I wait quietly by the door while Ed Mautner fishes for the light switch. Already in the dimness I can see wonderful things.
When the overheads flicker on, I am surrounded by legends: early jets, high-altitude reconnaissance birds, weird one-of-a-kind prototypes, airplanes touched by history, airplanes untouched by history, oddballs, old favorites. And these airplanes are real, just as real as time, war, and luck have left them—busted wing fabric, “oil canned” sheet metal, looted instrument panels, rotten rubber, fogged plexiglass, exploded seat cushions, and peeling layers of paint. Most museums show old airplanes buffed and polished as if they were fresh out of the box. But this isn’t a museum, exactly.
We are at the semi-legendary Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility, a cluster of charmless government warehouses east of Washington, D.C., in the town of Suitland, Maryland. This warehouse and the others that Mautner and I are exploring mostly contain airplanes that the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum can’t currently display or that are too rough to show, too large to assemble, or too minor to command display space at the building on the Mall.
Over here is a World War I Curtiss Jenny turned tobacco brown by time but still all there—tombstone-shaped radiator, box kite wings, and those half-circle wing skids that barnstorming wingwalkers couldn’t resist. And that, of course, is a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter: There’s the goofy nose, the twin boom tail, and the long, tall stalk of the nose wheel, which reminds me of a heron waiting for dinner to swim past. Across the aisle there’s a great bruiser of a Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber, with its immense propeller and chunky ball turret.
Most of these aircraft had their heyday well before my time, but still I would know them anywhere. I shared my boyhood bedroom with these airplanes, all in plastic, modeled in 1/72 scale. My fingerprints were all over them, preserved in glue on the “clear” canopies or smeared into the paint job because I couldn’t wait for the wings to dry. I had to touch them, had to hold them up at arm’s length and half-close my eyes and slowly twirl around, deploying them on imaginary missions of great danger and daring.
Sometimes, inadvertently, it was my mother’s dusting that launched them. It was heartbreaking to see my childish craftsmanship smashed, but secretly I had to admit: Crashing improved them. At the ends of their plastic lives, propeller blades gone, gun barrels snapped short, and landing gear lost, their true characters emerged more clearly. The Zero showed its Zero-ness; the Flying Fortress was a stout citadel with wings.
The Garber facility is the full-size equivalent of a kid’s bedroom filled with bashed-up models, propellers snapped off, paint smeared. And that’s why I’ve come here. I have this theory that hard use reveals true character. I expect that, like the stripped-down model airplanes of my youth, these battered survivors will shine more brightly through dirt and damage.
The Garber facility was never intended to showcase old aircraft. It was barely intended at all. In 1947, its namesake, Paul Garber, was made the nominal head of a theoretical National Air Museum. The Smithsonian already had some historic aircraft, but the core of the future museum was to be drawn from a collection of Axis and Allied aircraft that General Hap Arnold of the U.S. Army Air Forces had acquired during World War II. The collection was stored at an unused factory at Park Ridge, outside Chicago, and Arnold promised that once the military had wrung out the last secret of the Axis aircraft, he’d donate the whole shebang to the Smithsonian and to an Air Force museum. When the Korean War erupted in 1950, the Air Force decided to use the Park Ridge facility for producing aircraft, and ordered the Smithsonian to remove the aircraft stored there.
Garber managed to spirit away around 100 airplanes, both Allied and Axis, to a federal tract of land at Suitland. The rest went for scrap (a memory that today causes aviation historians to wince). The ones that made it to Suitland were not all that better off. They were delivered rough and fast, wings unbolted, instrument panels plucked clean, some on storage stands, some on their own wobbly wheels. With no real budget, Garber could do little more than park his treasures in unheated warehouses or right out in the open.
The years passed. Trees grew up right through the old warbirds. Snakes nested in cockpits. Mice flourished in gun turrets. Peace came. War came again.