Aerial photograph of Guadalcanal

Aerial photograph of Guadalcanal

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Aerial photograph of Guadalcanal

Aerial photograph of Guadalcanal.

Aerial Photography

The National Archives holds over 35,000,000 aerial photographs produced mostly by Federal Agencies. These records date from 1918-2011, covering both domestic and foreign sites. The vast majority of these aerial photographs are held by the Cartographic Branch, spread across various Record Groups and series.

Aerial photography became an important part of the mapmaking process in the twentieth century. Aerial photographs provide a straightforward depiction of the physical and cultural landscape of an area at a given time. When skillfully interpreted, these aerial images supply geographers, historians, ecologists, geologists, urban planners, archaeologists, and other professionals with a pictorial basis often critical to their studies. Increasingly, members of the legal profession have used aerial photography in the settlement of cases involving property disputes, riparian rights, and transportation rights-of-way. Recently, genealogists have used aerial photography to identify and locate ancestral sites.

Domestic Photography

Special List 25 is the starting point for accessing any domestic aerial photography. This Special List provides information on which record groups and series hold photographs for specific domestic locations. It is available digitally on-site or by request by emailing the Cartographic Branch at [email protected] An Excel version is available to download on the blog Researching Aerial Photography of the United States: RG 145 Aerial Indexes Now Digitized. Additionally, a paper copy is available in the Cartographic research room in College Park, Maryland. The list is arranged by state and thereunder by county. Once you find the county that includes your area of interest, a list of record groups with available photography will be listed.

Special List 25, Photography for Franklin County, MA

The following record groups include domestic photography:

Record Group 57: Records of the U.S. Geological Survey

Record Group 95: Records of the Forest Service

Record Group 114: Records of the Natural Resources Conservation Service

Record Group 142: Tennessee Valley Authority

Record Group 145: Records of the Farm Service Agency

Record Group 328: Records of the National Capital Planning Commission

Record Group 373: Records of the Defense Intelligence Agency (Domestic Photography)

Foreign Photography

World War II brought a rapid acceleration in the use of aerial photography of foreign areas for both military operations and mapping purposes. The Cartographic Branch holds World War II aerial images covering parts of the European, Mediterranean, and Pacific Theaters of Operation, taken by units of the U.S. and Allied Air Forces. Included are both vertical mapping photography and oblique reconnaissance photography. The Cartographic Branch also holds approximately 1.2 million prints of aerial photographs taken by the German military. Coverage is widespread. Europe (from the British Isles to the Ural Mountains), the Middle East, and North Africa are included in this collection. Many of the prints are annotated to indicate military installations and defenses and other prints are marked to show potential bombing targets. While the scale and quality of the photographs in this collection vary considerably, the imagery provides unique wartime coverages of many of the contested areas. A smaller collection (about 37,000 images), taken by the Japanese military between about 1933 and 1945 consists of aerial photography of parts of China, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The following record groups include foreign photography:

Record Group 120: Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War I)

Record Group 263: Records of the Central Intelligence Agency

Record Group 373: Records of the Defense Intelligence Agency - US Flown Foreign Photography

Record Group 373: Records of the Defense Intelligence Agency - German Flown Foreign Photography

Record Group 537: Records of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Satellite Photography (Domestic and Foreign)

Satellite Photography (link)


If you would like to view or scan any photographs, you may wish to visit our research room, located at 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, Maryland, where you can view and copy our records. Information about visiting our facility can be found on our website here. If you cannot make it to our facility, you may wish to hire a professional researcher to conduct research and make reproductions on your behalf. Information regarding this research option can be found here.

We have light tables available in our research room to view rolled aerial negative film.

Reproductions of rolled aerial film can be made by taking photographs of the rolled film using privately owned cameras and tripods that can be brought to our facility. Researchers may also bring their own laptop to connect to a flatbed scanner (Epson Expression 11000XL Photo Scanner or Microtek ScanMaker 9800XL Plus) with the capability to make digital scans of rolled aerial film and prints.

Mikrotek ScanMaker 9800XL Plus

Epson Expression 11000XL Photo Scanner

Please note that we only have two aerial scanners available and use of these scanners may have to be limited and shared among researchers during your visit. You can also bring personal scanners onsite. Information regarding this option is available here. Rolled aerial scanners require approval from our preservation team prior to use in our research room. We do not have the ability to make any type of printed reproductions of rolled aerial negative film within our facility.

The vast majority of our aerial photographs are original negatives (ON can numbers) located on 9" by 9" rolled acetate film. Due to the unstable nature of acetate film, it has to be stored in climate controlled rooms at temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit at our facility in Lenexa, Kansas. Researchers onsite in our College Park research room may request up to 10 specific cans of aerial film to be shipped to College Park per day. The turnaround time for these shipments is typically three business days before it can be made available for use here in our research room. A small amount of film has been duplicated (typically DN can numbers) onto a more stable polyester film base and is stored onsite for researchers to access at regular record pull times throughout the day.


Early history Edit

Aerial photography was first practiced by the French photographer and balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, known as "Nadar", in 1858 over Paris, France. [2] However, the photographs he produced no longer exist and therefore the earliest surviving aerial photograph is titled 'Boston, as the Eagle and the Wild Goose See It.' Taken by James Wallace Black and Samuel Archer King on October 13, 1860, it depicts Boston from a height of 630m. [3] [4]

Kite aerial photography was pioneered by British meteorologist E.D. Archibald in 1882. He used an explosive charge on a timer to take photographs from the air. [5] The same year, Cecil Shadbolt devised a method of taking photographs from the basket of a gas balloon, including shots looking vertically downwards. [6] [7] One of his images, taken from 2,000 feet (610 m) over Stamford Hill, is the earliest extant aerial photograph taken in the British Isles. [6] A print of the same image, An Instantaneous Map Photograph taken from the Car of a Balloon, 2,000 feet high, was shown at the 1882 Photographic Society exhibition. [7]

Frenchman Arthur Batut began using kites for photography in 1888, and wrote a book on his methods in 1890. [8] [9] Samuel Franklin Cody developed his advanced 'Man-lifter War Kite' and succeeded in interesting the British War Office with its capabilities.

In 1908, Albert Samama Chikly filmed the first ever aerial views using a balloon between Hammam-Lif and Grombalia. [10] The first use of a motion picture camera mounted to a heavier-than-air aircraft took place on April 24, 1909, over Rome in the 3:28 silent film short, Wilbur Wright und seine Flugmaschine.

World War I Edit

The use of aerial photography rapidly matured during the war, as reconnaissance aircraft were equipped with cameras to record enemy movements and defenses. At the start of the conflict, the usefulness of aerial photography was not fully appreciated, with reconnaissance being accomplished with map sketching from the air.

Germany adopted the first aerial camera, a Görz, in 1913. The French began the war with several squadrons of Blériot observation aircraft equipped with cameras for reconnaissance. The French Army developed procedures for getting prints into the hands of field commanders in record time.

Frederick Charles Victor Laws started aerial photography experiments in 1912 with No.1 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps (later No. 1 Squadron RAF), taking photographs from the British dirigible Beta. He discovered that vertical photos taken with a 60% overlap could be used to create a stereoscopic effect when viewed in a stereoscope, thus creating a perception of depth that could aid in cartography and in intelligence derived from aerial images. The Royal Flying Corps recon pilots began to use cameras for recording their observations in 1914 and by the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915, the entire system of German trenches was being photographed. [11] In 1916 the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy made vertical camera axis aerial photos above Italy for map-making.

The first purpose-built and practical aerial camera was invented by Captain John Moore-Brabazon in 1915 with the help of the Thornton-Pickard company, greatly enhancing the efficiency of aerial photography. The camera was inserted into the floor of the aircraft and could be triggered by the pilot at intervals. Moore-Brabazon also pioneered the incorporation of stereoscopic techniques into aerial photography, allowing the height of objects on the landscape to be discerned by comparing photographs taken at different angles. [12] [13]

By the end of the war, aerial cameras had dramatically increased in size and focal power and were used increasingly frequently as they proved their pivotal military worth by 1918 both sides were photographing the entire front twice a day and had taken over half a million photos since the beginning of the conflict. In January 1918, General Allenby used five Australian pilots from No. 1 Squadron AFC to photograph a 624 square miles (1,620 km 2 ) area in Palestine as an aid to correcting and improving maps of the Turkish front. This was a pioneering use of aerial photography as an aid for cartography. Lieutenants Leonard Taplin, Allan Runciman Brown, H. L. Fraser, Edward Patrick Kenny, and L. W. Rogers photographed a block of land stretching from the Turkish front lines 32 miles (51 km) deep into their rear areas. Beginning 5 January, they flew with a fighter escort to ward off enemy fighters. Using Royal Aircraft Factory BE.12 and Martinsyde airplanes, they not only overcame enemy air attacks, but also had to contend with 65 mph (105 km/h) winds, antiaircraft fire, and malfunctioning equipment to complete their task. [14]

Commercial aerial photography Edit

The first commercial aerial photography company in the UK was Aerofilms Ltd, founded by World War I veterans Francis Wills and Claude Graham White in 1919. The company soon expanded into a business with major contracts in Africa and Asia as well as in the UK. Operations began from the Stag Lane Aerodrome at Edgware, using the aircraft of the London Flying School. Subsequently, the Aircraft Manufacturing Company (later the De Havilland Aircraft Company), hired an Airco DH.9 along with pilot entrepreneur Alan Cobham. [15]

From 1921, Aerofilms carried out vertical photography for survey and mapping purposes. During the 1930s, the company pioneered the science of photogrammetry (mapping from aerial photographs), with the Ordnance Survey amongst the company's clients. [16] In 1920, the Australian Milton Kent started using a half-plate oblique aero camera purchased from Carl Zeiss AG in his aerial photographic business. [17]

Another successful pioneer of the commercial use of aerial photography was the American Sherman Fairchild who started his own aircraft firm Fairchild Aircraft to develop and build specialized aircraft for high altitude aerial survey missions. [18] One Fairchild aerial survey aircraft in 1935 carried unit that combined two synchronized cameras, and each camera having five six inch lenses with a ten-inch lens and took photos from 23,000 feet. Each photo covered two hundred and twenty-five square miles. One of its first government contracts was an aerial survey of New Mexico to study soil erosion. [19] A year later, Fairchild introduced a better high altitude camera with nine-lens in one unit that could take a photo of 600 square miles with each exposure from 30,000 feet. [20]

World War II Edit

In 1939 Sidney Cotton and Flying Officer Maurice Longbottom of the RAF were among the first to suggest that airborne reconnaissance may be a task better suited to fast, small aircraft which would use their speed and high service ceiling to avoid detection and interception. Although this seems obvious now, with modern reconnaissance tasks performed by fast, high flying aircraft, at the time it was radical thinking. [ citation needed ]

They proposed the use of Spitfires with their armament and radios removed and replaced with extra fuel and cameras. This led to the development of the Spitfire PR variants. Spitfires proved to be extremely successful in their reconnaissance role and there were many variants built specifically for that purpose. They served initially with what later became No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU). In 1928, the RAF developed an electric heating system for the aerial camera. This allowed reconnaissance aircraft to take pictures from very high altitudes without the camera parts freezing. [21] Based at RAF Medmenham, the collection and interpretation of such photographs became a considerable enterprise. [22]

Cotton's aerial photographs were far ahead of their time. Together with other members of the 1 PRU, he pioneered the techniques of high-altitude, high-speed stereoscopic photography that were instrumental in revealing the locations of many crucial military and intelligence targets. According to R.V. Jones, photographs were used to establish the size and the characteristic launching mechanisms for both the V-1 flying bomb and the V-2 rocket. Cotton also worked on ideas such as a prototype specialist reconnaissance aircraft and further refinements of photographic equipment. At the peak, the British flew over 100 reconnaissance flights a day, yielding 50,000 images per day to interpret. Similar efforts were taken by other countries. [ citation needed ]

Vertical aerial photography is used in cartography [23] (particularly in photogrammetric surveys, which are often the basis for topographic maps [24] [25] ), land-use planning, [23] aerial archaeology. [23] Oblique aerial photography is used for movie production, environmental studies, [26] power line inspection, [27] surveillance, construction progress, commercial advertising, conveyancing, and artistic projects. An example of how aerial photography is used in the field of archaeology is the mapping project done at the site Angkor Borei in Cambodia from 1995–1996. Using aerial photography, archaeologists were able to identify archaeological features, including 112 water features (reservoirs, artificially constructed pools and natural ponds) within the walled site of Angkor Borei. [28] In the United States, aerial photographs are used in many Phase I Environmental Site Assessments for property analysis.

Aircraft Edit

In the United States, except when necessary for take-off and landing, full-sized manned aircraft are prohibited from flying at altitudes under 1000 feet over congested areas and not closer than 500 feet from any person, vessel, vehicle or structure over non-congested areas. Certain exceptions are allowed for helicopters, powered parachutes and weight-shift-control aircraft. [29]

Radio-controlled model aircraft Edit

Advances in radio controlled models have made it possible for model aircraft to conduct low-altitude aerial photography. This had benefited real-estate advertising, where commercial and residential properties are the photographic subject. In 2014 the US Federal Aviation Administration banned the use of drones for photographs in real estate advertisements. [30] The ban has been lifted and commercial aerial photography using drones of UAS is regulated under the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. [31] [32] Commercial pilots have to complete the requirements for a Part 107 license, [33] while amateur and non-commercial use is restricted by the FAA. [34]

Small scale model aircraft offer increased photographic access to these previously restricted areas. Miniature vehicles do not replace full-size aircraft, as full-size aircraft are capable of longer flight times, higher altitudes, and greater equipment payloads. They are, however, useful in any situation in which a full-scale aircraft would be dangerous to operate. Examples would include the inspection of transformers atop power transmission lines and slow, low-level flight over agricultural fields, both of which can be accomplished by a large-scale radio-controlled helicopter. Professional-grade, gyroscopically stabilized camera platforms are available for use under such a model a large model helicopter with a 26cc gasoline engine can hoist a payload of approximately seven kilograms (15 lbs). In addition to gyroscopically stabilized footage, the use of RC copters as reliable aerial photography tools increased with the integration of FPV (first-person-view) technology. Many radio-controlled aircraft are now capable of utilizing Wi-Fi to stream live video from the aircraft's camera back to the pilot's or pilot in command's (PIC) ground station. [ citation needed ]

Australia Edit

In Australia Civil Aviation Safety Regulation 101 (CASR 101) [35] allows for commercial use of radio control aircraft. Under these regulations, radio-controlled unmanned aircraft for commercial are referred to as Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), whereas radio-controlled aircraft for recreational purposes are referred to as model aircraft. Under CASR 101, businesses/persons operating radio-controlled aircraft commercially are required to hold an operator certificate, just like manned aircraft operators. Pilots of radio-controlled aircraft operating commercially are also required to be licensed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). [36] Whilst a small UAS and model aircraft may actually be identical, unlike model aircraft, a UAS may enter controlled airspace with approval, and operate in close proximity to an aerodrome.

Due to a number of illegal operators in Australia making false claims of being approved, CASA maintains and publishes a list of approved UAS operators. [37] However, CASA has modified the regulations and from the 29th of September 2016 drones under 2 kg may be operated for commercial purposes. [38]

United States Edit

2006 FAA regulations grounding all commercial RC model flights have been upgraded to require formal FAA certification before permission is granted to fly at any altitude in the US.

June 25, 2014, The FAA, in ruling 14 CFR Part 91 [Docket No. FAA–2014–0396] "Interpretation of the Special Rule for Model Aircraft", banned the commercial use of unmanned aircraft over U.S. airspace. [39] On September 26, 2014, the FAA began granting the right to use drones in aerial filmmaking. Operators are required to be licensed pilots and must keep the drone in view at all times. Drones cannot be used to film in areas where people might be put at risk. [40]

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 established, in Section 336, a special rule for model aircraft. In Section 336, Congress confirmed the FAA's long-standing position that model aircraft are aircraft. Under the terms of the Act, a model aircraft is defined as "an unmanned aircraft" that is "(1) capable of sustained flight in the atmosphere (2) flown within visual line of sight of the person operating the aircraft and (3) flown for hobby or recreational purposes." [41]

Because anything capable of being viewed from a public space is considered outside the realm of privacy in the United States, aerial photography may legally document features and occurrences on private property. [42]

The FAA can pursue enforcement action against persons operating model aircraft who endanger the safety of the national airspace system. Public Law 112–95, section 336(b). [30]

June 21, 2016, the FAA released its summary of small unmanned aircraft rules (Part 107). The rules established guidelines for small UAS operators including operating only during the daytime, a 400 ft. ceiling and pilots must keep the UAS in visual range. [43]

United Kingdom Edit

Aerial photography in the UK has tight regulations as to where a drone is able to fly. [45]

Aerial Photography on Light aircraft under 20 kg. Basic Rules for non commercial flying Of a SUA (Small Unmanned Aircraft).

Article 241 Endangering safety of any person or property. A person must not recklessly or negligently cause or permit an aircraft to endanger any person or property.

Article 94 small unmanned aircraft 1. A person must not cause or permit any article or animal (whether or not attached to a parachute) to be dropped from a small unmanned aircraft so as to endanger persons or property.

2. The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft may only fly the aircraft if reasonably satisfied that the flight can safely be made.

3. The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft sufficient to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions. (500metres)

4. The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft which has a mass of more than 7 kg excluding its fuel but including any articles or equipment installed in or attached to the aircraft at the commencement of its flight, must not fly the aircraft: 4.1 In Class A, C, D or E airspace unless the permission of the appropriate air traffic control unit has been obtained 4.2 Within an aerodrome traffic zone during the notified hours of watch of the air traffic control unit (if any) at that aerodrome unless the permission of any such air traffic control unit has been obtained 4.3 At a height of more than 400 feet above the surface

5. The person in charge of a small unmanned aircraft must not fly the aircraft for the purposes of commercial operations except in accordance with a permission granted by the CAA.

Article 95 small unmanned surveillance aircraft 1. You Must not fly your aircraft over or within 150 metres of any congested Area.

2. Over or within 150 metres of an organised open-air assembly of more than 1,000 persons.

3. Within 50 metres of any vessel, vehicle or structure which is not under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.

4. Within 50 metres of any person, during take-off or landing, a small unmanned surveillance aircraft must not be flown within 30 metres of any person. This does not apply to the person in charge of the small unmanned surveillance aircraft or a person under the control of the person in charge of the aircraft.

Model aircraft with a mass of more than 20 kg are termed ‘Large Model Aircraft’ – within the UK, large model aircraft may only be flown in accordance with an exemption from the ANO, which must be issued by the CAA.

Oblique Edit

Photographs taken at an angle are called oblique photographs. If they are taken from a low angle relative to the earth's surface, they are called low oblique and photographs taken from a high angle are called high or steep oblique. [46]

Vertical Edit

Vertical photographs are taken straight down. [47] They are mainly used in photogrammetry and image interpretation. Pictures that will be used in photogrammetry are traditionally taken with special large format cameras with calibrated and documented geometric properties.

Combinations Edit

Aerial photographs are often combined. Depending on their purpose it can be done in several ways, of which a few are listed below.

    can be made by stitching several photographs taken in different angles from one spot (e.g. with a hand held camera) or from different spots at the same angle (e.g. from a plane). allow for the creation of 3D-images from several photographs of the same area taken from different spots.
  • In pictometry five rigidly mounted cameras provide one vertical and four low oblique pictures that can be used together.
  • In some digital cameras for aerial photogrammetry images from several imaging elements, sometimes with separate lenses, are geometrically corrected and combined to one image in the camera.

Orthophotos Edit

Vertical photographs are often used to create orthophotos, alternatively known as orthophotomaps, photographs which have been geometrically "corrected" so as to be usable as a map. In other words, an orthophoto is a simulation of a photograph taken from an infinite distance, looking straight down to nadir. Perspective must obviously be removed, but variations in terrain should also be corrected for. Multiple geometric transformations are applied to the image, depending on the perspective and terrain corrections required on a particular part of the image.

Orthophotos are commonly used in geographic information systems, such as are used by mapping agencies (e.g. Ordnance Survey) to create maps. Once the images have been aligned, or "registered", with known real-world coordinates, they can be widely deployed.

Large sets of orthophotos, typically derived from multiple sources and divided into "tiles" (each typically 256 x 256 pixels in size), are widely used in online map systems such as Google Maps. OpenStreetMap offers the use of similar orthophotos for deriving new map data. Google Earth overlays orthophotos or satellite imagery onto a digital elevation model to simulate 3D landscapes.

With advancements in video technology, aerial video is becoming more popular. Orthogonal video is shot from aircraft mapping pipelines, crop fields, and other points of interest. Using GPS, video may be embedded with meta data and later synced with a video mapping program.

This "Spatial Multimedia" is the timely union of digital media including still photography, motion video, stereo, panoramic imagery sets, immersive media constructs, audio, and other data with location and date-time information from the GPS and other location designs.

Aerial videos are emerging Spatial Multimedia which can be used for scene understanding and object tracking. The input video is captured by low flying aerial platforms and typically consists of strong parallax from non-ground-plane structures. The integration of digital video, global positioning systems (GPS) and automated image processing will improve the accuracy and cost-effectiveness of data collection and reduction. Several different aerial platforms are under investigation for the data collection.

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Media related to Aerial photography at Wikimedia Commons The dictionary definition of aerial photography at Wiktionary

How to use aerial photography

You can use aerial photographs in many different ways, including for:

  • Local history - see how a village, town or city has developed over time
  • Family history - you might be able to see where your ancestors once lived, even if the street has long since been demolished
  • Archaeological research - study cropmarks, soilmarks and earthworks to identify features that may not be visible today
  • Desk-based assessments - identify previous land use from traces of early agriculture to mining and heavy industry
  • Boundary disputes and other legal issues - historic aerial photos may help settle issues

You can virtually see individual window panes of a house, taken from an aeroplane which is goodness knows how many thousands of feet up!

USGS EROS Archive - Aerial Photography - Aerial Photo Mosaics

Aerial Photo Mosaics were the aerial photo finding aids during the creation and photo revision of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) topographic map series.

Photo Index (Southwestern
(Public domain)

Aerial Photo Mosaics were the aerial photo finding aids during the creation and photo revision of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) topographic map series. The film is referenced as a series of photo indexes (mosaics), each of which consists of a single-sheet composite of many individual photos. The photos date from the 1937 through 1980, and they were originally acquired by a variety of sources, such as the USGS, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and the Army Map Service. This sporadic collection does not follow any specific schedule or pattern.

Index/Mapping Photography varies in scale, size, quality, and coverage. A majority of the photos were taken from a vertical perspective. Most are in black & white (B/W), although color and color-infrared (CIR) may be available for some locations.

Individual aerial photograph from
photo index (Southwestern
(Public domain)

Coverage Maps

Coverage Maps indicating the availability of Aerial Photo Mosaics are available for download.

Additional Information

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center digitized all photo mosaics in the USGS/EROS archive and the individual frames from each index. Single frame database records have also been produced for a majority of these indexes retiring the need for them. Frame level records are available from the Aerial Photo Single Frames data set.

What remains in the Aerial Photo Mosaics collection are index records that are the only search mechanism into these historical aerial projects. These can be searched on EarthExplorer in the Aerial Photographs - USGS Aerial Photo Mosaic collection. The photo indexes range in file size from 12 - 92 mb and a majority are black and white (TIFF) images.

Access Data

EarthExplorer can be used to search, preview, and download the Aerial Photo Mosaics. The collection is located under the Aerial Imagery category.

Display Images

The USGS has aerial photographs and images suitable for framing that can be ordered without custom research. In this category are satellite images and aircraft photographs of selected States, cities, regions, and features within the United States and of natural phenomena such as fires and volcanic eruptions. Some areas outside the United States are also covered. Some photographs taken on space missions by NASA astronauts are also available in this format.

Figure 32: Earthrise from Moon, Apollo 11, July 1969

Figure 33: Florida, Landsat 5 multispectral scanner satellite image mosaic, April 1979 and May 1985

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Please understand, however, that while our process is state-of-the-art, the photograph itself was taken with a film camera by a person in a small plane, up to 50 years ago. We do not retouch or sharpen the image. The art of each photo lies in part in its untouched authenticity.

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An individual set of photographs is referred to as a flight or a mission. A flight is often just that: a single takeoff and landing. Some flights are created over the course of a few days or, less frequently, over the course of a season. On very rare occasions, a flight may refer to a multi-year project (for example, our NAPP flights). A flight may contain a single photograph or tens-of-thousands. The UCSB Library has more than 4,500 flights which add up to more than 2.4 million individual images.

Aerial photograph of Guadalcanal - History

From Marine Corps orphans to top-scoring fighter squadron, VMF-214 followed their brawling leader, “Pappy” Boyington, to fame

by Don Hollway
Appeared as “Boyington’s Bastards” in the January 󈧒 issue of AVIATION HISTORY magazine.

F4U-1 Corsairs of Marine Fighter Squadron VMF-214, late 1943. “Pacific Morning: Black Sheep on the Prowl” by Craig Kodera.
Buy the print.

Maj. Gregory Boyington, USMC

I t was one of the biggest air raids in the entire campaign for the Solomon Islands. More than a year after U.S. Marines landed on Guadalcanal, Navy TBF Avengers and SBD Dauntless dive-bombers were to hit the Japanese base on Ballale, at the far end of the island chain, on September 16, 1943. Navy F6F-3 Hellcats and Royal New Zealand Air Force P-40 Kittyhawks flew cover. And way up over 20,000 feet—either for altitude advantage or their own protection—were some two dozen Marines. VMF-214 was a newly reorganized squadron on just its third mission, and flying an ill-starred fighter to boot: the Vought F4U-1 Corsair, or “Bent-Wing Bird.”

High atop the four-mile-tall array, squadron commander Major Gregory Boyington was feeling sorry for himself. Without victories, his cobbled-together squadron of shiny new lieutenants and disbanded-unit orphans would soon be washed back into the replacement pool. He almost didn’t notice when the rest of the massive American formation suddenly dived under a layer of stratus. “What in hell goes?” he muttered. “We must be over the mission.”

Following him down, the other Corsair pilots found the bombers pounding Ballale and dozens of Japanese fighters coming up to do battle. Boyington was suddenly amazed to find, not 30 feet away, a red-balled A6M Zero practically flying on his wing…and that he had completely forgotten to switch on his gunsight and guns.

Commissioned in July 1942, Marine Fighter Squadron (VMF) 214 were originally called the “Swashbucklers.” They flew out of Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, during the early Solomons campaign, but were disbanded thereafter and the squadron number reassigned.

P-40C (Hawk 81A-2) which Boyington flew for the 1st Pursuit Squadron, American Volunteer Group.

Most Americans think of “Pappy” Boyington as actor Robert Conrad portrayed him in the TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep , yet even that nickname was invented by the press. In the Solomons his pilots called the 30-year-old major “Gramps.” He had claimed six victories in China, flying P-40s for the American Volunteer Group (though the Flying Tigers only credited him with two) and arrived in the Solomons just as the Marines replaced their old Grumman F4F-4 Wildcats with new Corsairs.

An F4U touches down hot at Espiritu Santo. The Corsair’s high landing speed and unforgiving stall characteristics forced pilots into tail-high approaches to see over its 14-foot nose, causing the US Navy to ban it from carrier ops until Royal Navy pilots demonstrated a curving approach that let pilots see around, rather than over, the cowling.

Designed behind a bomber-size prop more than 13 feet across (the inverted gull wings and long nose were necessary to give it ground clearance), the F4U was the first American single-engine plane to average more than 400 mph, but it was prone to unrecoverable spins and landing stalls, and that “hose nose” blocked the pilot’s vision on straight-in carrier approaches. The Navy judged it unfit for shipboard ops, but good enough for the Marines. In Boyington’s opinion: “The Corsair was a sweet-flying baby if I ever flew one. No longer would we have to fight the Nips’ fight, for we could make our own rules.”

He made his own squadron, too. Later portrayed on TV as misfits and rejects awaiting courts-martial, the “Black Sheep” (the first choice, “Boyington’s Bastards,” was nixed: not press-friendly) were in fact among the most experienced pilots in the Pacific theater. Even the rookies had accumulated high flight hours, and several of the veterans counted more victories than Boyington. Though they had flown together only briefly before September 16, the results of that first day of combat were unequivocal.

In a famous photo, members of the newly re-formed VMF-214 “scramble” for an intercept. Except the photo was staged on Espiritu Santo, hundreds of miles from the Solomons, and taken September 11, 1943, before the Black Sheep had flown together in combat. Pilot at left, with Australian flight boots, is Bill Case.

At the post-mission debrief Lt. Bob McClurg reported getting his first kill in a head-on pass: “I just held the trigger down as we came at each other. I was scared to death.” Boyington’s wingman, Lt. Don Fisher, scored two, including one that he shot off his leader’s tail. “I was right behind [the Zero], and he blew,” Fisher recounted. “The wings went each way.” But he had lost sight of Gramps, who was hours overdue returning to base. VMF-214 had almost marked Boyington MIA when his Corsair at last arrived and he climbed out of the cockpit, claiming no fewer than five enemy kills—even discounting his AVG victories, an ace in a day.

After maneuvering the first Zero into an overshoot (and charging his guns), Boyington reported sending it down in flames and gunning down enemy fighters halfway back home, including one that “exploded completely when I was about 50 feet from him.” Too close to evade, he had flown directly through the explosion, somehow dodging the pilot, engine and still-spinning prop.

Boyington flies through his target’s explosion. “Corsair F-4u1” by Julien Lepelletier

There was no gun camera film in those days Boyington had only his word to back up his claims. But he had stopped off at the recently captured forward air base at Munda, on New Georgia, almost out of gas and ammo, with dents all over his Corsair from flying debris. His kills—almost half the squadron score of 11, plus eight probables—were confirmed. Within a few weeks, propelled by the CO’s Flying Tiger backstory and the Marine Corps press machine, the Black Sheep were a household name. And they were just getting started.

Lt. John Bolt
6 victories WWII,
6 victories Korea

Lieutenant Bill Case had only scored a probable over Ballale. One week later he held his fire to within 50 feet of a Zero’s tail—too close—and his Corsair’s six wide-set wing guns straddled its fuselage. “I spent about 2,000 rounds figuring that out,” said Case. “I finally put the pipper up above his tail and about six to eight feet to the side…and hit him with three guns at a time.”

Lieutenant John Bolt had missed his first kill over Ballale. “The first time I saw a meatball it was a full deflection shot, and he just zipped by,” he reported. “I was in a state of shock.” Over Vella Lavella, however, Bolt got behind two Zeros in succession, flaming both for a double kill.

F4U-1 Corsair
Lt. John Bolt flew BuNo 17475 No. 475 when he scored his first kill, a double, over the Russell Islands on 23 September 1943. Note early-style “birdcage” canopy

Aichi D3A1 “Val” of 582nd Kokotai, Munda, New Georgia, 1943

Despite being obsolete when the war started, the Val was the primary Japanese dive bomber throughout the war. So agile it was sometimes flown as a fighter, it also served as an interceptor and kamikaze plane. It sank more Allied warships than any other Axis aircraft.

Lieutenant Chris Magee had likewise been flummoxed by the speed of air combat: “All I could do was keep spinning my neck and looking…everything was happening so fast.” Called “Maggie” (though rarely to his face, as he was a dedicated weightlifter and fitness fanatic), Magee plunged from 13,000 feet into a pack of Aichi D3A2 “Val” dive-bombers attacking a U.S. convoy. “The Japanese were going into a straight dive, so I headed into the dive with them,” he recalled. “Of course, by then the [American] anti-aircraft was all around us, but you don’t even think of that….The [Vals] kept going down, and I kept in there, firing.” By the time they pulled out above the water, he had splashed two, and a third probable, when he heard bullets striking his plane “like a hail storm on a tin roof.” The Vals’ escort—Zeros, always slow in a dive—had caught up. Magee made it back to base with 30 bullet holes in his Corsair. He was recommended for a Navy Cross, and his nickname changed to “Wild Man.”

“Magees’s Cross” by Darby Perrin
At 1130 on 18 September 1943, Lt. Chris Magee pursued some 15 Val dive bombers already in their attack runs, through his own [the American ships] anti-aircraft fire, and caught up with them some 100 feet off the surface of the water, having splashed three. Buy the art.

Mitsubishi A6M3 Model 22 “Zeke”

The Model 32 had no folding wingtips, less range and less maneuverability than the preceding Model 21. The Model 22 corrected these deficiencies, but was still not the equal of the Corsair. Production ended in mid-1943, but the Model 22 was often encountered by the Black Sheep over the Solomons. Model 22 UI-105 was flown by Lt.j.g. Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, the “Demon of Rabaul.”

During the late 1943 island-hopping campaign up the Solomons, VMF-214 flew out of bases so far forward that they were often behind Japanese lines. (Navy Seabees had started the reconstruction of desolate, bomb-pocked Munda while the enemy still held the far end of the strip.)

After the months-long ordeal on Guadalcanal, the Allied island-hopping advance up the Solomons toward Rabaul on New Britain was complete by the end of 1943. Torokina on Bougainville was within fighter range of Rabaul, allowing the “Pearl Harbor of the South Pacific” to be hammered to inconsequence.

On their first tour, the Black Sheep suffered an almost 40 percent casualty rate, including one pilot shot down in a friendly-fire duel with Navy PT-boats. Yet they overflew Bougainville so regularly that the Japanese dared Boyington by name to come down and brave the anti-aircraft instead he taunted Zero pilots that they should come up and fight. John Bolt even flew an unauthorized one-man air raid on Tonolei Harbor, making two strafing runs on troop transports and boat traffic. “I was only taken under fire from one gun,” he reported to a furious Boyington on his return, adding that its 20mm tracers “just floated by.” Despite his CO’s ire, Bolt received a congratulatory telegram from no less than Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, and the Distinguished Flying Cross. He would eventually earn a Navy Cross as well.

“Black Sheep Squadron” by John D. Shaw
Battle-weary Corsairs and pilots of VMF-214 cool down on Vella Lavella after a mission. Left to right: Intelligence Officer Frank Walton, Flight Surgeon James Reames, pilots Chris Magee, John Bolt, Boyington, Bruce Matheson and Ed Olander.

The Black Sheep pose on the wings of Corsair #17740 in its revetment at Vella Lavella, Dec. 27th, 1943. The St. Louis Cardinals had issued them one team cap for each victory. Aces hold baseball bats.

In six weeks VMF-214 scored 57 kills, with 19 probables. Wild Man Magee claimed seven. Bill Case finished with eight. (On his last mission, for no real reason Case lowered his cockpit seat a notch when a Japanese 7.7mm bullet pierced his canopy, instead of drilling him through the skull, it merely creased his scalp.) Halsey visited VMF-214’s base to shake hands all around. Boyington was nominated for the Medal of Honor. At a November photo op on Espiritu Santo, a Corsair was dressed up with his name and 20 Japanese victory flags, though in fact it was a point of pride in the squadron that they all shared airplanes not even Boyington flew a personal mount.

F4U-1 Corsair “Lucybelle”
Used for photo shoot on Espiritu Santo, November 1943. Boyington did not fly it in combat, nor ever fly a personal mount. After the war he jilted girlfriend Lucy Malcolmson for actress Frances Baker, leading to a tabloid court case so messy that for the TV show, 30 years later, his plane’s name was changed to “Lulubelle.” Note Spitfire-style “bubble” canopy.

Mitsubishi A6M5 Model 52 “Zeke”

The most-produced of the A6M series, the A6M5 entered service in October 1943. With a more powerful engine, wingtips “clipped” for better roll rate, and dive speed increased to 410 mph, the Model 52 was intended to be a match for the Corsair and F6F Hellcat. In late 1943 53-102 was flown out of Rabaul by Lt.j.g. “Tiger” T e t s u z o I w am o t o , who survived the war as possibly Japan’s highest-scoring ace.

Hero-hungry America couldn’t get enough of the Black Sheep. Neither could the Marine Corps, which boosted squadron pilot strength from 28 to 40.

On November 1, 1943, the Allies finally landed on Bougainville, capturing just enough beachhead for a staging field at Torokina. For the first time Allied fighters could reach Rabaul, the “Pearl Harbor of the Southwest Pacific.” Within shooting distance of 26 victories—the American record held since World War I by Eddie Rickenbacker, only recently tied by Captain Joe Foss—Boyington led a fighter sweep, marking the first appearance by American single-engine planes over Simpson Harbor. (When a Navy squadron commander questioned his tactics, Boyington snapped: “Tactics? Hell, you don’t need any tactics. When you see the Zeros, you just shoot ’em down, that’s all.”)

The Japanese airfield at the foot of the volcanoes Rabalanakaia (left) and Tavurvur. The 1994 eruption of Tavurvur destroyed the airfield and the town of Rabaul.

Nakajima A6M2-N “Rufe,” 802nd Kokutai, Solomon Islands 1943

A seaplane version of the Zero, the Rufe saw action in the Aleutians and Solomon Islands campaigns as an interceptor, fighter-bomber, and scout. Its performance suffered from the weight and drag of its large pontoons, making it easy prey for conventional Allied fighters.

Against such an armada, however, the Americans found few Zeros willing to fly. McClurg broke formation to dive after a Nakajima A6M2-N “Rufe” floatplane, his fourth kill: “He was sitting there just flying straight and level. Nothing to it….[Boyington] looked over at me shaking his fist at me for breaking formation.” But the CO himself went down alone to strafe the air base at Lakunai. “We scared them,” he declared. “We ought to send up only about 24 planes, so they’d be sure to come up and fight.”

Consolidated B-24 Liberator

Able to carry 8,000 lb of bombs, or 2,700lb for 3,000 miles, the B-24 was the prime Allied heavy bomber in the Pacific before the advent of the Boeing B-29. The Black Sheep escorted many of them to Rabaul. “Eager Beaver,” a B-24D-7-CO of the 320th BS, 90th BG USAAF, completed 77 missions in the Southwest Pacific theater.

A week later the Allies sent two dozen B-24 Liberators, backed up by nearly 100 Corsairs, Hellcats, Kittyhawks and even Army P-38 Lightnings. This time the Japanese matched them fighter for fighter. In this titanic dogfight over Rabaul the Black Sheep lost three but claimed 12, Bolt and McClurg getting doubles to become aces, Magee raising his total to eight. And Boyington got four, at one point taking on a nine-plane formation all by himself: “I came down unknown to the Zekes and picked off the tail-end man, and then ran like a son-of-a-gun.” On the way home he even made a strafing run on a Japanese sub he caught on the surface. It was his second-best day ever as a Black Sheep.

“Fly for Your Life” by Robert Taylor.

With Rabaul visible in the distance, “Pappy” Boyington and his fellow pilots of VMF-214 tear into a large formation of Japanese Zero fighters. Buy the art.

The closer he came to the record, however, the more he seemed to feel the weight of history bearing down on him. He gave reporters wave-offs and brusque replies: “I didn’t come out here to make news. I came out here to fight a war.” McClurg got his eighth, Magee his ninth and Don Fisher got a double to become an ace, but Boyington stalled. “The hunting was fine,” he said of those last days of 1943, “…but I’m doing some dumb things up there!” He scored one more Zeke over Rabaul, but the next day was so outflown by an enemy fighter he reported it as a Nakajima Ki-44 “Tojo” that got away, scored only as a probable. On a subsequent mission he had to turn back with his windscreen covered in oil at one point, as several fellow pilots attested, he undid his straps and stood up into the slipstream to wipe it off.

“Don’t worry about me,” he told his men. “If you guys ever see me going down with 30 Zeros on my tail, don’t give me up. Hell, I’ll meet you in a San Diego bar and we’ll all have a drink for old times’ sake.” They celebrated New Year’s Eve Black Sheep style, firing off so many pistol flares that the transport fleet offshore got underway, fearing an air raid.

Gunfight Over Rabaul by Jack Fellows

Boyington maneuvers for an advantageous position against a nimble A6M2 type “Zero” fighter over Rabaul on December 27, 1943. On this date Boyington shot down his 25th enemy aircraft, a Zero over Simpson Harbour.

Major Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, USMC, C.O. VMF-214 by Jack Fellows

Another view of same dogfight, Boyington’s 25th confirmed aerial victory. Enemy aircraft was most likely a Zero from IJN 253rd Kokutai, coming up from Lakunai aerodrome.

On January 3, 1944, Boyington led another sweep to Rabaul. The Japanese saw the Americans coming and sent up some 70 fighters to intercept. Boyington led the charge down into them. “I poured a long burst into the first enemy plane that approached,” he said. The Zero burst into flames, and several pilots witnessed it going down: Boyington’s record-tying 26th victory. But then they lost sight of Gramps in the low-level haze, where he found some 20 enemy fighters waiting.

Word of his record kill preceded him back to base. “There was a radio recording hookup,” remembered one Black Sheep, “and the Marine Corps and Navy photo sections had cameramen there.” Elation turned to shock and disbelief when Boyington failed to return. “In the movies it would be labeled pure corn,” wrote one correspondent. “Things like that don’t happen.” Bolt got his sixth the next day, but adding insult to grievous injury, with its tour finished VMF-214 was deactivated and its pilots reassigned to spread their expertise. A reconstituted unit did not fare so well on its return to combat.

The Black Sheep who went to war in 1945 never got the chance to live up to their legacy, but they lived up to their name. Mostly fresh out of flight school, they lost 11 Corsairs and seven airmen during training to collisions, disappearances and freak accidents. One pilot’s life raft ballooned inside the plane, shoving him out of the cockpit at 5,000 feet without his chute another had a fatal tangle with an aerial towed target banner a third’s belly tank tore loose on a carrier landing, hit his prop and exploded, immolating him in the cockpit. Even their mascot, a black lamb named Midnite, was run over by a car and killed Midnite II proved to be an ornery ram with a penchant for butting heads with squadron mates.

F4U-1D Corsair, VMF-214
Flown off USS Franklin, CV-13, in March 1945, as indicated by white-diamond tail insignia. Features underwing hardpoints for HVAR (High Velocity Air-launched) rockets. Many Corsairs were so armed and warming up on deck when Franklin took her infamous, near-fatal bomb hit.

The Corsair had changed too. Finally cleared for carrier ops, the new F4U-1D could pack 1,000 pounds of high-explosive or napalm bombs, eight five-inch HVAR (high-velocity aircraft) rockets or a centerline-mounted 11.75-inch “Tiny Tim” missile. All these weapons were stocked when VMF-214 boarded CV-13, the Essex -class carrier Franklin . Sailing as part of Task Force 58 in support of the Okinawa invasion, “Big Ben” would make the closest approach to the Japanese Home Islands of any U.S. carrier in the entire war: just 50 miles, a mere 10󈝻 minutes’ flying time, off southern Kyushu.

At dawn on March 19, Franklin had more than 30 aircraft on deck and 22 below, readying for a strike into Japan’s Inland Sea. Many VMF-214 pilots were prepping for their mission in the squadron ready room above the hangar deck when, at about 0705 hours, a single Japanese plane (usually described as a Yokosuka D4Y3 “Judy”) dropped out of the low cloud cover, crossed the ship bow to stern at mast height and pickled off its ordnance dead center. At least one 550-pounder punched through the flight deck into the crowded, busy hangar deck below and exploded.

USS Franklin, March 19, 1945
“Big Ben” pays the price for venturing too near the Japanese mainland.

In the confined space, the blast redoubled. Burst tanks and lines spattered aviation fuel. Bombs and rockets set each other off. The rippling explosion was so powerful it heaved the entire 32-ton forward aircraft elevator clear up out of its well. The flight crews in the hangar deck never knew what hit them. Concussion bucked the overhead ready room so hard the floor broke pilots’ legs where they stood or hurled them bodily against the overhead. Some jumped or were blown overboard several stories down into the icy water. Few escaped uninjured as flames ravaged the listing carrier stem to stern, punctuated by ordnance cooking off. More than 800 men died, with almost 500 wounded.

The tale of Franklin’s epic, and ultimately successful, battle for survival has passed into U.S. Navy legend, but 32 men of VMF-214 never lived to fight it, let alone fight the enemy. For both Big Ben and the Black Sheep, World War II was over.

In late 1945 Boyington (center) reunites with Black Sheep comrades, including Chris Magee (left) and Bill Case (right) in the bar at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel.

In August 1945, the survivors were preparing to muster out when word came that Boyington was not only alive but now considered the top-scoring Marine ace of the war, having claimed two more Zeros on his last mission before going down in the ocean. (Today official sources credit him variously with between 22 and 28 victories.) He’d been picked up by a Japanese sub, and spent the rest of the war as a POW. That October, President Harry S. Truman awarded Boyington his “posthumous” Medal of Honor on the White House lawn, but not before Pappy had his promised reunion with the Black Sheep—one so legendary that it’s said to be the first bender to rate a photo feature in Life magazine.

What America knows as the Black Sheep Squadron flew together as a unit for only about three months—less than one 13-week television season—but destroyed 97 enemy aircraft, with 35 probables and 50 damaged, plus almost 30 ships sunk. Of the 28 pilots on their first tour, no less than nine became aces. Bolt went on to score six kills in Korea for 12 total—the Marine Corps’ only jet ace and only ace in two wars—while Magee flew Messerschmitts for the Israelis, bootlegged booze and robbed banks. One of the few WWII-vintage squadrons still serving today, VMF-214 flew Corsairs in Korea, A-4 Skyhawks in Vietnam and AV-8B Harrier jump jets in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the years the forlorn black sheep on the squadron insignia, which a bunch of orphan flyboys first scribbled up on Guadalcanal, has become a proud, foot-stamping ram. And no matter what they fly, their crest still bears a Bent-Wing Bird.

About the author

Author/illustrator/historian Don Hollway has been published in Aviation History, Excellence, History Magazine, Military Heritage, Military History, Military Heritage, Civil War Quarterly, Muzzleloader, Porsche Panorama, Renaissance Magazine, Scientific American, Vietnam, Wild West, and World War II magazines. His work is also available in paperback, hardcover and across the internet, a number of which rank extremely high in global search rankings.

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