THE PAUL E. GARBER CENTER
AIRPLANE BUFFS' DELIGHT
BEFORE THERE WAS DULLES THERE WAS GARBER
January 1, 1970
This article appeared in the New York Times Travel Section. The Garber Center was the forrunner of the Air & Space Museum's new Dulles Center
My first glimpse of Enola Gay was haunting. She seemed shrunken. Her forward fuselage was propped on stands and was without wings and tail section. Still, she loomed in the dim, eerie light of her storage hangar as the specter of an immense historical event.
Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, was undergoing restoration at the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, MD., on my first visit there in 1993. Garber is a modest-looking place comprised of a series of salmon-colored, hangar-like sheds 20 minutes by car from downtown Washington, D.C. A visitor might miss this treasure-trove of aviation history and technology were it not for an old Polaris missile standing upright at the entrance.
Garber houses much of the vast reserve collection of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum (NASM). The artifacts include planes, engines, wheels, rockets and spacecraft. Few people know of Garber’s existence even though it is open for free tours every day except Christmas. The Smithsonian doesn’t advertise Garber in its brochure of museums in and around the nation’s capital. But word seeps out to anyone interested in aviation history. And they come - from all over the world - with good reason.
Imagine touring the Louvre and being taken on a behind-the-scenes tour to observe the undisplayed art, to watch the ongoing restoration of great works and to have it all explained by expert guides with comments from accomplished artists in the tour group. In the realm of aviation history, this is what happens at Garber.
“Tourists visit the National Air and Space Museum,” says docent Gene Ganssle, a retired aircraft and spacecraft designer who leads tours through Garber. “Buffs come to Garber.”
They are more than buffs. Many in the tour groups, limited to about 25, are former pilots, aerospace designers, and engineers of all types who are captivated by the lore of flight. Most are not shy about relating their knowledge during the tours. Indeed, they are encouraged to talk and a tour of Garber can become a seminar on aviation design and history.
Fred Zilly, a former Air Force colonel from Long Island and now retired in Sarasota, Fla., flew P-47s in WWII and F-86s during the Korean War. On one recent tour Zilly remembered the characteristics of the old Sabre Jet of the type restored and on display at Garber. “The F-86 was the last of the sports cars,” he proclaimed.
A retired engineer for General Electric discussed the fine points of a displayed Rolls Royce Merlin engine of Spitfire fame and was delighted to explain the workings of a jet engine he helped design in the 1960s.
Many of the docents, all volunteers, also are from the field of aviation. Bill Ecker flew Grumman Cougar fighters similar to the one displayed at Garber. One former docent, Mary Feit, a civilian instructor in the old Army Air Corps, learned to fly P-51 fighters during WWII. But it was the Douglas A-26 Invader of that era, similar to the one awaiting restoration at Garber, that she loves best. “Oh, that is one of the sweetest airplanes ever built,” she recalled recently as she bent over the wing of a Pitts Special on which she was the fabric specialist.
An RAF Hurrican trainer is meticulously restored at Garber
Most of the planes and artifacts displayed at NASM are restored at Garber. Work on Enola Gay began in 1983 and is still not complete. The controversial exhibit about the plane and the bombing that opened at NASM in 1995, includes only the forward fuselage and bomb bays, the vertical fin, two engines with propellers and an actual bomb casing of “Little Boy,” the uranium bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Thousands of disassembled pieces of the plane, from nuts and bolts, landing struts, wheels, and the rear portion of the fuselage, remain at Garber. They will not be assembled until Garber is moved to a huge new facility adjacent to Dullas International Airport outside Washington that is scheduled to open in 2001. There will be room there to display the entire aircraft as well as other historic planes.
The Smithsonian maintains a collection of 376 aircraft of which 186 are at Garber, all in various stages of restoration. Those not at NASM or Garber are on loan to other aviation museums. Some of the planes at Garber are in bad shape. Some are in near pristine condition.
The beauty of the Garber facility is that tour groups have the facility virtually to themselves. Tours last about three hours as they wind through the hangar-like buildings where planes and artifacts are stored. Some of the planes, such as the F-86 and a German WW II Focke-Wulf 190, have been restored.
Also restored are scores of civilian planes including Roscoe Turner’s RT-14 Meteor. Turner was the flamboyant barnstormer of the 1920s and racing pilot of the 1930s who broke numerous speed record, many while flying with his sidekick, the lion Gilmore. Gilmore, now stuffed and preserved in cold storage at Garber, is displayed once a year during the facility’s open house.
Many of the planes await restoration like “Swoose,” the last B-17D. Swoose was slapped together from the parts of several B-17s destroyed by Japanese air attacks on the Philippines in December, 1941. She got her name because her crew thought of her as a hybrid - part goose, part swan. Lyndon Johnson was once a passenger during the war, and her wartime pilot, Col. Frank Kurtz, named his daughter, the actress Swoosie Kurtz, after the plane.
A tour of Garber is a tour through aviation history. It starts with some of the earliest fabric and wood frame planes and progresses to modern jets and rockets. Many of the planes and artifacts are from the military because Paul Garber, the Smithsonian’s late Historian Emeritus, acquired the Air Force’s collection of captured enemy planes from WWII. Most were destined for the scrap yard had they not been donated to the Smithsonian.
Among the captured planes is a German Arado, the world’s first jet bomber that flew high altitude reconnaissance missions over Great Britain at the end of the war. This last remaining Arado has been completely restored and is prominently displayed.
Also included is the German Focke-Wulf 190. Her history came to light during restoration. Selective sanding revealed a chevron on her left wing, indicating she had once been stationed in Hungary. It also uncovered a spotted winter camouflage for the Russian front. By studying her serial numbers Garber technicians learned that she had been transformed from a fighter to a fighter-bomber about 1944.
The heart of Garber is building 10 where the restorations take place. Technicians are currently at work on an Aichi Serian, a WWII Japanese seaplane, a Hawker Hurricane of Battle of Britain fame, a Nieuport, WWI French fighter, and a Pitts Special named “Little Stinker.” Visitors are allowed time to observe the restorations and chat with the technicians, many of whom are volunteers.
The restorations are labors of love and often take years. Technicians were working on the Hurricane when I first visited Garber in 1993. They were still at work on the plane in 1997, although the job is nearing completion.
Bill Reese, chief of restoration, notes that the purpose of Garber’s work is to preserve history, not to restore planes to flying condition. They will never fly again. Historically accurate restoration can mean preserving the scuff marks from the pilot’s boots on the cockpit floor and the perspiration marks on the seat armrests.
Technicians restoring the Nieuport were flabbergasted when they disassembled the WWI fighter that once flew in the movie Dawn Patrol with David Niven. Over the years she had been badly rebuilt. Her wings came from another Nieuport, the fabric covering was not the right material, and her wings had been rebuilt with mahogany rather than the original birch plywood. And her engine cowling came from a different type of aircraft. She will be put right.
Tour groups get down with the technicians, observe and ask questions. The work may seem intriguing to outsiders, “but in truth it can be very tedious, hard, and sometimes extremely boring,” says Reese. Karl Heinzel, a technician, agrees. One of his jobs was polishing the outer skin of Enola Gay. “We polished for two years and polishing stinks,” Heinzel. But he speaks with a smile. The technicians love their work.
There is a sense of experiencing history, not viewing it, when visiting Garber. This is particularly true around a plane like Enola Gay. She shows her soul when not dressed up for exhibition. I got close enough to sniff the hydraulic smell of this old bird and peered into her bomb bays and the rear gunner’s position in the aft section of the fuselage.
It was from this “stinger” position on the morning of August 6, 1945, as Enola Gay swung violently away from Hiroshima to avoid the bomb’s shock wave, that the rear gunner witnessed the horrible blast that forever changed the world. For an instant, I was there too.
David P. Colley