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Beat Up and Beautiful

In praise of the well-worn airplane.

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.

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