Walter Mittelholzer recognized how aviation could transform everyday life during the First World War. He was a pioneering pilot, travel writer, and photographer. By using aviation to discover and document the world, he successfully merged his interests into one singular passion.
Mittelholzer grew up in Switzerland. The Swiss remained neutral during the First World War. He observed the use of aircraft in warfare. As soon as he understood the concept of aviation, he realized that people would be able to travel freely and efficiently around the globe. He learned to fly in 1917. He became a military pilot in 1918. He formed a photographic and aviation company with Alfred Comte. Comte was an aviation pioneer and enthusiast. They offered passenger flights to various destinations. Mittelholzer took aerial photographs of the countries they traveled through during their flight. These were some of the very first aerial photographs taken.
In 1920, Comte and Mittelholzer merged their airline with the Zürich-based airline Ad Astra Aero. This new venture eventually became Swiss Air. Mittelholzer achieved many aviation firsts during the 1920s. He was the first pilot to fly over Kilimanjaro, the first to fly over Mount Etna, the first to fly north-to-south over the continent of Africa in 77 days, and the first to document his flights with aerial photography and film. Mittelholzer planned to document the world from the Air long before Google Maps. However, he never succeeded. He died while climbing in Austria.
Mittelholzer produced over 18,500 photographs in his lifetime. These are now housed at ETH Library’s image archive in Zürich, Switzerland. They remapped our visual understanding of the world. For the first time, people could see the land they lived on.