Fly for photography | National Air and Space Museum

Combining their skills in flight and photography, Osa Johnson and Mary Light have both carried out documentary missions, photographing remote parts of Africa. Discover their stories.

Osa Johnson

Martin and Osa Johnson filmed air safaris across Africa and Borneo. (National Air and Space Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, NASM-83-3796).

In the 1930s, when parts of the world were first explored by Westerners, Martin and Osa Johnson wowed movie theater audiences with films of their air safaris across 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 Mount Kilimanjaro and documenting the herds of wildlife in 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 rivers, lakes and backcountry plains to meet local tribes and efficiently travel 96,560 kilometers (60,000 miles) of the bush. They also photographed the Valley of the Kings and the pyramids of Egypt for home audiences. In 1935, they explored the interior of Borneo and released aerial images of the island, previously undocumented by Westerners.

Marie light

Mary Light stands with pilot Richard Light (left) and passenger Glen Batsman (right). (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries)

Mary Light and her husband Dr Richard Light, a faculty member at Yale Medical School, embarked on a scientific expedition for the American Geographical Society in 1937 to photograph and map remote areas of Uganda and of the Congo, in particular the Ruwenzori mountain range. The beach was almost always surrounded by rain, fog or snow, hampering photographic efforts from the ground. On December 29, 1937, Mary Light successfully photographed the highest peak, Mount Stanley, from cloud top 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 on the plane. They continued their aerial photography tour throughout 1938.


This content was migrated from a previous online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of women featured at the Museum in the early 2000s.


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