History of aeronautics laid out in Suitland museum


January 12, 1992|By Paul and Sunita Cooke

SUITLAND -- Here on Silver Hill in the quiet Maryland suburbs the gleaming, cigar-shaped fuselage of the infamous Enola Gay lies harmless, the once-mighty B-29 bomber cut into pieces and eviscerated of its avionics.

But the aircraft, which dropped the atomic bomb Little Boy on Hiroshima Aug. 6, 1945, is in good hands. And in 1995 the historic bomber will re-emerge from its present drafty quarters looking just as it did on that fateful August day -- right down to the last perfectly restored cockpit dial and control wire.

The Enola Gay is one of 344 pioneers of the air that have been saved and brought to life at the Smithsonian Institution's Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland.

Founded in the mid-1950s and opened to the public in the 1970s, the Garber facility was created to carry out the U.S. congressional mandate to the National Air and Space Museum: "To display aeronautical equipment of historic interest."

But while the first responsibility of the Garber facility and its staff of 29 specialists is the painstaking work of collecting, restoring and preserving historic aircraft, docents at the facility also lead daily guided tours through four of the facility's 25 two-story, aluminum-sided warehouses. The two- to three-hour tours visit 150 air- and spacecraft in various stages of restoration, including the Enola Gay. The collection here totals 270 aircraft; 74 others are exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall in Washington.

Visitors begin their journey though aviation history as they enter the gate guarded by a submarine-launched Polaris Missile. In the foyer under glass is the telegram the Smithsonian sent to Charles Lindbergh in Paris, congratulating him on the first trans-Atlantic flight and expressing hopes that one day the Spirit of St. Louis will make the Smithsonian its final home. Today Lindbergh's airplane, a cornerstone of the collection, is on display at the museum on the Mall.

The tours wind their way around the aircraft, missiles and spacecraft that fill every corner and hang from every available rafter. A walkway built of wooden 4-by-4s separates visitors from the craftsmen, staff and volunteers who turn metal lathes, catalog parts, paint wings and assemble thousands of individual pieces. On average, the facility restores only one-half an aircraft per year, putting up to 35,000 labor hours into a single plane.

When an aircraft is brought in to be restored, the team begins by taking a series of still photographs and videotapes to document the color, design and condition. They also refer to historical design documents and archived photographic records. Throughout the restoration process, Richard Horigan, shop foreman at the Garber facility, and his team keep detailed daily journals documenting their progress.

The purpose, says Mr. Horigan, is to archive the information for future generations. "A hundred years from now craftsmen won't need to tear down these planes to learn what we've already discovered."

With this kind of care, can these planes fly?

"Yes and no," says Mr. Horigan. "Ninety-nine percent of the original aircraft is restored but parts like hoses and spark plugs are probably too old to hold up. Plus the oil and fuel tanks have preservatives in them."

Both foreign and American planes are found here, many of them aeronautical firsts. A group of visitors clusters around the vintage 1944 German Blitz (Arado model AR-234B), the first jet bomber, listening to the docent explain that the plane had almost no impact on World War II because of its limited bomb capacity and range.

The first flying-wing airplane, the Northrop N1M, a bat-wing design, is also here. Built nearly 50 years ago, it was successfully tested in 1942-'43. The Army ordered production models, but the war ended before this space-age design saw combat.

In fact, all the production flying-wing bombers were victim to political squabbles and were destroyed on the ramp. Luckily, the test vehicle survived, to become the grandfather of the Northrop B-2 stealth bomber.

A more recent restoration is a French Voisin Model 8, the first night bomber ever built. Painted on the nose is an insignia of a black-winged devil against a bright red sun.

The single-seat Voisin flew World War I bombing missions with almost no night navigation or bombing aids, a primitive forerunner of its American cousin born 65 years later, the Lockheed F-117 stealth fighter.

The Voisin Model 8 has been moved to the recently opened World War I gallery in the Air and Space Museum. And someday, the F-117 will take its place in history, following the Voisin's trail to the Garber facility.

According to Mr. Horigan, the choice of airplanes and spacecraft to be restored depends on both uniqueness of design and technological innovation.

An example of the former is the Japanese Aichi model M6A1 Seiran, of which just 12 were built in the last year of World War II in a daring plot to destroy the Panama Canal.

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