The Statue of Liberty photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
The Statue of Liberty photographed from a helicopter, 1952.Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
The Statue of Liberty photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
The George Washington Bridge photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Midtown Manhattan (with the entrance to a cross-river tunnel visible at lower left) photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Columbus Circle, New York City, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Coney Island, Brooklyn, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Beach accident, the near drowning of a Coney Island bather named Mary Eschner, draws knot of people. Reviving victim lies in center, attended by lifeguards. Some bathers (foreground) wave a helicopter as they run from water.
Location unknown (New York State), photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Back Bay, Virginia, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Trains after snowfall, Chicago, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Grain elevator, operated by the Norris Grain Co. on the southeast side of Chicago, unloads corn from lake boat in a Calumet River slip (right foreground). In the freight yards (background) snow-covered gondola cars are loaded with coal.
Chicago's famous Wrigley Building looks like candy castle from a helicopter above spire. Building is split in two parts and a railroad track runs between them. Behind them is Chicago River, with Michigan Avenue bridge.
Aerial view of Pittsburgh Steamship Co. ship carrying ore to US Steel plant. Gary, Indiana, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Gary, Indiana, steel plant, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Water skiers and motorboats speed across the water, Long Beach, Calif., photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Freight train traveling through the El Cajon Pass outside San Diego, Calif., photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Coronado Hotel and its surroundings, San Diego, Calif., photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Golden Gate Bridge, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Ocean Beach, San Francisco, Calif., photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Farm workers harvesting onions, Burbank, California, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Over the Texas star on the San Jacinto Monument near Houston, helicopter-borne camera looks sharply down 570-foot shaft to steps and parking space below. Tower marks spot where Sam Houston defeated General Santa Anna in 1836.
Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter
Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter
Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter
Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter.
Margaret Bourke-White stands before a helicopter with two unidentified men, 195
The Statue of Liberty photographed from a helicopter, 1952.
Margaret Bourke-White—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
1 of 27

Air America: Picturing the United States From Above

Apr 20, 2014

Sixty years ago the notion of a photographer going up in a helicopter to take pictures of landscapes, monuments, buildings and other notable sights from the air was novel enough to warrant a 12-page article in LIFE magazine. That Margaret Bourke-White was the photographer who climbed aboard various "whirlibirds" to make the singular, vertiginous photos, however, would hardly come as a shock to LIFE's readers back then, or to photojournalism buffs today.

Bourke-White, after all (seen at left being pulled from the drink), broke ground again and again throughout her career, and LIFE frequently shared her adventures with its readers.

In 1930, she was the first Western photographer officially allowed into the USSR; she was America's first accredited woman photographer in WWII, and the very first authorized to fly on combat missions; she was one of the first — and certainly the most celebrated — of the photographers to document the horrors of Nazi concentration camps after they were liberated in the spring of 1945; she was the last person to interview Mohandas Gandhi before he was assassinated; and on and on.

So, in the spring of 1952, when she traveled around the country, photographing both world-famous and utterly nondescript sites (and sights) in New York, California, Illinois, Indiana and elsewhere, from the vantage point of a helicopter, few who knew anything of her career would have been surprised.

The pictures from the assignment, on the other hand, can still startle and even astonish viewers today, six decades after Bourke-White made them. As expressions of one woman's — and one magazine's — endless pursuit of new ways to celebrate America's breadth, energy and its vast, thrilling scale, the pictures here are unparalleled.

That they were made from a helicopter is just cool.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.