Over the last half-century, the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland, has restored some of the rarest and most important aircraft in history: a Northrop Flying Wing, the B-29 that bombed Hiroshima, a World War I-era Nieuport 28C fighter. The Garber complex has played as crucial a role in preserving aerospace history as its spiffier counterparts, the National Air and Space Museum on the Washington, D.C. Mall and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. But in some ways, Garber is also like the Land of the Misfit Toys. Dark, dusty hangars house broken, battered pieces of equipment and aircraft waiting—often for years—for their moment to be brought back to life.
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When the time comes, each aircraft is hauled out and taken apart, often down to the tiniest screw, and that is how the restoration team ends up discovering stowaways—unexpected objects hidden in nooks and crannies, sometimes dating back to the earliest days of the aircraft.
Depending on their relationship to the aircraft that hosted them, these accidental artifacts fall into three general categories.
Details That Tell the Tale
Sometimes the Garber restorers come across objects that help flesh out the story of the aircraft, much the way little details make a scene in a novel easier to picture. Museum Specialist Bob McLean came across such an artifact while helping to restore the Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae, renowned as the aircraft in which Wiley Post made the first two solo flights around the globe, in 1931 and 1933. The airplane had been donated to the Smithsonian in 1936, a year after Post had died. While in the cockpit, McLean stumbled on an oil-soaked scrap of paper. "At first I thought it was just a receipt," he says. "But if you look closely, you can make out [numbers signifying] winds aloft and stations out west." So far, it's not known whether the handwriting is indeed Post's.
In the case of the Museum's Martin B-26 Marauder, Flak Bait, the Garber restorers unearthed artifacts in it that serve as reminders of the bomber's unusually violent career.
Flak Bait survived a formidable 207 missions over Europe, more than any other U.S. aircraft during World War II. And it has more than 1,000 patched flak holes to show for it. But though it could take plenty of punishment from the Germans, it was intolerant of abuse from its own pilots. "It was considered a very dangerous aircraft to fly because it was so unforgiving," says Museum Specialist Matt Nazzaro. "It had very high wing loading and was very fast for a medium bomber. Any pilot who commanded one would swear by the airplane, but if you made one critical mistake, there was no forgiveness."
In the course of surveying Flak Bait, the Garber restorers uncovered several paper clock faces pasted on the bulkheads. Nazzaro believes these were used to orient crew members when they spotted an enemy aircraft. "If they were disoriented, they could just look at the clock and properly communicate where the enemy was: ‘Bandit at two o'clock,' for example."
When the restorers removed the rear fuselage cabin floor, they discovered four .50-caliber shell casings, marked with a 1942 manufacturing date. Nazzaro believes the bullets were fired "probably from the waist guns" of the bomber.
Flak Bait's entire floor was covered with 10-millimeter-thick armor plating. "It was like a high-grade-steel throw rug," says Nazzaro. "It slowed down the airplane because it was so heavy, but it was necessary to prevent flak from coming up through the floor and killing people." When they pulled up the armor plating, Nazzaro says, the restorers found "mud from airfields 50 years back under there."
They also saw wooden matches strewn everywhere, as well as automobile ashtrays riveted to the interior. "These guys were smoking their brains out," Nazzaro says. "After a dangerous mission like the ones they flew, wouldn't you?"