Written By: Liz Ronk

In 1952, 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, 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, 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.

The Statue of Liberty photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

The Statue of Liberty photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

The George Washington Bridge photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

The George Washington Bridge photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Midtown Manhattan (with the entrance to a cross-river tunnel visible at lower left) photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Midtown Manhattan (with the entrance to a cross-river tunnel visible at lower left) photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Columbus Circle, New York City, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Columbus Circle, New York City, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Coney Island, Brooklyn, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Coney Island, New York, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

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.

This near-drowning of a Coney Island bather named Mary Eschner drew a knot of people. The reviving victim , at the center of the circle, was attended by lifeguards.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Location unknown (New York State), photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

New York state, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Back Bay, Virginia, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Back Bay, Virginia, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Trains after snowfall, Chicago, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Trains after snowfall, Chicago, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

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.

A grain elevator, operated by the Norris Grain Co. on the southeast side of Chicago, unloaded corn from a lake boat in a Calumet River slip (right foreground). In the freight yards (background) snow-covered gondola cars were loaded with coal.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

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.

The Chicago River, crossed by the Michigan Avenue bridge.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Aerial view of Pittsburgh Steamship Co. ship carrying ore to US Steel plant. Gary, Indiana, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

A Pittsburgh Steamship Co. ship carried ore to the US Steel plant. Gary, Indiana,

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Gary, Indiana, steel plant, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

A steel plant, Gary, Indiana.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Water skiers and motorboats speed across the water, Long Beach, Calif., photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Water skiers and motorboats sped across the water, Long Beach, Calif.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Freight train traveling through the El Cajon Pass outside San Diego, Calif., photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

A freight train traveled through the El Cajon Pass outside San Diego, Calif., 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Coronado Hotel and its surroundings, San Diego, Calif., photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

The Coronado Hotel and its surroundings, San Diego, Calif.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Golden Gate Bridge, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

The Golden Gate Bridge, photographed from a helicopter in 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Ocean Beach, San Francisco, Calif., photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Ocean Beach, San Francisco, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Farm workers harvesting onions, Burbank, California, photographed from a helicopter, 1952.

Farm workers harvested onions, Burbank, California, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Beach riders guided their horses along the shore at high tide near Fort Funston, Calif.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

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.

Over the Texas star on the San Jacinto Monument near Houston, the helicopter-borne camera looked sharply down the 570-foot shaft to the steps and parking lot below. The tower marked the spot where Sam Houston defeated General Santa Anna in 1836.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter

Margaret Bourke-White hung from Navy helicopter to photograph rescue work.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter

LIFE photographer Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter

Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter.

Margaret Bourke-White in a helicopter.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

Margaret Bourke-White stands before a helicopter with two unidentified men, 195

Margaret Bourke-White stands before a helicopter with two unidentified men, 1952.

Margaret Bourke-White/Life Pictures/Shutterstock

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