharing his generation’s infatuation with Charles Lindbergh and flight, he dreamt of going up in an airplane. In 1927, while attending a reunion with American veterans in Paris, France, he got his chance. Powell visited le Bourget Airport, the very place where Lindbergh had landed a few months earlier to conclude his solo flight across the Atlantic. A pilot took him on a tour over the city and he was quickly hooked on flying, making it his goal to become a pilot.

Doing so wouldn’t be easy. Flight school after flight school rejected him because of his race. He tried enlisting in the Army Air Corps, but was also turned down. He could have gone to France to train, but preferred getting licensed in his own country. Finally, in 1928 he was accepted at a flight school in Los Angeles, whose students were a mix of nationalities from across the globe. He sold his businesses, moved to California with his family, handed over the $1,000 tuition, and took to the skies. He received his pilot’s license in 1932.

Powell’s quest to become a pilot wasn’t the only thing that consumed him, however. He wanted to create opportunities for African Americans in aviation. He saw this budding industry as a way for African Americans to pull themselves out of the Great Depression. “I actually believe that with the proper leadership, Negroes can be systematically trained to the use of the airplane to such an extent that a great airplane industry might spring up,” Powell wrote in his book, Black Wings.

To this end, he helped form an aviation organization in 1929, naming it the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in tribute to the pioneering pilot who had died in an airplane accident in 1926. The club welcomed anyone, including women, but the members were almost all African Americans. Powell organized the first all-African American air show in 1931, which drew 15,000 attendees.

Bessie Coleman Aero Club

William J. Powell, far right, poses with members of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, California, circa 1931. Image: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM 2004-62661).

Powell used many other methods to encourage African Americans to enter the aviation field. He started the Bessie Coleman Flying School; made a movie about a young man who wanted to fly; published a monthly journal about African American aviation; offered scholarships to African American students; and founded Bessie Coleman Aero, the first African American-owned airplane manufacturer. He was aided by many celebrities such as Duke Ellington and Joe Louis, who lent their names and donated money to the cause.

Lastly, Powell wrote a book, Black Wings, which was published in 1934. A thinly-veiled autobiography, it told of his own struggle and that of other African Americans to become pilots through the eyes of the fictional character, “Bill Brown.” He used real events and individuals as the basis, and provided portrayals of early African American pilots such as Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, James Herman Banning, and C. Alfred Anderson. He urged African American youth “to fill the air with black wings.” He encouraged them not only to be pilots but also airplane mechanics, aeronautical engineers, aircraft designers, and industry businessmen. Powell was firmly convinced aviation was filled with new opportunities for African American youth. He wrote, “There is a better job and a better future in aviation for Negroes than in any other industry, and the reason is this: aviation is just beginning its period of growth, and if we get into it now, while it is still uncrowded, we can grow as aviation grows.”

Black Wings

The front cover and inside flap of the Museum’s copy of Black Wings, by William Powell. On the inside is a photo of Bessie Coleman, to whom he dedicated the book. Images: NASM 2012-0026 (left) and NASM 2011-00117 (right), photographer Eric Long, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Challenger Crew

An advertisement for Powell’s book, Black Wings.

Smithsonian Books republished Black Wings in 1994 as Black Aviator: The Story of William J. Powell, with new photos and historical background, plus an introductory essay by then-National Air and Space Museum Aeronautics Curator Von Hardesty. Used copies can still be found online.

Powell died in 1942 at age 45, his early death possibly brought on by after-effects of his exposure to poison gas in WWI. He had paved the way for hundreds of African Americans to enter the field of aviation. While discrimination was still rampant at the time of his death, he did live to see black aviators known as the Tuskegee Airmen play a vital role in World War II.

For more information on African Americans in aviation, read Black Wings: Courageous Stories of African Americans in Aviation and Space History by Von Hardesty and Dominick Pisano, or visit the Museum’s online exhibition on African Americans in aviation.

Kathleen Hanser is a writer-editor in the Office of Communications at the National Air and Space Museum.

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USS Enterprise Conservation Begins Phase II

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Alan Eustace's Overglove

The Star Trek starship Enterprise model separated into its component parts.

Stardate 1601.28: After a year of extensive research, conservation work on the original studio model of the USS Enterprise is now underway in the Museum’s spacedock. Our goal is to stabilize the model and return it to its appearance from August of 1967, during the filming of the episode The Trouble with Tribbles, which marked the last known modification of the ship during the production of Star Trek. The model appeared in all 79 episodes of the original series, and was donated to the Smithsonian in 1974. It will go back on public display in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall this year, in time for the Museum’s 40th birthday in July and the 50th anniversary of Star Trek in September. Visitors to our third annual Open House at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on Saturday, January 30 can catch a glimpse of the work in progress.

Advisory members from left: Bill George, Kim Smith, and John Goodson.

Advisory members from left: Bill George, Kim Smith, and John Goodson. Photos by Industrial Light & Magic.

To replicate the subtle, intricate paint detailing of the model’s original design, we welcomed two new members to the project’s expert advisory committee. Academy Award-winner Bill George from Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and Kim Smith with Creature Art & Mechanics Digital (CAMd) and formerly ILM, will join original committee member John Goodson, also of ILM. Combined, the three have decades of experience on more than 100 movies, including eight Star Trek films (and a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, four episodes of Star Wars). Kim also has an unexpected family connection to our Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall. Her father, the experienced mural artist William A. Smith, advised artist Robert “Bob” McCall as he worked on one of the gallery’s murals The Space Mural—A Cosmic View.

Alan Eustace's Overglove

A collection of original photographs and negatives of the Enterprise model.

The final painting of the Enterprise model will begin in April, using newly discovered reference photos from our appeal to Trek fans in the fall. The team will also build new nacelle domes with LED lights to mimic the spinning effect seen on television. For reference, they will first build a 1:1 mock-up of the original mechanism, which utilized mirrors, motors, nails, and Christmas lights. Conservator Ariel O’Connor explains, “Although the original nacelle dome lights did not survive, we can replicate the original effect in a way that is safe to install on the model.  The LED lights can be programmed to match the original VFX footage while eliminating the burnt-out bulbs, extreme heat, and motor problems that troubled the original lights. It is a wonderful solution to re-light the nacelles while ensuring the model’s safety and longevity.”

The Enterprise model has been carefully separated into its individual components—saucer section; secondary hull; port and starboard nacelles and pylons; deflector dish array; hangar bay doors; and the bridge. Each section is being meticulously studied to determine its construction and condition and will be documented with visible, ultraviolet, and infrared photography. We completed X-ray photography, with help from our colleagues at the Smithsonian Zoological Park, in spring 2015.

Enterprise Saucer

A close-up of the model’s saucer photographed in visible light.

Enterprise Saucer Under Infrared

A close-up image of the model’s saucer captured with reflected infrared photography. Note the original pencil markings.

The Enterprise was designed to look unbound by gravity, ready to explore strange new worlds at faster-than-light speeds week after week. Five decades later, the pull of our home world has taken its toll on the model, particularly the secondary hull and nacelles. “The secondary hull was built using horizontal staves, similar to a wooden barrel on its side,” says conservator Ariel O’Connor. “But unlike a barrel with metal hoops, the Enterprise staves are only glued together with aging adhesives and no additional structural support. Our museum specialists Gary Gordon and Will Lee are fabricating a precisely fit, reversible metal collar that will be inserted inside the secondary hull and hangar bay to stabilize the secondary hull and prevent the nacelles from drooping.”

Insde Enterprise Saucer

Inside the saucer of the model.

Inside Enterprise Hull

Interior view of the secondary hull looking aft toward the hangar bay of the model.

To analyze the model’s original materials and understand how they are aging, metal sections of the model were analyzed with X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and plastic sections were sampled and sent to the Art Conservation department at SUNY – Buffalo State in Buffalo, NY. Conservation scientists Dr. Aaron Shugar and Dr. Rebecca Ploeger used μ‐FTIR spectroscopy and μ‐XRF spectrometry to determine the specific adhesives and polymers used in the model’s construction. “Our analysis identified two original adhesives on the secondary hull: a clear poly(vinyl acetate) and a brown animal glue bulked with barium, strontium, and calcium. The plastic bolt cover fin and nacelle ribbed endcaps are made from clear poly(methyl methacrylate), commonly known as Plexiglas,” said Dr. Shugar.

XRF Analysis

Conservator Ariel O’Connor conducts X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry to determine the metal alloy used to construct the port nacelle.

The saucer’s results were the most interesting. “The plastic was identified as Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrine and poly(vinyl chloride) blend with lead and antimony. The lead could be from a pigment or used as a dryer, and the antimony is likely related to a fire retardant ABS-PVC blend,” confirmed Dr. Ploeger. “The saucer is lined with a fiberglass composed of crystalline silica fibers and a bisphenol A-based epoxy.” Of particular note to current model-makers, the analysis supports the long-reported use of Royalite plastic in the saucer. The 1964 material matches the profile of several Royalite products (R-59 and R-63) available today.

  • Cross Section 1
  • Cross Section 1 under UV

Cross Section 2 - Taken in an area that was hidden by the bolt cover.

Cross Section 2 – Taken in an area that was hidden by the bolt cover.

To understand the layers of paint applied to the model over the decades, microscopic cross sections of the paint were sampled and studied by Dr. Susan Buck, a conservator specializing in the analysis of painted surfaces. The analysis revealed layers of paint from four generations of filming and four previous restorations. The only area with unaltered original paint, on top of the saucer, will be painstakingly cleaned and stabilized, but not altered. For areas repainted during previous restorations, a new base layer will be applied on top that exactly matches the original hull grey. “We don’t have to speculate about the original grey color,” says conservator Ariel O’Connor. “Our examinations have revealed a large section of original, first pilot-episode grey hidden and protected under the saucer bolt cover, and Dr. Buck’s analysis confirmed our findings.” Museum specialist Dave Wilson is precisely matching the color and sheen of the original grey.

Color Matching the Enterprise

Museum Specialist David Wilson finds the exact color match to the pilot episode grey paint hidden inside the saucer.

For the final touch of Hollywood magic, our Museum specialists Zabih Sadighian and Larry Berger are designing a safe LED system to light the windows from within the ship. The system uses flexible RGB LED NeoPixel strips that are adjustable and programmable remotely, allowing us to control the intensity, color temperature, and blink pattern to match original visual effects seen in the series.

Color Matching the Enterprise

Museum specialists Zabih Sadighian (right) and Larry Berger do the first tests of LED lighting strips hidden inside the model.

Check back on our AirSpace blog for more updates, from the model’s nuts and bolts to its new state-of-the-art climate-controlled display case. We hope you can come see the Enterprise this Saturday at the Udvar-Hazy Center. Make sure to share your photos from the Open House using #OpenUHC2016, and follow along throughout the day for updates from the event. If you’re unable to make our Open House, you can see the model this summer in its new home in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall.


Nick Partridge is a public affairs specialist and Ariel O’Connor is a conservator at the National Air and Space Museum

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Remembering the Challenger Seven

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Challenger Crew

The Challenger crew during the walk out to the van taking them to Space Shuttle Challenger at Launch Complex 39.

Since the loss of STS-51L took place 30 years ago on this date in 1986 I thought I would reflect on the lives of the crew that was lost in that tragedy. These seven astronauts—including the specialties of pilot, aerospace engineers, and scientists—died in the destruction of their spacecraft 73 seconds after launch from the Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986. The cause of the accident was a leak at the joint of one of two Solid Rocket Boosters that ignited the main liquid fuel tank.

The crew members of the Challenger represented a cross section of the American population in terms of race, gender, geography, background, and religion. The explosion became one of the most significant events of the 1980s, as billions around the world saw the accident on television and empathized with any one of the several crew members killed. Each has a unique story.

scobeeThe spacecraft commander was Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, the son of Mr. and Mrs. Francis W. Scobee. He was born on May 19, 1939, in Cle Elum, Washington, and graduated from the public high school in Auburn, Washington, in 1957. He then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force (USAF), training as a reciprocating engine mechanic but longing to fly. He took night courses and in 1965 completed a B.S. degree in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Arizona. This made it possible for Scobee to receive an officer’s commission and enter the Air Force pilot training program. He received his pilot’s wings in 1966 and began a series of flying assignments with the Air Force, including a combat tour in Vietnam. Scobee also married June Kent of San Antonio, Texas, and they had two children, Kathie R. and Richard W., in the early 1960s. He attended the USAF Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 1972 and thereafter was involved in several test programs. As an Air Force test pilot Scobee flew more than 45 types of aircraft, logging more than 6,500 hours of flight time. In 1978, Scobee entered NASA’s astronaut corps and was the pilot of mission STS-41-C, the fifth orbital flight of the Challenger spacecraft, launching from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, on April 6, 1984.

smith-michaelThe pilot for the fatal 1986 Challenger mission was Michael J. Smith, born on April 30, 1945 in Beaufort, North Carolina. At the time of the Challenger accident, a commander in the U.S. Navy, Smith had been educated at the U.S. Naval Academy, class of 1967, and received an M.S. in Aeronautical Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School in 1968. From there he underwent aviator training at Kingsville, Texas, and received his wings in May 1969. After a tour as an instructor at the Navy’s Advanced Jet Training Command between 1969 and 1971, Smith flew A-6 Intruders from the USS Kitty Hawk in Southeast Asia. Later he worked as a test pilot for the Navy, flying 28 different types of aircraft and logging more than 4,300 hours of flying time. Smith was selected as a NASA astronaut in May 1980, and a year later, after completing further training, he received an assignment as a Space Shuttle pilot, the position he occupied aboard Challenger. This mission was his first space flight.

resnikJudith A. Resnik was one of three mission specialists on Challenger. Born on April 5, 1949 in Akron, Ohio, Resnik was educated in public schools before attending Carnegie-Mellon University, where she received a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1970, and the University of Maryland, where she took at Ph.D. in the same field in 1977. Resnik worked in a variety of professional positions with the RCA Corporation in the early 1970s and as a staff fellow with the Laboratory of Neurophysiology at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, between 1974 and 1977. Selected as a NASA astronaut in January 1978, the first cadre containing women, Resnik became the second American woman in orbit during the maiden flight of Discovery, STS-41D, between August 30 and September 5, 1984. During this mission she helped to deploy three satellites into orbit; she was also involved in biomedical research during the mission. Afterward, she began intensive training for the STS-51L mission on which she was killed.

mcnairRonald E. McNair was the second of three mission specialists aboard Challenger. Born on October 21, 1950 in Lake City, South Carolina, McNair was the son of Carl C. McNair, Sr. and Pearl M. McNair. He achieved early success in the segregated public schools he attended as both a student and an athlete. Valedictorian of his high school class, he attended North Carolina A&T State University where in 1971 he received a B.S. degree in Physics. He went on to study Physics at MIT, where he specialized in quantum electronics and laser technology, completing his Ph.D. in 1977. As a student he performed some of the earliest work on chemical HF/DF and high pressure CO lasers, publishing path-breaking scientific papers on the subject. In January 1978, NASA selected him to enter the astronaut cadre, one of the first three African Americans chosen. McNair became the second African-American in space between February 3 and 11, 1984, by flying on the Challenger mission STS-41B.

Ellison S. Onizukaonizuka, was the last of the three mission specialists. He had been born in Kealakekua, Kona, Hawaii, on June 24, 1946, of Japanese-American parents. Onizuka served on active duty with the Air Force from 1970 to 1978 when he was selected as a NASA astronaut. Since he was an Air Force officer on detached duty with NASA, Onizuka was a logical choice to serve on the first dedicated Department of Defense classified mission. He was a mission specialist on STS-51C, taking place January 24-27, 1985 on the Discovery orbiter.


jarvisThe last two members of the Challenger crew were not officially federal government employees. Gregory B. Jarvis, a payload specialist, worked for the Hughes Aircraft Corp.’s Space and Communications Group in Los Angeles, California, and had been made available for the Challenger flight by his company. Jarvis had been born on August 24, 1944 in Detroit, Michigan. Trained as an engineer, Jarvis began work at Hughes in 1973 and served in a variety of technical positions until 1984 when he was accepted into the astronaut program under Hughes’ sponsorship after competing against 600 other Hughes employees for the opportunity. Jarvis’ duties on the Challenger flight had revolved around gathering new information on the design of liquid-fueled rockets.

mcauliffeThe last member of the crew was Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to fly in space. Selected from among more than 11,000 applicants from the education profession for entrance into the astronaut ranks, McAuliffe was born on September 2, 1948, the oldest child of Edward and Grace Corrigan. Her father was at that time completing his sophomore year at Boston College, but not long after he took a job as an assistant comptroller in a Boston department store and the family moved to the Boston suburb of Framingham. As a youth she registered excitement over the Apollo Moon landing program and wrote years later on her astronaut application form that, “I watched the Space Age being born and I would like to participate.”

NASA selected McAuliffe to be a teacher in space in the summer of 1984 and in the fall she took a year-long leave of absence from teaching and trained for an early 1986 Space Shuttle mission. She had an immediate rapport with the media, and the teacher in space program received tremendous popular attention as a result. It is in part because of the excitement over McAuliffe’s presence on Challenger that the accident had such a significant impact on the nation.

Challenger Crew

The crew of STS 51-L Challenger, lost on January 28, 1986. From left to right: Ellison Onizuka, Michael Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair and Judith Resnik.

Roger D. Launius is Associate Director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the National Air and Space Museum

All images courtesy of NASA; see more mission imagery online.

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Discovering Alan Eustace’s Asymmetrical Gloves

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Every once in a while a curator will receive a new collection of objects that has in it one very special item that begs to have its story told. This recently happened to me when I unpacked Alan Eustace’s stratospheric spacesuit. The former Google executive and engineer, along with his StratEx team, set several records on October 24, 2014 including the world’s highest altitude parachute jump at 41.425 kilometers (135,899 feet).

To accomplish his mission, Eustace wore a one-of-a-kind spacesuit that carried him from the outer edge of the atmosphere and back down to Earth. Upon the announcement of his successful jump, I immediately recognized his suit as a product of ILC Dover, the company that made the Apollo spacesuits and continues to make spacesuits for astronauts working outside the International Space Station (ISS). I immediately called Curator Tom Crouch, and we both agreed the suit should be in our collection.

Fortunately for us all, Eustace and his team agreed. The suit, balloon equipment module, and parachute rig were all donated to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

The first shipment, including the suit, arrived at our Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland late last spring. Along with my colleagues Marcy Borger, Amelia Kile, and Natalie Rjedkin Lee we began to unpack. To our delight, we received exactly what we had asked for, Eustace’s complete kit with absolutely no modifications whatsoever. It was as though Eustace had stripped down on the spot after his landing. He sent us everything he wore for the jump from thermal underwear on out. It was a thrilling experience.

However, one thing immediately struck us as odd. There were thermal overgloves in the shipment and they were asymmetrical. The left overglove was missing a thumb pocket. We have similar thermal overgloves in our collection from space shuttle and ISS spacesuits. The overglove had been the answer to the wide temperature fluctuations astronauts’ experienced during extra-vehicular activity (EVA). In EVA suits, the overgloves helped protect the astronauts’ hands from losing precious body heat by conduction when they touched cold tools or components of the station or shuttle. Eventually, though, astronauts gave up on the idea because the gloves were bulky and impractical for gripping tools. Heater elements incorporated into the main glove fingertips provided adequate and controllable heating.

Alan Eustace's Overglove

The intact right overglove.

Alan Eustace's Overglove

The left overglove with the thumb pocket removed.

In contrast, Eustace wasn’t planning to perform any repair or installation work during his skydive, so the overgloves were an ideal solution to preserve his body heat. But there didn’t seem to be a clear reason why one glove had a thumb pocket and the other did not.

When Eustace came to the Museum to talk about his mission, I took the opportunity to ask him about the gloves. The answer was a fascinating tale of the elegant and practical ingenuity that characterizes how the entire suit was made. The suit was pressurized with pure oxygen before the balloon carried Eustace up into the stratosphere. His oxygen was what kept him alive as the he ventured into the thin atmosphere. In order to save weight, that oxygen was in limited supply—enough to get him up and down. For safety’s sake, protocol dictated that he had to be able to open up the face mask of his suit in the event that he landed outside his predicted landing zone and thus would need to wait for rescue. He would have to remove his mask before running out of oxygen.

In training, Eustace had to demonstrate that he could unlatch his face mask 20 times from each position that he was likely to land—his front, back, and both sides. Working against a pressurized glove is hard work. As much as he tried, Eustace couldn’t accomplish the task with the overgloves in place. His solution was to remove the inner thumb layer of the left glove. That tiny change in design gave Eustace the flexibility to fulfil safety requirements, while maintaining sufficient glove strength, and complete his mission.

Cathleen Lewis is a curator in the Space History Department

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From the Archives: The Theodore E. Boyd WWI Collection

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Theodore E. Boyd was a 24-year-old teacher from Tennessee when the United States entered World War I in 1917. Boyd initially volunteered for Reserve Officers Training School at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. He then accepted a commission to be a Second Lieutenant in the Field Artillery Section. In France, Boyd served with the 88th Aero Squadron (Attached), 7th Field Artillery, Air Service, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).

In 2012, the National Air and Space Museum Archives received the Theodore E. Boyd World War I Collection (Acc. No. 2013-0016), and through the documents in the collection—correspondence, photographs, military orders, flight logs, and memoirs—we can reconstruct Boyd’s World War I experience.

Boyd volunteered to serve as an officer in the reserves because he was hoping the rank would serve him well in a planned career in law when the war was over. The transition to military life was difficult for many civilians and Boyd showed a sense of humor about training camp in a May 1917 letter:

Great is militarism! For it maketh the once slovenly and inefficient ex-pedagog laboriously scrub and polish his rifle two hours, only to be told on inspection that there is rust in the muzzle, dust in the screw-heads, and that the cause thereof is damned laziness.

He signed the letter, “Militaristically, Theo,” with a postscript, “Don’t take my cussing out too seriously. Half the company had to clean the rifles over again, and my lecture was a mild one comparatively speaking.”


Military identification card  for Theodore E. Boyd as a second lieutenant in the 7th Field Artillery regiment, serving as a military observer. Image: NASM 9A12577

Upon arriving in France in fall 1917, Boyd was trained as a military observer. In this role, he would accompany a pilot in a flight over enemy lines, identify targets, and send the position information to the artillery via a wireless transmitter.


Boyd wittily captioned this photo: “Favorite position of the G-4.” This aircraft, nosed over on landing at Tours, France, in February 1918 is actually a Caudron G.3. Image: NASM 9A11906

Boyd was required to take many training courses in France, including artillery school, observers’ school, and machine gun instruction.


Page from the flight log (carnet de vols) for Second Lt. Theodore E. Boyd from the École de Tir Aerien de Cazaux (a French aerial gunning school) from June-July 1918. Image: NASM 9A12578-A

On September 14, 1918, Boyd was charged with protecting an aerial photo mission over Conflans, France. According to a citation from his friend and pilot that day, Kenneth P. Littauer:

…He engaged in combat with five enemy pursuit machines of the Pfalz type. He was wounded in both legs, the left foot and right elbow by explosive bullets. In spite of his wounds he succeeded, by a remarkable display of courage and tenacity in keeping up the fire of his guns until the attacking planes were put to flight. During the return to the Allied lines, Lieut. Boyd, although faint with pain and loss of blood, assisted his pilot, whose machine was disabled and coming down under control, in choosing the shortest route to safety.

For his actions, Boyd was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. He was also awarded the Silver Star for earlier gallantry in action. He spent the rest of the war convalescing in a military hospital and on the last day of the war had been ordered report for return transport to the United States. He continued his correspondence with Littauer after the war. (Interesting side note: Littauer would go on to be an editor at Collier’s magazine and literary agent for author Kurt Vonnegut.)


Second Lt. Theodore E. Boyd receives the Distinguished Service Cross. He is still using a cane as a result of his injuries. Image: NASM 9A11910

After the war, instead of becoming a lawyer, Boyd went to medical school and taught physiology for 24 years at Loyola University in Chicago. In 1947, he joined the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis where for 20 years he served as assistant director, and then director, of the Research Department.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Boyd wrote dozens of letters to his children and grandchildren recalling his service in World War I with well-crafted tales of training and flying at the front in France. Theodore E. Boyd died in 1986 at the age of 92.

Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the Museum’s Archives Department.  She also wrote about the finding aid for the Curtiss-Wright Corporation Collection – Patent Files.

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