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Beat Up and Beautiful

In praise of the well-worn airplane.

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.

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