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Beat Up and Beautiful

In praise of the well-worn airplane.

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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.

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