Old Man and His Collection at the Air and Space Museum

The diminutive 91-year-old man walked from his office on the second floor of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and looked out over the huge Milestones of Flight Gallery where many of the world's most historic flying machines are on permanent exhibit.

Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis loomed above him. Suspended from the ceiling nearby was the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer of Kitty Hawk fame. Both are there because of this longtime friend of fliers and flying, Paul E. Garber.

Garber has had a hand in nearly every acquisition of the 385 historic airplanes in the Smithsonian Institution's collection. With 77 aircraft on display, the Air and Space Museum has the largest collection of historic airplanes and spacecraft anywhere in the world.

Since he went to work for the Smithsonian in 1920, Garber has been the driving force behind that collection. And, at 91, he's still at it. Five days a week, Garber continues to track down airplanes he considers vital to the collection and to oversee restorations.

In 1946, when Congress established the National Air Museum, Garber was named its first curator. Today, his title is Historian Emeritus, National Air and Space Museum.

Garber's interest in flying goes back almost as far as flying itself. He boasts a personal acquaintance with a number of famous fliers, including both Orville and Wilbur Wright.

When he was 9 years old, Garber watched Orville take off from Ft. Meyer, Va., for an hourlong demonstration flight. The plane he was flying--the Wright Brothers' 1909, two-seat Military Flyer--was the world's first military airplane and is now part of the Smithsonian collection.

"Did you know that the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer, the first powered airplane ever to fly, was in England for 20 years, from 1928 to 1948?" asked Garber, gazing with pride at the fragile wood, fabric, and wire flying machine that changed the world.

"Orville was upset because he thought he and Wilbur did not receive proper recognition for their historic flight, so he let the British have the airplane," Garber said. "I went to England and with the help of the U.S. Navy, brought the 1903 Flyer back. It was dismantled and placed aboard a vessel for shipment back to the Smithsonian where it rightfully belonged."

Before he went to work for the Smithsonian, Garber worked for the Airmail Service with Charles Lindbergh. When 25-year-old "Lucky Lindy" took off for Paris on the first nonstop flight across the Atlantic in May of 1927, Garber cabled his friend Lindbergh.

"I knew everybody in the world would be after the Spirit of St. Louis. I wired Lindbergh that the Smithsonian wanted the airplane when he was finished with it. After Lindbergh flew all over the U.S., Mexico and South America immediately following the Atlantic flight, he called me one day from an airfield in the Midwest and said: 'Paul, I'm flying the Spirit to Washington. You can have it.' "

Garber recalled the time years later when Lindbergh phoned to ask if he could come over and "sit in the Spirit." At the time, the plane was on exhibit in the Smithsonian Arts and Industry Building.

"It was near closing time when Lindbergh arrived. I suggested he wait until all the visitors left the museum. Then I got a tall double ladder and he climbed it to get into the airplane hanging from the ceiling," said Garber.

"I knew he wanted to be alone with his thoughts, so I went off and sat in a corner. Here was Lindbergh in his airplane and I with him, alone. What a moving experience. After about a half-hour, he leaned out the cockpit and called down: 'Hey, Paul. Will you hold onto the ladder for me. I'm ready to come down.' He thanked me for taking good care of his airplane."

Garber strolled over to the red Lockheed Vega in the Air and Space Museum. This is the airplane Amelia Earhart flew across the Atlantic five years after Lindberg's flight to become the first woman to make the trip alone.

"Amelia was a good friend," said Garber. "She gave me the Vega for the Smithsonian collection. I talked to her before she left on her around-the-world flight with Fred Noonan in 1937. They were going to give the Smithsonian that airplane when they completed the flight."

"When their plane vanished near Howland Island in the South Pacific, I went out and bought four roses and put two on the propeller and two on the nose of the Vega," said Garber.

The spritely nonagenarian has been personally acquainted with all of this nation's and many of the world's top aviators.

"I love this place," said Garber, looking out over the museum. "Sometimes I can't believe that I've seen all this happen in my lifetime. My work is far from finished. There are still planes out there I'd like to get my hands on. Right now I'm trying to track down a 1927 Loening Amphibian," he said, his eyes sparkling with excitement.

In addition to the 77 restored historic planes in the National Air and Space Museum, the collection includes 56 more restored airplanes and 154 others awaiting restoration at the Smithsonian's Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in nearby Suitland, Md. Another 71 restored historic aircraft are on loan from the collection to aviation museums throughout the U.S. and abroad.

It was in 1980 that the Silver Hill Museum in Suitland was renamed in honor of Garber's 60th anniversary with the Smithsonian. One of the 24 buildings at the 25-acre Garber complex is home of the world's most complete archives of historical aircraft.

Other Garber buildings are filled with airplanes and airplane parts. There are always several aircraft in the midst of restoration. Fifteen full-time mechanics restore airplanes along with volunteers, many of them retired aerospace workers. Paul Garber keeps his hand in the restoration work by spending a day there each week.

Historic airplanes now in restoration include the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay, the airplane that ushered in the Nuclear Age when it dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. A Sopwith Snipe, the first fighter used by the British Royal Air Force, is also being restored here. So is a German World War II Arado 234, the world's first operational jet bomber, and a Hawker Hurricane, the airplane that bore the brunt of Britain's defense against the Luftwaffe's aerial armada.

George Genotti 72, has been part of the Enola Gay restoration team since 1984. That restoration is expected to require seven to nine years of work.

Genotti, a former aviation mechanic for Eastern Airlines and North American Aviation, was busy removing dust from a piston in one of the Enola Gay's four engines. "We restore each plane, using original parts whenever possible, to the point where the plane could fly. We are preserving them for posterity's sake so they will last for at least another 300 to 400 years," Genotti said.

The restoration process involves cleaning every part of the aircraft, chemically treating its surfaces to remove and neutralize corrosion and coating surfaces for protection. Parts that must be replaced are marked so future researchers will know they are not original.

Among the photographs and memorabilia hanging from the walls in Garber's office in the Air and Space Museum is a letter from President Reagan who saluted Garber for "dedicating your life to the preservation of our nation's treasures of aviation.

"Your foresight and hard work help make the Air and Space Museum possible. Thanks to you, the Museum has under its roof the most impressive collection of historic airplanes and spacecraft in the world."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
55°