Smithsonian to bring air-age artifacts into view; $130 million facility planned for Dulles airport


WASHINGTON -- Almost everybody knows what became of the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis. They hang with other aviation treasures in the hallowed galleries of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

But what about the Flying Wing, the forerunner of the stealth bomber? Or the last surviving Aichi Seran, a Japanese floatplane that was folded up and carried inside a submarine? Or the Caroline, the turbo-prop airplane that John F. Kennedy used as his campaign aircraft?

They are gathering dust in the darkness of drafty tin sheds in a rundown neighborhood in nearby Suitland.

For most of this century, the museum's curators have squirreled away more than 200 important airplanes and more than 100 space artifacts. Some of them are wingless and stacked like cordwood at the Paul E. Garber restoration and storage facility -- out of sight of all but the most dedicated aviation buffs.

"These are planes that people need to see," said museum Director Donald Engen, a retired admiral and former head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. "Unfortunately, at our museum in Washington, there is only room to show about a third of what we have."

Private donations

Engen is leading the Air and Space Museum on a campaign to build a giant exhibition hall at Washington Dulles International Airport. The $130 million facility, funded mostly by private donations, will cover more than 700,000 square feet. The entire museum on the Washington Mall would fit in one room of the planned facility.

Not only will there be enough room to display most of the airplanes that are now in sheds, the cavernous hangar will house the space shuttle Enterprise, the first Boeing 707 and the Enola Gay, a B-29 bomber that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.

Officials predict that the annex will draw as many as 3 million visitors the first year after its opening. They hope to begin construction by January 2001 and complete the project in time for the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight in December 2003.

Visitors will glimpse what may be one of the museum's best-kept secrets: the technicians who painstakingly restore each artifact, officials say.

Restoration projects

About a dozen experts sometimes spend years on a single airplane, a necessary but dreadfully slow process that all but ensures that some of the planes in the sheds won't be touched for decades.

Officials plan to hire an additional 24 technicians when the annex is built. The entire operation will be moved to Dulles, where restoration will take place on an accelerated pace while visitors watch through glass.

"One of the most important jobs of the Air and Space Museum is to preserve the technology of each airplane," Engen said. "When we restore an airplane, we keep the original hoses, we preserve the original paint. A hundred years from now, people will be able to look at an airplane and see exactly how it was done."

Sometimes, as in the case of a Ta152-H1, a Focke Wulf, used by the Germans during World War II, it means learning new skills.

Because the Allied forces had bombed most of Germany's heavy industry, a company that made pianos manufactured the tail of this Focke Wulf. The woodwork is so beautiful it is hard to believe that it was covered with drab paint.

"It's a work of art," said Richard Horigan, 51, the mechanic restoring the plane.

One of the downsides of wood is that it decays when wet. Horigan is rebuilding badly deteriorated control surfaces, doing his best to salvage as much of the original as possible.

"It would be easier to just build a whole new piece, but it's more important to keep the original," he said.

In another part of the workshop, the staff is into its fourth year of restoring a French-built Nieuport 28, a bi-plane like the ones flown by many of the famous World War I aces. For this project, workers went back to original manufacturing diagrams.

The airplane is still just a frail-looking wooden skeleton, but it is nearing the day when clean white linen will be stretched around it. The plane will be displayed with a story of World War I pilot James A. Meissner, who once nursed a Nieuport 28 safely back to base after a wing collapsed.

"We're very fortunate to have an airplane like this," Engen said.

Many of the museum's treasures exist because of the efforts of Garber, for whom the restoration facility is named.

In May 1927, when Garber heard that an air mail pilot named Charles Lindbergh had set out across the Atlantic Ocean for Paris in a single-engine Ryan monoplane, he urged Smithsonian officials to send a wire ahead asking Lindbergh to donate the Spirit of St. Louis.

Apparently, senior museum officials did not share Garber's optimism. The wire was sent a few days after the history making flight. Today, the Spirit of St. Louis is one of the reasons that more than 9 million people a year visit the Air and Space museum, making it the most popular museum in Washington.

Congress has set aside $8 million for design work, and Virginia has contributed $39 million for access roads and other infrastructure. Engen said officials hope to raise a fifth of the remaining $130 million from corporate donors.

The rest, he hopes, will come from aviation buffs.

"I am confident that we will be able to raise the money," Engen said. "People who love aviation go to great lengths to experience it and be near it, and this will be one of those things."

Pub Date: 01/10/99

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