Prologue Magazine

Aviation Records Take Flight at NARA

The First Twenty-five Years

Winter 2003, Vol. 35, no. 4

By Mary C. Ryan

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As brother Wilbur watches, Orville Wright flies the Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk, NC, on December 17, 1903. The historic first powered flight lasted for 12 seconds and 120 feet.

In the twenty-five years after Wilbur and Orville Wright’s twelve-second flight in North Carolina, the world witnessed a number of aviation milestones. A great many records were set, as aviators tested the limits of their machines and themselves. Between April 6 and September 28, 1924, a team of four army airplanes completed the first round-the-world flight. Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic captivated the world and propelled him to global celebrity. In June 1928 Amelia Earhart, as a passenger, became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and that fall was the first woman to make a solo-return transcontinental flight.

In the earliest years of manned flight, many viewed aviation as mere sport. World War I, however, saw these fragile and novel playthings forged into a potent and effective instrument of war. In the civilian world, airplanes were finding more roles to fill. Air mail subsidies from the federal government to air carriers made commercial aviation profitable. As more planes took to the air, a system of air navigation was needed. Air travel between nations required international agreements. The Air Commerce Act of 1926 established the Aeronautics Branch within the Commerce Department, which began to register aircraft and pilots.

All of these activities generated federal records that document these formative years of aviation and are now part of the National Archives. To observe the centennial of flight, Prologue presents this survey of Archives records relating to the airplane’s first twenty-five years. Among the thousands of cubic feet of records held by the National Archives and Records Administration, there are vast resources on the history of aviation. This general overview points researchers toward the most likely places to start research and highlights a few notable items or bodies of records among NARA’s photographs; motion pictures; sound recordings; maps, plans, and charts; civilian textual records; army textual records; and navy textual records.



Those looking for pictures of airplanes, pilots, and aviation activities will find a wealth of material in NARA’s still picture holdings. These holdings are so rich and vast that in this limited space it is possible to only skim the surface.

Photographic coverage of manned, powered flight starts at the very beginning. Copies of the famous photograph of the historic first flight made by the Wright brothers may be found in Record Group 165, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs; Record Group 26, Records of the U.S. Coast Guard; Record Group 255, Records of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. More pictures of the Wrights and their aircraft are in Record Groups 165 (165-WW) and 255 (255-PA) as well as in Record Group 80, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1798–1947 (80-G); Record Group 111, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (111-SC); Record Group 237, Records of the Federal Aviation Administration (237-P, -G); and Record Group 342, Records of U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations (Pre-1954 Historic Section, 342-FH).

The FAA records were made or collected by its predecessor, the Civil Aeronautics Administration, to document a general history of aviation. The photographs in Record Group 342 are from the Pre-1954 Historic Section and  provide great coverage of early aircraft by type and manufacturer, early air races beginning in 1907, the Wright military trials, and Eddie Rickenbacker’s 1921 transcontinental flight.

In Record Group 18, Records of the Army Air Forces, you will find a large number of photographs of aircraft taken or collected by the Engineering Division of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the Wright Air Development Center (18-WP). These photographs are arranged by manufacturer. The series 18-HP contains portraits of notable people in aviation history, mostly air force personnel and some inventors and designers. Photographs taken by H. A. Erickson and Harold A. Taylor between 1914 and 1918 at Rockwell Field, San Diego (18-HE), show aircraft, buildings on the field, and famous figures such as Glenn Martin, Henry (“Hap”) Arnold, Katherine Stinson, and Lincoln Beachy.

Those interested in early flight and the people who made it possible should look in Record Group 255, Records of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, assembled a large collection of photographs of  aircraft construction, flight, and testing as well as influential people in aviation (255-PA).

The U.S. Army’s use of airplanes in the Mexican Punitive Expedition, 1916–1917, is photographically documented in Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office 1780’s–1917, and in Record Group 165 (165-CB, -UM).

U.S. aviation activities during World War I are documented in many collections. Photographs taken under the direction of Edward Steichen (18-E) include aerial views of towns and battlefields and other pictures of personnel and activities in Germany and France. There are also pictures of U.S. aviators in France in Record Group 63, Records of the Committee on Public Information (63-CPI).

The American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs in Record Group 165 (165-WW) includes pictures of airplanes (arranged alphabetically by name of manufacturer) and of pioneer aviation activities.

Record Group 111 (111-SC) is where you will find an abundance of photographs of World War I–era subjects. Signal corps photographers captured the images of famous aces such as Rickenbacker and messenger pigeons being released from airplanes. The 111-SC series is also a great source of images of World War I aero squadrons (arranged numerically by squadron), American and foreign aircraft in the theater of operations, and wrecked American aircraft.

The early years of naval aviation are well documented in Record Group 80, particularly in the series 80-G. The subjects include different types of aircraft built by American manufacturers, early carrier launchings of aircraft by catapults, and other flight activities. Additional series (80-HAN, 80-HAP, 80-HAS, and 80-HAT) show historic flights, types of aircraft, air races, expeditions, and aviators. Numerous photographs of aviators, designers, bases, and aircraft are in Record Group 72, Records of the Bureau of Aeronautics (72-AF). Photographs submitted to the navy by manufacturers are in Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (38-AC).

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Charles Lindbergh loads cargo into his mail plane, Lambert Field, St. Louis, 1925.

Among the Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, Record Group 24, you will find pictures of the flying boat NC-4 and its crew made during the first transatlantic flight, 1919 (24-P). Another first—the first landing on a ship in 1911—is documented in Record Group 181, Records of Naval Districts and Shore Establishments (181-PSX), Record Group 80 (80-G), and Record Group 255 (255-PA).

After the war, many pilots found employment transporting the U.S. mail. Prints created by the Division of Air Mail Service are in Record Group 28, Records of the U.S. Postal Service (28-MS). The photographs document the first transcontinental flight, the first domestic air mail planes, airfields, pilots (including Charles Lindbergh), early air mail routes, plane crashes, and the operation of the Pan American Mail Service.

Photographs relating to Lindbergh’s historic 1927 solo transatlantic flight and the festivities surrounding his return may be found in the series 80-PC and 111-SC.

Also check Record Group 306, Records of the United States Information Agency, for pictures from various sources. The collection from the New York Times, Paris Bureau (306-NT), is especially rich in photographic coverage of early aviation, particularly international flights and developments in the 1920s and 1930s. Prints stamped “New York Times” with the Paris address are in the public domain, but copyright restrictions may apply to other photographs in this record group.


Motion Pictures

Motion pictures and powered flight matured together at the start of the twentieth century. Movies made audiences feel a part of the action and allowed them to better sense the dynamic nature of this new era of flight.

Aviation footage is spread throughout NARA’s motion pictures holdings. Here we can only point out the record groups that contain significant collections that document the early years of flight. Most of these motion pictures consist of news and historic footage compiled by the armed forces for training and informational purposes. Because they are compilations, the same footage of a major event may show up in a number of films.

The best way to start looking for motion pictures in NARA’s holdings is to search our online Archival Research Catalog (ARC). Using a simple keyword search, you will find film titles, details about the film (most are silent black-and-white raw footage), complete citations, and often a summary of the contents.

Please note: Some of this material may be restricted by copyright or other intellectual property right restrictions.

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Ruth Law (shown in 1919) bought her first airplane from Orville Wright in 1912 and with it became the first woman to fly at night. In 1916 she set three records on a flight from Chicago to New York.

The greatest number of films on early aviation are found in Record Group 342, Records of U.S. Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations (342-USAF). Several films titled “History of Aviation” are compilations of historic footage documenting momentous episodes in the history of manned flight. These contain pictures of the Wrights demonstrating their aircraft at Fort Myer, Virginia, and in France and Italy. Representative films are 342-USAF-13731, -15030, -15247, -16154, and -16225 (Wilbur Wright's flight before the king of Italy, April 29, 1909). The compilations also contain footage of major aviation figures such as Henri Farman, Louis Bleriot, Charles Lindbergh, Glenn Curtiss, and Jimmy Doolittle. Wings of the Army (342-USAF-12848), produced by the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1930, contains historic footage, testing of aircraft instruments and equipment, and record-breaking flights.

World War I flyers are also documented in Aviation Activities in the AEF, France and Germany, 1918–1919 (342-USAF-20176), and other films in the 342-USAF series. A collection of “aeronautical oddities” in this series shows footage of experimental planes and flying contraptions often with comical effect. Similar footage is also in the Universal Newsreels.

In Record Group 111, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, the series 111-H and 111-LC are your best bets for films of early aviation feats. First Army Aeroplane Flight, Fort Myer, Virginia, July 27, 1909 (111-H-1185), shows Orville Wright and Lt. Frank P. Lahm, who had become the first army passenger in 1908, testing the "Wright Flyer" during trials at Fort Myer. Both series contain historical compilation films and footage of World War I activities, specifically of the various aero squadrons engaging in training and in aerial combat with German aircraft.

Record Group 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, has films from 1917 through 1926, including one item exclusively about naval aircraft, ca. 1918 (24.10), and one showing the taking of aerial photographs (24.4). The series 80-MA through 80-MN in Record Group 80, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1798–1947, consists mainly of World War I footage of U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps personnel, although it does have a few historical surveys as well. Record Group 428, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1947–, covers a later period, but series 428-NPC contains a few films documenting the history of flight between 1907 and 1928.

Record Group 106, Records of the Smithsonian Institution, has a number of films on Charles Lindbergh’s historic flight and the celebrations afterward. Part one of Heroes of the Air (106.7) shows earlier aviators, while part two is devoted to Lindbergh.

One should not overlook the films among the donated material. The Universal Newsreel Collection spans 1929–1957, but it does contain some historical footage (as well as the “aeronautical oddities” mentioned earlier). We Saw It Happen (200.278), made by United Aircraft Corporation, covers the history of aviation, 1903–1953. CBS donated newsreel stock footage (ca. 1908–ca. 1930) it used for a documentary series on World War I (200-CBS).


Sound Recordings

The birth of broadcasting in the 1920s also allowed radio to cover some early aviation events and enabled sound recordings to be made of early aviators speaking about their exploits. Most of these materials are not yet entered into ARC, but they can be located through inventories and record group finding aids.

In Record Group 64, Records of the National Archives and Records Administration, and in Donated Materials, there is a series of sound recordings made by RCA Victor of NBC radio coverage of the June 11, 1927, arrival of Charles Lindbergh in Washington, D.C.; his reception at the Washington Navy Yard, where he was welcomed by President Calvin Coolidge; and his address before the National Press Club (64.14 and DM 200.2515). There are recordings of Amelia Earhart speaking in 1931 on "My Belief in the Age of Flight" and on May 22, 1932, commenting on her first transatlantic solo flight in 1928 (DM 200.2507). Two pioneer aviators, Clarence Chamberlain and Charles Levine, broadcast a radio message describing their nonstop fifty-one-hour flight from New York to Berlin on June 6, 1927, in their plane, The Columbia (DM 200.761). Other interesting and rare sound recordings of early aviation activities includes several programs in a syndicated radio series broadcast in 1931 entitled "The Chevrolet Chronicles." These were eight-minute interviews with World War I aviation heroes, including  Medal of Honor winners (DM 200-650-658).


Maps, Plans, and Charts

During and after World War I, the military’s demand for aircraft and the growing civilian need for standardized navigation aids increased federal government involvement in aviation. Aeronautical charts and U.S. Navy aircraft plans are among the cartographic holdings of the National Archives.

Manufacturers doing business with the military submitted aircraft plans for consideration and for servicing needs. Such plans sent to the U.S. Navy may be found in Record Group 72, Records of the Bureau of Aeronautics. These records are still being processed and are not yet fully open to research. The earliest plans (beginning about 1916) are in the Bureau of Aeronautics numbered series. This diverse series includes designs for aircraft, airships, balloons, and aircraft engines, equipment and ordnance, as well as maps of early navy airfields. Another series (commonly called the Blueprint series) contains sets of drawings detailing production aircraft and engine designs, as well as some plans relating to experimental designs, dating from about 1920. A series of Naval Aircraft Factory aircraft plans has yet to be processed but is thought to include some drawings from the 1920s. Manufacturers’ indexes relating to aircraft plans are organized alphabetically by the manufacturer that created them (e.g., Curtiss, Grumman, Martin) and thereunder by aircraft designation (e.g., SBC, F4F, PBM). A substantial number of structural analysis reports submitted by manufacturers in connection with the drawings are also included as part of the collection.

Plans of U.S. Army Air Forces aircraft are on microfilm currently in the physical custody of the National Air and Space Museum.

Access to all aircraft plans is limited. The manufacturers or their successors may still claim proprietary rights to the plans for their aircraft that are among our holdings.

In Record Group 23, Records of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, are about 31,000 aeronautical charts (1926–1965) created by the CGS’s Aeronautical Division. The earliest of these are strip maps that were designed for domestic instrument and visual navigation. Maps of airways and plans of airfield and beacon sites may be found in Record Group 237, Records of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Records of the Airmail Service include maps of landing fields and airmail routes and plans and specifications for airplanes, hangars, and equipment. These records are found in Record Group 28, Records of the Post Office Department.


Textual Records—Civilian

The few witnesses to the historic first flight on December 17, 1903, were the men of the Kill Devil Hills Life-Saving Service station. Life-Saving crews normally looked out to sea to assist mariners in need of aid. In the preceding weeks, however, the crews from Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk focused on the air as they helped the Wrights move their cumbersome equipment over the dunes. John T. Daniels of the Kill Devil Hills station even snapped the shutter on the camera and captured the famous shot of Orville taking off.

The Wrights guarded their activities very closely and asked the crews to keep silent about the trials. Unfortunately for us today, they kept the secret and did not mention the momentous event in the official record. NARA’s Southeast Region in Atlanta holds the records created at the Life-Saving Service stations, including the station journals of Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills for December 17, 1903. You will not read of the extraordinary duty the crew had that day, but you can discover the wind and surf conditions and names of the men on duty.

Also in Atlanta is correspondence in records of the Surface Land Observations, Records of the Weather Bureau, Record Group 27. There are a couple of letters from the bureau to the Wrights in 1899 answering their requests for information about wind velocities and another exchange with Paramount Pictures about a planned movie about the Wrights. The file also includes some newspaper clippings with reminiscences of the Wrights’ 1908 endurance test at Kill Devil Hills.

The original airway system was developed for airmail, and a number of pilots who became famous in the 1920s and 1930s spent time as airmail pilots. Charles Lindbergh earned his nickname of “Lucky Lindy” during his airmail service after successfully bailing out of aircraft four times.

Personnel records of airmail pilots are in the records of the Division of Air Mail Service in Record Group 28, Records of the Post Office Department. Although these files are the most frequently consulted, researchers also find interesting material in records relating to operations of the airmail service, especially unusual flights, accidents, and aircraft testing, 1918–1927. NARA also holds records relating to airmail routes, but they are rather difficult to use.

You can find some useful material in the records of the National Bureau of Standards. These are Record Group 167, Records of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Reports of the Aeronautical Instruments Section, 1918–1920, deal with the development of basic aircraft instruments after World War I. Two sets of personal papers may interest researchers: records of J. Howard Dellinger and of Hugh Latimer Dryden. Dellinger became chief of the bureau’s Radio Section in 1922, and his records include information on experiments in aircraft radio direction, blind flying, and landing aids. Dryden was chief of the Aerodynamics Section from 1918, where he conducted early tests on the effects of turbulence.

Most of the civilian agency records concerning aviation in the United States up to 1928 are found in the records of the Federal Aviation Administration’s predecessor, the Civil Aviation Administration (Record Group 237) and in National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) (Record Group 255).

The Central Files, 1926–1943 (Entry 1, UD), of the Civil Aviation Administration include the records of the Department of Commerce, Aeronautics Branch. Noted Fliers (decimal 805) include several files concerning Charles Lindbergh and his tour of the United States following his historic flight in 1927.

There are also several files on Monuments and Memorials (decimal 805.3) including one, starting in 1927, on the Wright Brothers Memorial in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Files relating to the National Air Tours (decimal 835), dating 1926–1932, include correspondence pertaining to Comdr. Richard E. Byrd’s North Pole airplane, piloted by Floyd Bennett, and its participation in the 1926 air tour.

The NACA records include many series concerning early aviation. NACA was established by the Naval Appropriation Act of 1915 to study problems of flight and to conduct research and testing in aeronautics at field installations. One of the more significant series of records is General Correspondence (Numeric File), 1915–1942 (Entry 1, A1). Here you will find files of many NACA committees and subcommittees; biographic folders on important aeronautical officials; reports on annual inspections at Langley Field in Hampton, Virginia; news clippings; and press notices. Subjects include U.S. airplane manufacturers, aerial navigation, torpedoes, aerodynamics, wind tunnels, power plants, fuels, lubrication, and aeronautical safety.

NACA’s Patent and Invention Files, 1917–1940 (Entry 10, A1) are arranged chronologically and then alphabetically by the inventor’s last name. These records consist of textual documents, drawings, blueprints, and photographs sent in by various individuals and companies. Some of the notable inventors are Glenn Curtiss, Bernard M. Beach, and Nikola Tesla.

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Page 2 of the patent file for the Flying Machine (or airplane) invented by Orville and Wilbur Wright. The file includes patent drawings, the specification, petition, oath, correspondence, amendments, legal actions, and photographs of the flying machine in flight.

For invention patents, also look in Record Group 241, Records of the Patent and Trademark Office. To locate records of a specific patent, you should know the patent number. Patent litigation case files may be found in Record Group 21, Records of District Courts of the United States, among the U.S. district court records held by NARA’s regional facilities. Bankruptcy records, also among the district court records, may have useful information about business companies in the aviation field.

NACA’s Classified (Document) File, 1915–1958 (Entry 93A-B, A1), is a very large series (approximately 2,765 boxes) of reports, studies, publications, scientific papers, and clippings from periodicals and newspapers. They were prepared by military and civilian agencies, research institutions, and U.S. and foreign airplane manufacturers.

Another significant NACA series is the Correspondence File of the Office of Aeronautical Intelligence (Entry 26, A1). The office was created during World War I to help disseminate technical information pertaining to aeronautics among military, naval, and civilian government departments and later among foreign, industrial, and research institutions. 

Other NACA records of interest are the Correspondence, Reports, and Other Records Relating to the Careers of Committee Members (Biography File), and records relating to field installations, such as Langley Field.

One source of aviation history that one might overlook is the collection of federal government documents in Record Group 287,  Publications of the U.S. Government. While many of these publications are available at federal depository libraries, those in Record Group 287 are the official record, or preservation, copies and are supplemented by publications that may not have gone through the Government Printing Office. The publications are arranged under the SuDoc (Superintendent of Documents) classification system. Among the  publications of the army air service (W87), the navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics (N28), the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (Y3.N21/5), and the Department of Commerce’s Aeronautics Branch (C23), you may find reports, bulletins, maps, charts, manuals, regulations, specifications, newsletters, and technical orders relating to early aviation. In addition, the collection has been supplemented by Bureau of Aeronautics aircraft manuals, largely from the 1940s to 1960s, but with a few dating as early as 1918. Publications of aviation-related committees, commissions, and boards (Y3) also can be found here, as can hearings, appropriations, investigations, and other publications of Congress (Y4).

Records of Congress are kept by NARA’s Center for Legislative Archives. The two main record groups are Record Group 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Record Group 46, Records of the U.S. Senate.

Several House and Senate committees dealt with aviation subjects, and there are two significant collections for this time period: the House Select Committee of Inquiry into Operations of the U.S. Air Services, 1924–1925 (HR 68A-F41), and the House Select Committee to Investigate Contracts and Expenditures Made by the War Department during the War, 1919–1921 (HR 66A-F41.1). The records of the 1924 inquiry total twenty-four feet, and those of the 1919 investigation include more than four thousand pages of published testimony before its aviation subcommittee.

Other House and Senate committees that dealt with issues relating to flight were the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce and the Senate Commerce Committee and, in both houses, the Committees on Military Affairs, Naval Affairs, and Post Offices and Post Roads.

House Committee on Naval Affairs and House Committee on Military Affairs records include a file on the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst, N.J. (HR 69A-H13.1), a file on the U.S. Air Service (HR66A-F27.4),  and several files on the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (HR 65A-F23.1 and HR 64A-F26.3). There were several significant hearings before the House Naval Affairs Committee, including one on the U.S. Army Air Corps at which Billy Mitchell and nine other officers testified.

Records of the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce include petitions relating to aeronautics (HR 67A-H7.1) and a file relating to an Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (HR 67A-F21.1).


Textual Records—Army

Four years after Wilbur and Orville Wright successfully tested their Flyer at Kitty Hawk, the U.S. Army established an Aeronautical Division within the Signal Corps “to have charge of all matters pertaining to military ballooning, air machines, and all kindred subjects.” Early in 1908, the Wrights signed a contract with the army and on August 20 delivered a plane for tests at Fort Myer, Virginia.

Records relating to the Wrights’ association with the army can be found in Record Group 111, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (Entry 44). The General Correspondence files contain letters from the Wrights offering contracts to the War Department, the original contract signed on February 10, 1908, and documents relating to the Wrights’ activities at Fort Myer and at the Signal Corps Aviation School in College Park, Maryland.

Records of the Third Auditor in Records of the Accounting Officers of the Department of the Treasury, Record Group 217 (Entry 168b), also contain copies of the contracts between the army and the Wrights as well as other airplane manufacturers. Some intriguing items are in the general correspondence of the Inventions Section, 1918–1921, in Record Group 165, Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs. These files contain some Wright correspondence and pitches from other inventors for objects both useful and bizarre.

The army first attempted to use airplanes for tactical purposes during the Mexican Punitive Expedition, 1916–1917. Records relating to the First Aero Squadron can be found in Record Group 165 and Record Group 120, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I). A full report on the squadron’s performance in the expedition is in Record Group 165 (Entry 310) and Record Group 94, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917. The general correspondence files in RG 94 (Entry 25) contain additional material on aviation, as well.

A useful series of records on microfilm is Gorrell's History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917–1919 (M990, 58 rolls). This microfilm publication reproduces 228 volumes of historical narratives, reports, photographs, and other records that document the administrative, technical, and tactical activities of the air service in the American Expeditionary Forces. The original records are located in Record Group 120, and a duplicate set is in Record Group 18, Records of the Army Air Forces. Special reports relating to World War I air service are in Entry 657, part 2, in Record Group 120. World War I casualty cards, 1917–1918 (Entries 650 and 651), contain information about aviators who died in France and Germany.

General Correspondence (Entry 266) in Record Group 18 is also where you will find files relating to World War I aviation activities as well as files relating to exhibitions (such as the Paris Air Show) and contracts. Entry 175 contains correspondence relating to aviation schools, Entry 177 has correspondence relating to aero squadrons, and Entries 767A–776II hold records of air service and air corps units. Entry 147 contains information on flight routes and airways, 1921–1924, and Entry 140 contains correspondence, reports, maps, and other records relating to the “World Flight” of 1924.

Also look in Record Groups 18 and 120 to find correspondence and reports relating to famous aviators such as Eddie Rickenbacker and Billy Mitchell. Mitchell’s court-martial records are found in Record Group 153, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Army), Entry 40.

Another useful collection compiled by the U.S. Army are the “Records of the Historical Section Relating to the History of the War Department,” Entry 310 in Record Group 165. There you will find histories of the various aero squadrons, daily reports, and reports on intelligence, training, and other activities of the air service. One notable group of flyers in World War I was the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of Americans who joined the French army before U.S. entry into the war. Material about this flying corps is also found in Record Group 120 (Entry 644).


Textual Records—Navy

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In the first shipboard landing of an airplane, Eugene Ely, a civilian pilot, lands a Curtiss biplane on the USS Pennsylvania in San Francisco Bay on January 18, 1911.

The army may have been the first service to acquire an airplane, but it was the navy to whom Theodore Roosevelt addressed an 1898 recommendation to examine the practicability of a flying machine. Roosevelt, then assistant secretary of the navy, had seen photographs of Samuel Langley’s aircraft and wondered if it would “not work on a large enough scale to be of use in the event of war.” This letter is in Record Group 80, General Records of the Department of the Navy, 1798–1947, Correspondence of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Entry 124.

The flight of the first plane owned by the navy, the Curtiss A-1, occurred on July 1, 1911, at Hammondsport, N.Y. The log of this flight, piloted by Glenn Curtiss, and other early flight logs, 1911–1914, are in Record Group 45, Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, Entry 208H.

The U.S. Navy Subject File, 1910–1927, in Record Group 45 contains historical collections relating to air operations in World War I, transatlantic flights, polar expedition flights, and international competitions. File “G” is for naval aviation, and “ZG” is for naval aviation history; the material includes press releases, planning documents, and reports.

Correspondence about aviation war planning, procurement of aircraft, and aviator training may be found in Bureau of Navigation records (file 5901). These files, which deal mostly with training and personnel assignments, are in Record Group 24, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, the successor to the Bureau of Navigation. Logs of naval air stations and aircraft carriers are also in this record group.

Record Group 72, Records of the Bureau of Aeronautics, is the source for information about contracts, engineering, and tests. Here you will find contract records for procuring naval aircraft for all the major companies (e.g., Curtiss, Boeing, Wright, Sikorsky, Hughes) and correspondence relating to engines and engineering.

When an aircraft under consideration for purchase passed all the navy’s tests, the Board of Inspection and Survey submitted a “final acceptance” test report. These reports, as well as those for experimental engines test and wind tunnel tests, are in Record Group 72 and Record Group 38, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations.

You can find records relating to individuals’ actions—whether of praise or censure—in Record Group 125, Records of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Navy). Proceedings of promotion and retirement boards, personnel information, letters of commendation, and awards document the careers of naval aviators. Noted aviators include Theodore G. Ellyson (the first naval officer to undergo flight training), William D. Billingsley (naval aviation’s first fatality, 1913), Richard Byrd, and William A. Moffett. Record Group 125, as well as Record Groups 72 and 80, also contains records of courts of inquiry and boards of inquest, aircraft trouble reports, and accident investigations.

During these early years of flight, many of the advances were being made in Europe. Among the records of the Office of Naval Intelligence reports in Record Group 38, is information collected by naval attachés, secret agents, and other informants about foreign developments. The material they sent back includes reports about visits to foreign aeronautical facilities and air shows, foreign manufacturing data with photographs, blueprints, and news clippings. The magazines and newspaper clippings can include remarkable images of air shows and crashes as well as dashing portraits of prominent aviators.

The diligent researcher will find material about the pioneer days of aviation in several other bodies of records, but this survey’s purpose has been to give a broad outline of NARA holdings. So many boundaries were being broken in those years and so many standards set, that one can easily lose oneself in the stories and images that are preserved in the National Archives.

The records discussed here are held mainly in the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., and the National Archives at College Park, unless otherwise noted. Finding aids in the NARA research rooms—as well as the expertise of the reference archivist—will direct you to additional records and specific locations.

For further information, search NARA’s online Archival Research Catalog (ARC) or send a request to



This survey would not have been possible without the generous contributions of time and expertise given by NARA staff members Eric Bittner, Eileen Bolger, Daryl Bottoms, Marjorie Ciarlante, William Creech, Suzanne Dewberry, Charles Downs, Kate Flaherty, Rebecca Livingston, Mark Meader, David Pfeiffer, Trevor Plante, Les Waffen, and Mitch Yockelson.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.