Viewport: A Matter of Scale
- By J.R. Dailey
- Air & Space magazine, January 2002
PEOPLE OFTEN SPEND THEIR FIRST moments in the National Air and Space Museum looking up. Above them hang such aviation treasures as the 1903 Wright Flyer and Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. These machines dazzle visitors because they're the real thing—the actual airplanes that made history. But as visitors explore the rest of the Museum, they find a trove of smaller treasures: the exquisitely crafted model aircraft that help to explain in a more intimate way the history and technology of aviation.
The National Air and Space Museum's aircraft collection is the largest and finest in the world, but without models we could not tell the whole story of aviation. Model aircraft have played a significant role in our exhibits since Secretary Samuel P. Langley helped the Smithsonian become the nation's foremost repository of aviation artifacts. Paul E. Garber joined the Smithsonian as an exhibit creator. One of his first assignments was to build replicas of World War I military aircraft, and by the eve of World War II, he had built or collected hundreds of models.
In the 1930s, aeromodeling flourished. Educators and the military encouraged the activity to introduce aircraft designs and future pilots to the world of aviation. At Smithsonian-sponsored model aircraft contests, Paul Garber served as chief judge, and he persuaded several winners to donate their models to the Museum.
During World War II, Garber accepted a Navy commission and worked closely with the Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics in two programs to produce recognition models for the U.S. military. In one, high school students carved wooden models using templates and materials that Garber ensured were accurate. In the other, Cruver Company of Chicago used injection molding to mass-produce models. By the time the program ended in 1961, more than a million models had been produced. Afterward, the models became the collector's items, sparking a brisk trade well into the 1960s. One of the largest collections is on display in the World War II Aviation Gallery.
After the war, Congress authorized a National Air Museum to house the Smithsonian's collection, bolstered by scores of military aircraft, U.S. and foreign, donated to the Museum in 1946. The Museum was finally funded in the 1970s. Garber and his colleagues had most of the models they needed, but others remained to be built. Fortunately, exhibit model-making had been evolving toward an extraordinary high standard. Two examples are Arlo Schroeder's 1/16-scale model of a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bomber in the Sea-Air Operations Gallery and Steven Henniger's massive 1/100-scale model of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, complete with its contingent of aircraft.
Today the collection has grown to over 3,000 models. Many important aircraft no longer exist, some cannot be acquired, and some are too large to fit in the galleries. In fact, the majority of the collection remains in storage at the Paul E. Garber Facility in Suitland, Maryland. The opening of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport will change that, but models will continue to be critically important at both the Hazy Center and the Museum on the Mall.