High Flying Collectibles – Early Aviation Pioneers
Since ancient times, the notion of flight has captured the human imagination. Leonardo da Vinci doodled dreams of flying machines, yet never attempted to construct them. His flights of fancy would become reality five centuries on.****109 years ago this week, on December 17, 1903, the Wright Brothers made the first sustained heavier-than-air human flight. Yet even before this, many early aviators in balloons, in gliders, in ridiculous homemade flying machines, had attempted what Wilbur and Orville managed to achieve.
The early pioneers of aviation make for some fantastic items of memorabilia. We love mementos of the early days of mankind finding their wings through trial and error, the lead up to a century of rapid progress that culminated in a global society where flight travel is an absolute necessity.
While the history of aviation stretches back across the commercialisation of flight, two world wars and more, it is often early civilian aviation, the first pioneers who achieved the previously inconceivable, that capture collectors’ imaginations.
The history of modern flight began over a century before the Wright Brothers. The Montgolfier Brothers developed the first hot air balloon and demonstrated manned flight in 1783, and Jacques Charles and the Robert Brothers launched the world’s first hydrogen-filled balloon the same year. Work began on developing steerable (dirigible) balloons, what we now know as airships.
At the end of the 18th century and into the 19th, gliders were being developed and honed as stable flying machines.
The attempted design and construction of flying machines of all shapes, sizes and levels of control became a huge craze across Europe and America, particularly among wealthy men with the time and money to expound on their hobby, known as ‘gentleman scientists’.
Once we got off the ground, men and women were setting the beam with all kinds of flight records, and these are the aviators history remembers best.
See Wikicollecting’s page on Aviation Memorabilia for more background information.
Notable early aviators
Three or four historic early aviators consistently achieved the highest prices at auction.
The Wright Brothers
The Wright Brothers, Orville and Wilbur, built the world’s first successful fixed-wing airplane, carrying out the very first sustained heavier-than-air manned flight in 1903. Photographs and autographs of one or the pair of them are very popular amongst collectors, as are copies of their aviation journals. A letter Orville wrote to a journalist describing the flight sold for $60,500 in 1991. Wilber’s own personal copy of his 1903 pamphlet ‘Experiments and Observations in Soaring Flight’ sold for $115,000 in 2008.
See main article: Wright Brothers collectibles and memorabilia
American aviator Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927, a huge achievement for aviation. Memorabilia relating to Lindbergh and his plane, The Spirit of St Louis, is extremely popular and valuable. The route map that Lindbergh used to plan his flight sold for $90,000 in 2005. A letter carried on the Spirit of St Louis sold for $155,000 in 1999.
See main article: Charles Lindbergh collectibles
Following Lindbergh’s flight, Amelia Earhart matched his achievement to become the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. As well as being an pioneering aviator, she became a feminist icon, a symbol of female achievement in a male dominated field. She inspired a generation of young female aviators, notably many members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots during World War II. She famously disappeared in mysterious circumstances during her attempted round-the-world flight in 1937, and it is presumed she crashed somewhere and died – neither her plane or her body were ever found for certain. Her flight goggles, worn during her transatlantic flight, sold for $141,600 in 2009.
See main article: Amelia Earhart collectibles
The prices seen for items relating to those few aviators can reach tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. New collectors or those on a budget may wish to consider one of the following great aviation pioneers, whose memorabilia has less of a market and therefore less competition. The downside is that it may well be harder to find items relating to the lesser known names, and perhaps they will not hold value in the same way as their more famous contemporaries.
- The Montgolfier brothers are historically significant, having developed the first hot air balloon in France in 1783. Antique chandeliers in the form of balloons known as ‘Montgolfier’ chandeliers are often seen at auction. Any early books or pamphlets with illustrations and descriptions of the brothers’ balloons are highly collectible.
- Alberto Santos Dumont was a wealthy Brazilian living in France, famed for his airships and dirigible balloons. First person to demonstrate that routine, controlled flight was possible. He was the first pilot officially witnessed to take off, fly and land, without use of catapults, high winds, launch rails or other external factors. Thus he considered by many to be the Father of Aviation and inventor of the true airplane, his ‘Oiseau de proie’, or bird of prey. Handwritten signed letters from Santos-Dumont sell for a few hundred rather than several thousand at auction.
- Enrico Forlanini developed an unmanned helicopter powered by steam in 1877. It rose to a height of 13 meters, and stayed there for 20 seconds.
- Jacqueline Cochran was a friend of Amelia Earhart, and also a pioneering American aviator. She was considered to be one of the most gifted racing pilots of her generation. Possibly a good alternative to Earhart for collectors interested in female aviation pioneers, particularly as the average cost for her autograph on signed documents is around just $100.
- Elinor Smith was another pioneering American aviatrix, known as ‘The Flying Flapper of Freeport’. She was the first woman test pilot for Fairchild and Bellanca, and the youngest pilot in the world at 16. Her autograph sells for around $80-$90.
- Charles Kingsford Smith made the first trans-Pacific flight in 1928, for America to Australia, and first non-stop crossing of Australian mainland. His airhelmet and goggles sold for AU$21,000 at Aalders Auctions in November 2010.
- Amy Johnson was an English aviatrix. She broke many long-distance records during the 1930s, including becoming the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia. Her airhelmet sold in Australia for AU$12,500 in 2010, but her autograph generally comes in at less than $100.
- The Dufaux brothers, Henri & Armand, built the first serial Swiss airplanes. In 1910, Armand Dufaux set the record for the longest flight over open water.
- Diego Marin Aguilera flew some form of flying machine of his own invention in 1793 for 360 meters, 5-6 meters off the ground. His neighbours believed this to be evidence of lunacy, heresy, or fraud, and burnt his creation. He never flew again.
- Hiram Stevens Maxim, famed for machine gun construction, also spent time on aircraft construction. His designs were heavy and cumbersome, running on rail tracks, and never took off. But his ‘Captive Flying Machine’ amusement ride, designed to fund his research and generate public interest in flight, was a huge success.