Aviation Illustration:
An Artist Inside an Aircraft Factory, 1917

Aviation illustration was a specialty practiced by few artists of the Golden Age of Illustration.

Soon after the Wright brothers first powered flight in 1903, the American public became fascinated by aviation and soon it became the subject of articles in popular magazines such as Harper's, Century, and Scientific American.

When America entered World War I in 1917, few people had seen inside an aircraft factory or a navy yard.

Illustrator Vernon Howe Bailey (1874-1953), best known for his beautiful pencil drawings of European street scenes and buildings and architectural features of New York, decided "the unusual condition of war seemed to present a rare opportunity for picture subjects."

He applied to the Committe on Public Information in Washington, D.C., and received permission to make a series of drawings of navy yards, aircraft and ammunition factories, and other wartime facilities. The drawings were circulated for publication in popular magazines.

After passing through tight security, Bailey noticed signs at the gates stating, "No Cameras Allowed." He wrote, "Reflecting that I was neither a camera nor a photographer, I took heart." He soon discovered that inside a war plant "everything is on the move, and picture compositions make and unmake themselves in a moment's time."

Bailey made the drawing above based on sketches of a “monster” airplane designed by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. The twin-engined aircraft, carrying two machine guns and a crew of three, was planned to accompany scouting aircraft over enemy lines.

From the security-conscious War Deparment's viewpoint, having an illustrator depict war plants had a distinct advantage. Photographs might reveal too much detail to America's enemies whereas an artist could select only those details the military wanted to make public. The exact location of this aircraft factory, for example, was not mentioned.

The aviation illustrations shown here were passed the military censors and stamped with an official seal. Vernon Howe Bailey was the first artist accorded the privilege of making drawings of government plants in World War I. The sketches, published in Harper's Magazine in 1917, were entitled, The War in the Air: Some of the new types of air and sea planes with which the United States is preparing to join forces with the Allies to win the unquestioned supremacy of the air.

Be sure to see the Aircraft & Cars Image Gallery for more examples of aviation illustration.

Vernon Howe Bailey, inside an aircraft factory, 1917.

A Navy flying boat under construction, showing the boat-like wooden hull before the 93-foot long wing was mounted.

Vernon Howe Bailey, inside an aircraft factory, 1917.

A coastal-defense aircraft being readied for testing. This flying boat carried a pilot and observer, and the type was used to protect the Panama Canal from submarine attack during World War I.

Vernon Howe Bailey, inside an aircraft factory, 1917.

Building a “hydro-plane” used by the Navy for scouting. Designed to be launched from battleships and cruisers, seaplanes like this were the “eyes” of the fleet.

Vernon Howe Bailey, inside an aircraft factory, 1917.

The factory floor in operation. With Army and Navy contracts, airplane manufacturers for the first time in America could mass produce military aircraft.

Vernon Howe Bailey, inside an aircraft factory, 1917.

The Shop test: The completed fuselage, minus its fabric covering, has its engine revved up. As the aircraft strains to pull away from anchor cables, instruments gauge its potential speed.

Vernon Howe Bailey, inside an aircraft factory, 1917.

With the introduction of airplanes to the Navy, ships mounted launch catapults and cranes to hoist returning aircraft. Mounted atop the crane is a 3-inch antiaircraft gun for defense against enemy aircraft. Bailey included this naval sketch with his aviation illustrations.

Vernon Howe Bailey, inside an aircraft factory, 1917.

Inspection day at an Army airfield somewhere in America. Uncle Sam's newest airplanes ready for shipment to the battlefields in France.

You can find more examples of Golden Age military illustration
in the Military Illustration Gallery.

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