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by Don Kennon

The recent dramatic flight over the Capitol and National Mall by the Space Shuttle Discovery on the back of a 747 reminded me of some other historic images of manned flight at, near, or above the Capitol.

Perhaps the first instance of manned flight (okay, technically it wasn’t flight as the balloon probably remained tethered to the ground) in the nation’s capital took place in June 1861 when Thaddeus S.C. Lowe demonstrated his lighter-than-air balloon to President Abraham Lincoln.  In this photograph, Lowe’s generators are seen pumping gas into the balloon prior to its ascension to a height of 500 feet with the U.S. Capitol in the background.  Lowe’s test ascension convinced Lincoln of the balloon’s potential for military reconnaissance.  Lowe, who was often referred to as “Professor”—a title conferred on enterprising balloonists—was appointed chief aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps.

The Capitol’s unfinished dome provides a dramatic backdrop for the 1861 demonstration of Thaddeus Lowe’s balloon, which is being inflated here. (National Archives)

Here is a shot of Lowe’s balloon, the Intrepid, inflated and airborne in Virginia in 1862.

Lowe’s balloon, Intrepid, in Fair Oaks, Virginia, May 1862 (Library of Congress)

The next photograph that proposed to show manned flight above the Capitol is an enterprising fake.  At some point, someone drew in an image of a flying apparatus suspended from a balloon above the Capitol in a 1906 photograph of the Capitol copyrighted by G.V. Buck.

1906 photograph of the Capitol purporting to show a flying ship above the dome. (Library of Congress)

A blow up of the “flying ship” clearly shows that it had been penciled in.

A close-up of the above-mentioned photo shows that it was in fact doctored (Library of Congress)

While we’re on the subject of fakes, let me include one of my favorites—the scene in the 1956 Columbia Pictures movie Earth vs. the Flying Saucers in which an alien spacecraft crashes into the Capitol Dome.  Technically, of course, alien flying saucers don’t qualify as “manned” flight, but I couldn’t resist sharing this picture for those who haven’t seen the movie.  There is a similar scene in Tim Burton’s hilarious 1996 parody Mars Attacks!, but the original is better, in my humble opinion.

Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen crafted the meticulous miniatures and stop action photography for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

In a second post, I’ll present some photographs of zeppelins, blimps, and autogyros (what’s that?) flying over the Capitol.  Stay tuned.

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