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Auburn University Libraries

History of Flight Collection, Special Collections & Archives

Collection Profile

Auburn University has had a mission to teach "mechanics" since 1872, when the state of Alabama accepted the provisions of the Morrill Act. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the school's engineering programs have reflected the evolution of that field. Today, Auburn University supports teaching and research not only in aviation engineering, but also aviation management and the history of technology, the latter with a strong emphasis upon the history of flight.

The Special Collections & Archives Department of the Auburn University Libraries holds rare books, manuscripts, still pictures, motion pictures, sound recordings, and digital collections related to the history of both military and commercial aviation. These materials document not only the development of aircraft as weapons and instruments of commerce, but also tourism, labor-management relations in the aviation industry, popular culture, the evolution of engineering, and individuals significant to the history of flight.

The latter include the personal papers of Eddie Rickenbacker, founder of Eastern Air Lines, as well as corporate records of that company. In addition to Rickenbacker's career as a pioneer in commercial aviation, these materials document his days as a race-car driver, his airborne exploits as America's ace-of-aces during World War I, the relationship between this American hero and the members of his family, the 21 days during October and November 1942 when he was lost at sea while on a secret mission for Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and his devotion to conservative causes during the 1960s.

The 21 days during October and November 1942 may have been the single most dramatic episode in Rickenbacker's life, as well as the lives of the B-17 crew members adrift with him in the Pacific Ocean. In 1998, one of the remaining survivors, John Bartek, came to Auburn and provided a first-hand account of their long ordeal and dramatic rescue. Bartek's story resides among the documents found in Auburn's history of flight collection, as do the Rickenbacker scrapbooks that contain post-rescue press accounts referring to "Iron Man Eddie" and calling the World War I hero "one ace that can get out of any hole." Hollywood even dramatized this episode in a motion picture, a copy of which is also in the collection.

Scholars, graduate students, and undergraduates from Auburn University and other institutions of higher learning have employed the history of flight collection in the production of senior theses, master's theses, doctoral dissertations, scholarly articles, and books issued by the academic press. Most notably, these have included Eddie Rickenbacker: An American Hero in the Twentieth Century (2005), by W. David Lewis, a member of Auburn University's Department of History. Professor Lewis and others in his department have been instrumental in working with the Auburn University Libraries to build the history of flight collection.

Collection Profile: Dwayne Cox
Illustrations: Joyce Hicks

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