Beat Up and Beautiful
In praise of the well-worn airplane.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2001
(Page 3 of 6)
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.”