Beat Up and Beautiful
In praise of the well-worn airplane.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
(Page 2 of 6)
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.