Viewport: The Great Collector
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, May 2011
"Viewport," by National Air and Space Museum director J.R. Dailey, opens each issue of Air & Space magazine. The column highlights the Museum's ongoing efforts to preserve the history of aviation and spaceflight. This article appeared in the April/May 2011 issue of Air & Space.
Moving is stressful under any circumstances, but it’s especially tough when the objects you’re moving are priceless, easily damaged, and in need of “Wide Load” designations. As we at the National Air and Space Museum continue moving aircraft from our storage facility in Maryland to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in northern Virginia, I can’t help thinking about the man who had to move all those aircraft into the storage facility to begin with—on a very tight deadline.
Paul Edward Garber, as head curator of the newly created National Air Museum, was presented in 1946 with a wonderful gift and a difficult problem. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces, had gathered for the Museum 97 airplanes and 1,336 artifacts representing the advance of aviation during World War II. The responsibility of storing and protecting those artifacts fell to Garber.
By the end of 1948, he had found his warehouse: the Douglas Aircraft Company plant at Park Ridge, Illinois (later Chicago O’Hare International Airport). But no sooner had the collection been housed there than the Korean War forced the U.S. Air Force to re-claim the facility. In 1951, Garber learned he had about a year to move.
How he scrounged and finagled to acquire 21 acres of woodland in Suitland, Maryland, clear ground and get six metal Butler buildings erected, and move all those airplanes and artifacts into them is a story that still needs telling. But the whole country should be grateful that he had the skill and cunning to do it. One of the airplanes in that collection is the Arado Ar 234 B Blitz, the world’s first operational jet bomber—and the only survivor of its type. We tend to take for granted that one-of-a-kind aircraft will be preserved, but that isn’t always the case. Aviation museums face the eternal dilemma of too little space for too many artifacts, and Garber knew all too well the pain of having to return an object. In 1927, he returned to the Army the first U.S.-designed strategic bomber, built by the Glenn L. Martin Company, which had been in the Smithsonian collection. The Army eventually destroyed it, and no example remains today.
Paul Garber and the airplane grew up together, and like a good childhood friend, Garber stayed intensely interested in events that marked the airplane’s development. His interest was key in acquiring for the Museum the Spirit of St. Louis, Wiley Post’s Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae, the Curtiss R3C-2 racer, in which Army Lieutenant James Doolittle won the 1925 Schneider Cup Race, and other historic aircraft. We sometimes marvel at the number of aviation greats whom Garber met, and in this issue you can read about 25 of them. The magazine culled these 25 encounters as one way to celebrate its anniversary. For 25 years, the staff of Air & Space has brought stories of flight to readers across the country. Join me in wishing the magazine a happy 25th birthday by leaving a comment at the Web site airspacemag.com/covers.
J.R. Dailey is the director of the National Air and Space Museum.