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Climb Into the Cockpit

Courtesy National Air and Space Museum
The newly renovated “Pioneers of Flight” exhibit displays the snowshoes and supplies that pilot Charles Lindbergh and his wife used.

The life and accomplishments of pilot Charles Lindbergh have been the highlight of many a visitor’s trip to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

But what nobody has seen in decades are the inside of the aircraft he and his wife slept in on their travels, the snowshoes that they carried in case of an emergency landing and the canned corn beef and tomatoes they ate on the road.

A year and a half after being closed for renovations, one of the museum’s most famous exhibits, “Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight,” featuring Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and some of the most impressive aviation feats of the early 20th century, was recently reopened.

The gallery’s updated version boasts a new Piper Cub airplane, dozens of artifacts and several interactive displays. It tries to tell the human story of the aviators who were flying in the 1920s and ’30s, rather than simply listing their accomplishments and showing off their equipment.

For instance, the gallery’s central artifact remains the Lockheed Vega aircraft that Earhart flew across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, a plane the Smithsonian has had in its collection for many years. But the newly renovated exhibit also gives visitors some information about Earhart’s family background, displays clothes that she designed and includes merchandise of the day — such as radios, toasters and fans — so that visitors can understand her career in the proper context.

“It used to be just aircraft, but now it’s the people behind the aircraft,” said Tom Crouch, the exhibit’s co-curator.

The new gallery is made up of four sections and includes hundreds of curious details: military aviation; civilian aviation, highlighting airplane and balloon development; Black Wings, chronicling African-American pilots, including the Tuskegee Airmen; and rocket pioneers.

Along with the sections on Lindbergh and Earhart, the display of the Douglas World Cruiser “Chicago,” the first airplane to fly around the globe, is fascinating. It was one of four aircraft to leave Seattle in April 1924 with the goal of flying around the world, and only two of them ended up completing the trek. The exhibit details the cruisers’ journey while describing the receptions that the pilots received abroad, including in Japan and France, and displays a first-aid kit and stuffed animal that made the trip with the pilots.

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