November 1969 American Aircraft ModelerTable of Contents
Some things never grow old. These pages from vintage modeling magazines like American Aircraft Modeler, American Modeler, Air Trails, Flying Aces, Flying Models, Model Airplane News, & Young Men captured the era. I will be glad to scan articles for you. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Fokker DVII will be returned to factory-new condition. Yards of silk- screened fabric in the
original lozenge camouflage were contracted for, rather than resort to authentic hand-painting, Museum frequently
prefers a restoration to weathered operational condition.
First 1,000,00-miler, an aged DC-3 from Eastern Airlines, now stripped of wings and engines,
was ordered completely refurbished by Eastern in 1953! Eventually, it should be a wonderful exhibit when new museum
building finally becomes reality. Meanwhile, years pass.
For those who hold a deep-seated affection for the glory and excitement of aviation history, there is perhaps no place on earth quite like the National Air and Space Museum's Preservation and Restoration Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland. Few people know of its existence. There are enough sights and smells and memories of historic aircraft at Silver Hill to relive in one day the entire chronology of flight.
Housed in and around a group of metal hangars, the Smithsonian Institution has gathered a collection of some of the world's most important aircraft. The Silver Hill collection lies fenced off from the world, a sort of aircraft limbo until the final authorization for the new National Air and Space Museum building becomes a reality. When? Perhaps next year, the following year, .maybe ten years. No one can say.
Don't mark Silver Hill on your itinerary for your trip to Washington. Surrounded by fencing, its gates are permanently closed to the public. No one enters unless he has specific permission from a senior Museum official. Once in, a guard escort is assigned to you. Freedom of movement is as carefully controlled as it is on a U. S. nuclear weapons station. These precautions are essential. The Smithsonian is the custodian of an aircraft collection of such size and significance that it cannot be evaluated in cash values.
Through the dedication of a small staff and the stretching of a very small budget, the Silver Hill Facility has managed to preserve in a state of suspended animation nearly 200 aircraft, and find enough money left over to restore some items in the collection.
With few exceptions, most of the aircraft are preserved but not restored. "We are holding our own, at least for the time," one official told me. Their primary task is to keep time from taking further toll. Older, fabric-covered aircraft are stored partially disassembled in large dry hangar-like sheds. More recent and more rugged aircraft must be left outside, protected only by shards of plastic cocoons over more vital areas. As fast as funds and personnel become available, new hangars are constructed, or large packing crates are built to partially protect the aircraft from the weather.
Our escort opened the padlocked door of the largest hangar. Saturated by a ghostly green light filtering down from the few plastic skylights, stood a double row of aircraft, stripped of wings, and covered by the accumulated dust of years. The sensation was that of meeting an old friend after many, many years. I recognized them immediately, but could not help being struck by what the years had done. The fact that they were older didn't decrease the pleasure at all.
The clean, sleek beauty of a Northrop Gamma comes through, even with its wings removed. A familiar curve of a fuselage, the recognizable lines of cockpit and windscreen, a characteristic rudder which you have known since you were a boy. Though covered by a plastic sheet, how could anyone fail to recognize the massive, but somehow arrogant fuselage float of Grover Loening's famous amphibian of the twenties.
A SPAD XIII occupies one corner, sans tires and wings, but endowed with a magical grace and beauty which years can't take away. I remember this SPAD when, as a youngster, I used to visit the Museum during World War II, and World War I seemed even farther removed than it does today.
The SPAD was flown by a young AEF officer, when it was returned to the States to spearhead a Liberty Bond drive. When he saw the old SPAD on display, he caused consternation among the guards at the old aviation building, when he crossed the railing and climbed into the cockpit! Then he signed autographs, to the delight of visitors.
A German ME 262, stripped of its wings and jet engines like a dead gray shark, just as it had been shipped from Europe. Scratched, dirty, the black Balkancruz insignia peeling and flaking from its fuselage, it was one of WW II's secret weapons. The dirt on the cockpit floor, bits of trash and litter, left there by some unknown Luftwaffe pilot. When the Smithsonian restores this aircraft, something will be lost in the process - that bit of litter.
In another building, almost hidden behind a fully assembled Grumman F6F, was an aircraft which I had known personally. I hadn't expected to see it in the collection so the feeling of nostalgia and recognition was particularly strong. Suspended awkwardly atop its single center-mounted float was the fuselage of one of the N3N-3 "Yellow Peril" trainers from the NAF training squadron at the Naval Academy.
During the Korean War, I was stationed at the Air Facility across the Severn River from the Academy. Even then we took a certain pride in manning the last operational squadron of biplanes anywhere in the world (a dubious claim, but we believed it). Here was number 44 from the original group of 48, old, crippled, but a plane which I had fueled, hosed down, trundled from the hangar for morning flights, and waded waist-deep in the Severn to recover at the end of a day's flying.
I went from one hangar to another, taking photographs where there was room to focus. Nowhere was there really enough room, because space at Silver Hill is at a premium. Some aircraft were buried so deeply that photography was impossible. A DeHavilland Mosquito fuselage for example.
In spite of the crowding, there was order. Fuselages, wings, and component parts, were all marked with a catalogue number. But there is space around each aircraft. Nowhere did two aircraft touch in such a way that either would be damaged.
You must know where to look. Somewhere in Hangar 7 are the remains of an Albatros DV. I was curious to see how the plywood fuselage had withstood storage. But toward the rear of the hangar was Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega.
This was a premium aircraft! The quality of construction still shows through the dust - in the fit of the plywood skin and smoothness of the paint, the beautifully constructed fillets. Lockheed constructed the Vegas, Altairs and Sirius to the custom of each purchaser. The Earhart Vega still wears the Lockheed crest proudly on its vertical stabilizer.
Silver Hill also maintains aerospace hardware. Some of the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft are stored there in a hangar similar to those which house the aircraft collection. These are part of my own time, however. The burned and charred capsules sitting mutely on wooden pallets couldn't recapture the grandeur of the moment at Cape Canaveral. Space hardware is designed for an alien environment, not intended to conquer an ocean of air.
A space capsule is a coldly calculated thing. It is pure function, down to the last ablated inch of blackened heat shield. None of the intuitive curve, the graceful sweep, conceived mostly by inspiration and a deep-rooted feel for the air. In short, none of the sheer majestic beauty of the Northrop Gamma, or the light and delicate grace of the Nieuport Scout which still come through in spite of a half-century of decay. The capsules speak more of what is yet to be.
Time is truly of the essence. As years pass, in spite of the efforts of the people at the Air Museum, all of this will gradually diminish. Fabric rots, metal corrodes, records are lost, last survivors disappear and the type is extinct. The aircraft which could be preserved this year will require complete restoration next year, and ten years hence will require extensive re-fabrication of many parts. Then it is, to some extent, a copy and its worth to aviation research is reduced by that much.
Congressional action could prevent this.
Funding for the construction of the new National Air and Space Museum building in Washington would provide a long-needed center for aviation research and a showplace worthy of this magnificent collection. But Congress must appropriate the funds. The Silver Hill-collection should be given back to the people.
Posted August 8, 2012