From rocket scientists to NASA pilots, UTD has a history of shooting for the stars. But at only half a century old, many Comets aren’t aware of the school’s extensive roots in aviation and connections to famous female pilots.
Deep in the bowels of the Testing Center on Synergy Park resides “The History of Aviation Archives,” the largest section of McDermott Library’s Special Collections and Archives Division. It consists of world-class aeronautical material and one of the most extensive World War I aviation archives outside of Europe, according to curator and certified archivist Patrizia Nava.
“The Dallas region is really very aeronautic heavy,” Nava said.
On the surface, the site is just a large room of display cases filled with model airplanes and helicopters. Look closer, and there lies a living archive and repository.
With proper gloves and sanitation, most of the papers and photographs can even be held by hand. But you don’t have to be a graduate student or historian to pay a visit.
“Everybody can come to our archives,” Nava said.
Beyond the lobby and conference room, a cold storage repository with rows of moveable archive shelves the size of bank vaults sits in the back.
“[This] temperature-controlled environment … is important for the many kinds of archival material we have,” Nava said.
The History of Aviation Collection, or HAC, was established in 1963 at UT Austin by Flight magazine publisher George Haddaway. In the late ’70s, Haddway moved the collection to the second floor of McDermott Library, where it was under the curation of G. Edward Rice, an honored member of the aviation community who happened to have a small linkage with one of the 20th century’s greatest disappearances and aeronautical mysteries.
From acquiring many of the artifacts to his connections across the aviation community, Nava said Rice had a huge influence on the collection.
Rice crisscrossed California as a final assembler and assembly supervisor for Douglas Aircraft Co, Lockheed and Hughes Aircraft. While at Lockheed in Burbank, Rice worked on Amelia Earhart’s Model 10 Electra before her final journey and second world flight attempt in 1937, where government officials maintained that she and flight navigator Fred Noonan crashed into the Pacific Ocean after running out of gas en route to Howland Island.
The list of conspiracy theories surrounding her disappearance has grown to almost Kennedy and Watergate levels. But Rice’s connection to the “Queen of the Air” is just the beginning.
The aviation archives also contain the papers of Joseph Gervais, a former Air Force colonel who became obsessed with Earhart’s disappearance while stationed in Okinawa.
Gervais believed that Earhart survived the crash and was captured by the Japanese. He also suggested that Earhart was spying for the Federal government and that after the war, she returned to the U.S. under the alias of Irene Bolam.
The collection is more than just a history of planes and pilots.
“You can use aviation in so many things, whether it’s the arts, advertisement, [or] business,” Nava said. “We would like students to discover us because it’s a very rich source.”
Earhart is just the tip of the iceberg for women in aviation showcased at HAC.
Tony Page, whose papers have also been cataloged, was a pioneer in journalism and aviation. Page won a flight lesson after writing an essay about why she wanted to enter the aviation industry. Not long after, she was hired by Flight magazine in 1940, but the publisher never knew she was a woman until six months later. By the ’50s, she’d already proven herself in a male-dominated field by logging over 550 flight hours and receiving an active pilot and helicopter license. Writing became a critical part of her life when her husband Holland Page Jr. purchased the Fort Worth-based Cross Country News in 1952. She continued doing just that until her death in 1988.
Nava said she found Page fascinating.
“There’s a woman in the aviation world. She has her own publication. How often does that happen in the ’50s and ’60s,” she said. “You have to go look over the rim of your teacup in order to find materials [and] maybe there are some things that you didn’t think would be there.”
Other small exhibits occupying Synergy Park show artifacts connected to the figures from the Golden Age of aviation history like Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle, whose desks and Medal of Honor are on display, as well as a memorial devoted to the pilots and ground support of Civil Air Transport Air America, which helped run covert operations for the CIA after World War II.
Though HAC moved into Synergy Park in 2017 to accommodate for the diverse number of materials, some of the bigger items had to be moved and are on permanent loan with the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Love Field in Dallas.