Flying for Photography | National Air and Space Museum – National Air and Space Museum

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Posted on Nov 20, 2021
By: Dorothy Cochrane and P. Ramirez
Combining flying and photography skills, Osa Johnson and Mary Light both flew on documentary missions, photographing remote areas in Africa. Discover their stories.  
In the 1930s, when regions of the world were being explored by Westerners for the first time, Martin and Osa Johnson delighted audiences in theaters with films of their aerial safaris throughout Africa and Borneo. Both pilots and photographers, the Johnsons explored Kenya and Tanganyika (now part of Tanzania) in 1933, taking the first aerial photograph of Mt. Kilimanjaro and documenting herds of wild animals on the Serengeti Plain. Their expedition flew two Sikorsky amphibians, the twin-engine S-38C Osa’s Ark, painted in zebra stripes, and the single engine S-39B Spirit of Africa (and later Borneo), sporting giraffe spots. These planes allowed them to land on backcountry rivers, lakes, and plains to meet local tribes and move efficiently around 96,560 kilometers (60,000 miles) of bush country. They also photographed the Valley of the Kings and the pyramids in Egypt for audiences back home. In 1935, they explored the interior of Borneo and released aerial footage of the island, previously undocumented by Westerners. 
Mary Light, and her husband, Dr. Richard Light, faculty member of Yale Medical School embarked on a scientific expedition for the American Geographical Society in 1937 to photograph and map remote areas in Uganda and the Congo, specifically the Ruwenzori Mountain range. The range was nearly always shrouded in rain, fog, or snow, thus thwarting photographic efforts from the ground. On December 29, 1937, Mary Light successfully photographed the highest peak, Mt. Stanley, from above the clouds at 4,572 meters (15,000 feet) with her husband at the controls of their Bellanca CH cabin plane. The celebration was delayed, however, as she suffered from a lack of oxygen and nearly froze to death while photographing from an open window in the aircraft. They continued their aerial photography tour throughout 1938. 
This content was migrated from an earlier online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of the women featured in the Museum in early 2000s. 
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