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Climb Into the Cockpit

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.

Bob Dempster, the executive director of an aviation historical society called the Seattle World Cruiser Association, was in D.C. to view the gallery, and he is one of the individuals behind the renovation. Dempster chose to undertake the quixotic task of building an exact replica of the “Chicago” aircraft, which he has nearly finished at his home in Seattle, and in 2008, he asked for and received permission from the Smithsonian to look into the plane’s cockpit. He said he found the cockpit musty and covered in dust, both signs that the artifacts in the gallery could become damaged over time. “Pioneers of Flight” was closed soon after.

For Dempster, the Douglas World Cruiser is more than a historical passion. In the coming months, Dempster and his wife will fly around the world on the reproduction of the Douglas World Cruiser, just as the original cruisers did; he brought a flag to the museum, which children there signed, and he plans to donate that flag to the gallery after he completes his journey.

Flying around the world “was the second aviation milestone after the Wright brothers,” Dempster said. “It was akin to flying to the moon back then.”

While “Pioneers of Flight” was renovated, the museum hardly lacked interesting exhibits — it is home to the Wright brothers’ original airplane and a diverse collection of helicopters, space shuttle pieces and flight simulators. But the gallery’s temporary closing left a giant hole, both figuratively and literally.

The era profiled in “Pioneers of Flight” was one of tremendous innovation in the field of air travel, and the museum feels more complete with those years now represented. In physical terms, the exhibit is located directly at the museum’s center, in the middle of the second floor, next to the Wright Flyer. With the gallery reopened, the National Air and Space Museum again captures the entire history of aviation — with an added touch of humanity.

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