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Beat Up and Beautiful

In praise of the well-worn airplane.

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.

A small group of employees detailed to the site did what preservation they could. And the facility began offering small group tours. It was catch-as-catch-can tourism; you never knew exactly what would be accessible. Over here: the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Over there: a Platt-LePage XR-1, an early helicopter that some consider the ugliest aircraft ever flown. Until recently, the warehouses were either hot and steamy or cold and wet. The insect and rodent life was bountiful. Visitors never seemed to mind.

Eventually, a National Air and Space Museum was funded. For the 1976 opening of the new building on the Mall, Garber’s best airplanes were spruced up and sent downtown. The aircraft left behind were sorted into the immediately restorable, the restorable later, and the hard cases. I’d come to see the hard cases.

Ed Mautner is the ideal companion for my tour. In mid-life he went from auto racing to aerospace manufacturing to training in museum studies. Three years ago Mautner left Southern California to accept an offer from the Garber facility to become a jack of all the strange trades required for working on antique aircraft. He prefaces our tour with a disclaimer: He is just one of the guys in the trenches, and nothing he says here reflects the official opinions, plans, or intentions of NASM or any other federal agency, etc., etc. Understood.

We settle into a game of “What do you do with this airplane?” It’s a game with no right answer; as NASM collections chief Tom Alison says: “If you have 10 aircraft preservationists or conservationists in one room, you’ll have 10 philosophies.”

We start with the P-38—a J model, the first Lightning with “chin” intercooler ducts under the spinners. Still in its Army Air Forces colors, this one looks as if it had landed at Garber on a direct flight from 1945.

I’d always thought Lightnings were exotic creatures, high-strung thoroughbreds, but this example stands here dutifully, like an old cavalry nag in its stall. Maybe that’s appropriate: Lightnings fought like cavalry nags, lumbering along over both the European and the Pacific theaters as bomber escorts, their twin engines reassuring pilots that they would make it back to the barn. Lightnings were the perfect mount for a fight far from home, ready to take a pounding and return it, doubled. With their turbo superchargers and counter-rotating propellers, P-38s were remarkably complex machines for their time, but this forgotten Model J reminds me that World War II was a time when frontline fighters lived in fields like horses. The old fighter looks as if it would be perfectly at home on a strip hacked out of the New Guinea jungle or scraped into a Sicilian pasture.

In fact, this Model J survived precisely because it never had to endure such hardship posts. “It was never in combat. It was always Stateside,” Mautner says of the Garber specimen. Manufactured fairly late in the war, it was assigned to serve as a home-front trainer and squadron hack.

The truth about World War II airplanes, Mautner explains, is that the ones used in combat rarely survived. Even when their distinguished pilots or crews were sent home to retrain or to sell war bonds, famous craft were usually left behind for other squadrons to commandeer or plunder for parts. The “warbirds” that survived to our time are more often like this one, Stateside trainers and other stay-behinds. This example has no guns, no distinctive fighter squadron markings, no personalized war paint. It’s a drab, brown shoe, government issue airplane.

“If we’d been preparing this airplane in the 1970s for the new Air and Space Museum,” says Mautner, “we might have painted it up like Dick Bong’s Marge or Tommy McGuire’s Pudgy [the former pilot shot down 40 Japanese airplanes, a U.S. war record; the latter, 38]. We’d have stripped all that off and painted it up with standard olive drab. It would have been a soup-to-nuts restoration and it would have knocked your socks off. Today, the philosophy is ‘Hey, this aircraft was never Marge; it was never Pudgy. While it’s never been in combat, it’s a very good example of a P-38J.’ And it has its original paint, so my thinking would be to clean it up and do some touch up, especially in the cockpit, but basically, wash it and display it.”

Increasingly, aircraft restoration is about restraint. Consider two of Garber’s World War I biplanes: the tobacco brown Curtiss Jenny JN-4D and a Caudron G-4, a two-engine bomber that France sent to the U.S. War Department for testing, though the armistice left it high and dry. The War Department turned over both airplanes to the Smithsonian, and in 1919 they were hoisted to the ceiling of the Arts and Industries building on the Mall. Eventually, both craft were lowered to the ground and sent to Garber—the Caudron in the 1960s and the Jenny in the early 1970s.

Back then, restorers might well have stripped the faded and brittle biplanes’ original wing fabric, sanded the original wood struts clean of the original shellac, and redone the paint jobs in blazing color. Today that would be considered too aggressive. “We’re not just trying to save the shape or the appearance of the object,” says Mautner. “What we’re trying to save is the technology of what went on there. How did they finish their aircraft? What type of varnishes? What type of shellac?”

Curators are also interested in how aircraft were repaired. In the early days of aviation, when wing fabric developed holes, they were commonly patched. So for the Jenny, an authentic-looking patch job would be part of a historically accurate restoration. That, plus a gentle wash and a coat of protective wax, is all that Mautner would recommend.

The Caudron, one of only two G-4s left in the world, is in worse shape: Workmen readying the craft for its first display punched holes in its wings, and perforated oil tanks in the engine nacelles. The line to follow here, suggests Mautner, is to save everything old for future study, make sure the curatorial file documents every new thing added, and make any new work reversible.

We move on to the Sikorsky XR-5, a helicopter with tandem seating and a bulbous nose bubble that gives it the look of a praying mantis. This was the prototype of what later became the S-51 and the R-5; serving in the Korean War, these were the first helicopters that the military operated in any numbers. The XR-5’s biggest cosmetic problem is that its plexiglass is cracked and hazed. The cracked panel would have to be replaced, but “this stuff,” says Mautner, tapping an example of the hazing, which makes the elderly helicopter look like it has a cataract, “will polish right out.”

Wear and tear like that usually reflects nothing more than routine operation. But what should you do when the damage has historic significance? “Let’s say we could go back and get the Red Baron’s triplane that he crashed in when he was killed,” says Mautner. “Do you repair it and set it up the way it probably looked before the crash, or do you display it as a crash?” The choice is not farfetched. Some European museums display wrecks in settings that carefully re-create how the aircraft were found in deep jungle or even underwater. Showing off an airplane in all its battered beauty can serve as an eloquent lesson in aviation history.

At a museum like NASM, though, many visitors come expecting to see aircraft as they once appeared; they would be disappointed by displays that centered on impeccably preserved wrecks. “We are caught here between a mandate to preserve and an ethical obligation to exhibit,” says Mautner.

On the other hand, you don’t want to improve the past, “preserving” something that never existed: a Japanese kamikaze plane shored up with composite materials, say, or a 1918 Jenny with wings recovered in polyester. That philosophy is exemplified at Garber by a recently completed restoration project, the world’s only surviving Aichi Seiran (see “The Japanese Connection,” p. 20). The Seiran is a strange Imperial Japanese floatplane bomber that was designed to fold up and be stuffed in a huge “floating hangar” submarine. The idea was for the sub to surface off the coast of Panama, unpack its three folding bombers, and launch them at the unsuspecting canal. In the war’s final weeks, two carrier submarines were deployed, although their only attempt to mount a Seiran attack against the U.S. fleet ended in pilot confusion, the scuttling of the aircraft, and the eventual capture of the subs.

Mautner tells me that in the course of replacing corroded float panels, the Garber restorers occasionally “toe-nailed” a rivet—accidentally set it at an improper angle. Instead of drilling them out and replacing them, the workers left them, as they matched many of the rivets in the original panels. The craft was built in 1945, riveted together by teenagers, women, and elderly men working with lousy tools, bad materials, and little training. “This is part of what you want to tell people about the social conditions in Japan at the end of the World War II,” says Mautner.

In rivets, you can see the fate of warring nations. Compare the Seiran’s botched rivets, says Mautner, to those in the B-29 Enola Gay. That bomber was built at roughly the same time as the Seiran but a world away, by well-equipped Boeing workers being watched by well-trained Boeing inspectors, all of whom went home between shifts to unbombed beds in Seattle or Wichita. The B-29 rivets are a work of industrial art.

To continue our comparison, we check out one of Germany’s “wonder weapons,” the Gotha Go 229 twin-jet fighter, which the Allies captured at the Gotha factory in 1945. “I think they built two of these twin-jet versions,” says Mautner. “One crashed and we have the other one.” The craft is a striking mix of high tech and low: On the one hand, the flying wing was far ahead of similar designs by other nations; on the other hand, because Gotha made the airplane in 1945, when Germany was crippled by the war, it had to use plywood for the wing surfaces; today, those are badly delaminated.

We head for the warehouse that holds a Focke Wulf Ta 152, which was to be Germany’s answer to expected B-29 raids. A high-altitude interceptor with a monster supercharged Jumo inline engine, the Ta 152 was an Fw 190 on steroids. The airplane is actually a hybrid: a metal Fw 190 fuselage from the nose to behind the cockpit, and wood beyond that. “It was an awesome airplane,” Mautner says. “We had the American test pilot here who evaluated it after the war. He said it was one of the best late-war fighters he’d ever flown.”

Mautner opens a small service hatch in the swastika-adorned tail. To construct the wooden sections, Focke Wulf brought in cabinetmakers, who lengthened the fuselage to position the control surfaces farther back. Even though the work was done in the final months of the Third Reich, it is beautiful—what you’d expect to find on a desk, not a warplane.

I step back to study the tail. There are so many layers of paint—real ones, fakes ones—they bleed into one another, an effect that in old masters’ paintings is called pentimento. The most visible swastika, says Mautner, is a fake, probably painted on by U.S. ground crews caring for Arnold’s collection. Displaying the craft in this shape would not help museum visitors learn what a German fighter looked like. I suddenly see the limits of my “battered is better” philosophy. Sometimes battered is just botched.

Restoration, on the other hand, can be a hall of mirrors. Just when you think you know which way is in and which way out, the situation changes. Garber has a North American F-100 Super Sabre that served in Vietnam and later was flown by the Michigan Air National Guard. The aircraft is in decent condition; all the museum plans to do is remove its post-Vietnam modifications, sand off the Air Guard tail markings, and repaint the Vietnam-era markings. But what if another F-100 turns up, one in worse condition but with a more historically significant combat record? Which would be better to restore and display?

We move on to another curatorial dilemma: Garber’s Grumman TBF-1 Avenger—a big, slow, homely torpedo bomber. Mautner walks around to point out an observer’s blister that was built into the side at the Grumman plant. It’s found only on the Avengers that the United States supplied to the British for their Fleet Air Arm. The aircraft’s provenance is largely unknown, but this much is clear: It was indeed built for the British, who called the variant the Tarpon I; it never saw combat; and it was eventually sent to the U.S. Navy, either during the war or soon after. Somewhere along the way, the original wings were replaced with wings from two different Avengers; neither is correct for this variant. The nose gun mounts are original, but the troughs—the notches they poked out of—have been faired over. As for the paint job, it is a peeling mess. When I put my head close to the metal and sight along the fuselage, I can see the ghosts of two sets of U.S. stars-and-bars, plus remnants of what appears to be a British roundel. All of these markings were accurate at various times, reflecting the aircraft’s different roles over the years. So which identity should the airplane be restored to?

“In the past,” says Mautner, “there was a tendency to refinish an aircraft in the way you wanted it to look, and the temptation here would be to make it look like President Bush’s airplane. The temptation would be to remove this”—he pats the observer’s blister—“and make it into an American version, but I think that’s something we’re getting away from. There’s an element of dishonesty involved because no matter how many placards you put up around it, there will be people who walk in and say, ‘Oh, that’s George Bush’s airplane!’ ” (I am reminded of my model building days, when each kit’s identity was truly plastic: You could paint your aircraft into different nationalities or production models.)

Yet another restoration dilemma: a JRS-1, a military version of the Sikorsky S-42 twin-engine flying boat. Sikorsky built some famous flying boats, but the S-42 is not one of them. So what’s this one doing here? Back on December 7, 1941, it was part of the U.S. Navy fleet, stationed at Pearl Harbor. Shortly after the attack it was sent out to find the Japanese fleet, and it came back in one piece. It was one of the few large aircraft that was airworthy after the Japanese had come through.

Even by Garber standards, the JRS-1 is in terrible condition: the fuselage a riot of markings and dents, the wing fabric in tatters, the interior stripped to bare bones. Unfortunately, the wounds do not come from its brush with history, but rather from long, hard use during the remainder of its wartime service, and its many years of storage at Garber. I can make out the ghosts of three or perhaps even four sets of U.S. markings. For the curators, the question is: Will careful sanding reveal the original colors and markings, or will the JRS-1 have to be repainted to reflect its 15 minutes of fame at Pearl Harbor? The answer will have to wait until a team is detailed to give the JRS-1 a new life as a museum exhibit. Someday…

As for today, it turns out to be the perfect moment to visit Garber. The place is doomed. The whole operation—collection, restoration shops, offices, and hard cases—is scheduled to move in 2003 to a new NASM museum at Dulles airport in northern Virginia—the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. The center will provide the room for famous air- and spacecraft that were too large to exhibit in their entirety, like the Enola Gay and the Martin B-26 Flak Bait, plus much of the Garber collection.

The Dulles operation will be bigger, cleaner, and far more accessible, but some will miss the old Garber. I understand that.

Here, in these gloriously cluttered backrooms, I come across the faces I’d learned in plastic as a boy: the chubby nose of a DC-3, the sinister eyes of a Messerschmitt Me 410, the blunt snout of a Northrop P-61 Black Widow. Despite the ravages of time and weather and use and neglect, I recognized them immediately.

And this is how so many veteran pilots, regardless of which war they fought in, remember the aircraft of their youths. So says Mautner, who has noticed them touring the warehouses and watched them grow silent at the sight of a banged-up machine, hunkering in bad light. Back in the South Pacific or Korea or “in country,” as the veterans say, this is how our squadron really looked.

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