In the Museum

Paul Garber: Eyewitness to History

During World War II, Navy Commander Paul Garber developed a target kite (bearing the silhouette of a Japanese aircraft) for U.S. Navy ship-to-air gunnery practice. (NASM (SI NEG. #SI-2002-12355~PM))
Air & Space Magazine

In 1920, while visiting the Smithsonian, a young Paul Garber noticed that the control wires of the 1909 Wright Military Flyer were incorrectly installed. After pointing this out to a curator, Garber was offered a three-month appointment. He ended up staying at the Smithsonian Institution for 72 years.

Garber was the Air Museum’s first curator, eventually becoming head curator, and then senior historian, before his death in 1992. It was Garber who accepted (and found housing for) the aircraft that U.S. Army Air Forces Commander Henry “Hap” Arnold donated to the Smithsonian after World War II—a large part of the Museum collection. He was born at the turn of the last century, just four years before the airplane, and managed throughout his lifetime either to witness the momentous events in aviation history or to meet the people responsible for them. On the occasion of the magazine’s 25th birthday, we’ve decided to select just 25 of the intersections between aviation and Paul Garber:

“My interest in kites dates from being patted on the head by one of the greatest kite flyers of all time, Alexander Graham Bell,” Garber recalled in a 1974 oral history now in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. The genius inventor lived up the street in Washington, D.C.; one day, as the 10-year-old Garber flew his kite along Connecticut Avenue, Bell walked by, saw that the kite was assembled incorrectly and fixed it on the spot.

At the 1925 International Air Races, Garber saw aviation legends Bert Acosta (chief pilot of Admiral Richard Byrd’s transatlantic flight) and Cyrus Bettis (winner of the 1925 Pulitzer speed race in a Curtiss R3C-1) fly at Mitchel Field on Long Island. “Bert Acosta flew an ancient bamboo outrigger hack over a leg of the race course," he wrote for U.S. Air Services that year. “Everyone was amused to see that ancient crate rattle by with the pilot sitting so far in front that he had to look around every now and then to make sure that the rest of the machine was coming along. Just as Acosta was passing the judges’ stand there was a rush of air overhead, a whine of vigorous power, a flash of vivid black and gold and Cy Bettis whizzed by on a practice flight flying seven feet to Bert’s one. As a bystander remarked, 'By golly, that's progress.' "

Just two weeks later, Garber was in Baltimore watching the Schneider Cup race, where he saw Army Lieutenant Jimmy Doolittle take the prize, with speeds averaging 232 mph. The aircraft, a Curtiss R3C-2, entered the Museum’s collection in 1927.

As a child, Garber rode his bike out to Maryland’s College Park airfield to watch the military pilots practice, a group that included one Henry “Hap” Arnold, the future five-star general of both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force.

As part of his early apprenticeship with the Smithsonian, Garber worked with R. Luther Reed, who had been the chief mechanic for Samuel Langley, the Smithsonian’s third Secretary. Garber helped Reed assemble and repair the Langley Aerodrome-A.

At the Smithsonian, Garber put on a display about airmail history with the help of Earle Ovington, who in 1911 piloted one of the first airmail flights in the United States.

On May 15, 1918, Garber stood among the crowds watching Army Air Corps Lieutenant George Boyle fly the first airmail out of Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, Boyle got lost not once but twice. Instead of heading for Philadelphia (the stop between Washington and New York), he crashed in rural Maryland.

That evening, Garber remained at the Polo Grounds until Lieutenant James Edgerton arrived from Philadelphia with the southbound mail. In the gathering dusk, cars were lined up and their headlights turned on so that Edgerton could land his aircraft safely.

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