Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Smithsonian 'keeper of planes' scans aviation history

On the top floor of the Smithsonian's mammoth Air and Space Museum sits a living library of aviation lore, Paul Edward Garber. The museum's first curator and historian emeritus, a short, round, bright-eyed man with computer-tape recall, has been scrounging aircraft and information since 1909, when he saw his first flight.

"I was visiting Washington, D.C., with my father," the elklike Mr. Garber recalls, "and I read in the paper where the Wright brothers would be flying their plane out at Fort Myer, Va."

About these ads

Taking the trolley out the next day (July 27), young Garber trotted a long distance to the fort's entrance.

"As I was approaching the gate, I could hear the sound of an engine," he says. "I ran through the gate and beyond the buildings to the big drill field and there in the air, was the Wright brothers' airplane.

"I was astounded. I remember that the plane flew right over my head, and I was so thrilled I fell over backward trying to watch it. I never got over the thrill, and I hope I never do."

The next week he made his first airplane model, copying the Wright plane from memory -- a pattern he repeated with nearly every major flight he saw.

His pull toward, on his fifth birthday, when an uncle presented him with a kite.Kite-flying became his chief absorption after that, and acted as a calling card for the Garbers' famous neighbor, Alexander Graham Bell.

"In 1910, we were living at 130m Connecticut Avenue and Dr. Bell lived at 1321," Mr. Garber recalls.

It was grand location for a kite flyer, he relates, because it was across the street from the British Embassy and next door to the Austro-Hungarian Embassy, "both of which had large yards."

About these ads

One day as he flew a kite, Dr. Bell came along, noticed the kite, and said, "Young man, that kite isn't bridled properly."

The telephone's inventor was also a kite expert. He pulled in young Garber's kite, snipped off the bridle with a pen knife, and made a new one out of string. Satisfied, he stood out in the middle of the street and held the kite while young Garber got it up.

"Then he patted me on the head and walked away," Mr. Garber relates. "I didn't meet him again until World War I, when some medals were being given out." One of those medals, of course, was for Mr. Garber himself -- the District of Columbia Medal for World War I.

It was World War I that gave him his flight training, but it was the Smithsonian Institution that inspired his first flight. In 1915, Mr. Garber found himself almost continuously at the museum, gazing at the Wright Military Flyer.

One day he spotted a glider model on top of a glass case.He asked a guard if he could climb up the ladder and observe the glider more closely. The guard said yes.

"I made a close estimate of its size and construction and, after returning home, I made a good copy and flew it as a kite. Having read "Gulliver's Travels ," I remember wishing I was a Lilliputian and could climb aboard my kite and fly."

"But then it occurred to me that I could make a larger copy of the glider and fly in it."

And he did, with his mother's help. "She let me use a bolt of red chintz -- what they call 'polished cotton' nowadays -- to cover the wings," he recalls. "I made the ribs out of barrel staves; what a job they were to saw!"

Finally, he and a bunch of boys, under the austere banner of the Capital Model Aero Club, carried the completed glider out to a nearby lot where young Garber picked it up, his arms across the center section.

The club members pulled on a rope made from "every bit of clothesline we could beg, borrow, or steal" and ran until the glider started to rise. Mr. Garber reports that "the boys were so surprised when the plane went up that they stopped to watch it."

"The glider slid back on its tail and I slid back on mine," is how he sums up the wreckage. But the club worked two weeks to revamp the glider and then carried it once more to the field. "This time I got them to promise to ignore the glider's rising and to run like the dickens," he smiles.

And it worked! Mr. Garber says he floated up "40, maybe 50 feet -- it felt like a mile to me, of course," and repeated the experiment with success.

Early pilots often endured less-than- flattering incidents, and Mr. Garber relates one of the classics with gentle humor:

On May 15, 1918, Sergeant Garber obtained permission from the US Army to attend the opening of the country's Air Mail Service, which began inauspiciously on a polo field in Washington.

"Pilot Reuben Fleet flew his Curtis-JN [Jenny] from Philadelphia," Mr. Garber recalls, "and the little Ford truck drove out with the mail. There were a great many important persons there -- President Wilson, members of the Cabinet and the Post Office -- and I was just part of the crowd."

But when the next pilot, Lt. George Boyle, went to start the plane again, the engine sputtered and died. "They spent a lot of time trying to determine the problem," Mr. Garber says gleefully, "and Woodrow Wilson became very irritated by the delay. Fleet tried to console him, I remember."

Then they discovered the foul-up -- the plane was out of gas.

"With the tank filled, the plane took off and everyone cheered. I couldn't help but wonder where Boyle was going, however. I knew he was supposed to go to Philadelphia, but he was headed in the wrong direction."

Mr. Garber later found out the whole story. The pilot had been told to follow the railroad north -- "what we called the 'iron compass' in those days" -- and had dutifully begun tracking the first railroad ties he saw. Unfortunately, they headed east.

Realizing his error, Boyle decided to make a landing in a farmer's field and get his bearings. "The field he chose, poor fellow," Mr. Garber winces, "belonged to the assistant postmaster general."

Despite this inelegant beginning, postal aviation continued, and at the end of the war Mr. Garber joined its staff as "chief slave -- that's what everyone called me."

It was there at College Park, Md. -- "the oldest continuously operating airfield in the world today," Mr. Garberg says -- that he witnessed the courageous flying of Dana (Daddy) DeHart. "He was older than the rest of us, so we called him Daddy," Mr. Garber recalls. He was 30.

DeHart, "a splendid pilot," was scheduled to fly the mail from New York to Washington in a Curtis-R -- "it had enough gasoline capacity to make it all that way," Mr. Garber says -- when a storm arose. "There were hurricane winds recorded that day, but we were trying to make the airmail a regular operation, and DeHart took off."

Mr. Garber was at the landing field when the airplane appeared, "and we could tell what he was trying to do." DeHart let the airplane down right in front of the hangar, using it as a windbreak, and "we all ran out and grabbed the wings," Garber remembers. "It was a phenomenal demonstration of his flying skill," he adds.

Mr. Garber recently made a model of that plane -- a craft he perfected when he joined the Smithsonian's staff in 1920 as a "preparator" of exhibits. "My interest in aricraft predominated in my work," he says plainly, "and as famous flights were completed, I would not only make models of the planes, but try to get the originals as well."

That sums up his successful efforts to obtain Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh's flight, Mr. Garber realized at the time, would fulfill many firsts: It would be the first solo flight across the Atlantic, the first nonstop transatlantic flight in an American-made plane, and the first transatlantic flight to reach its initial objective, Paris.

After Lindbergh took off from New York, but before he landed, Mr. Garber wrote out a congratulatory cablegram to send, asking for the plane. He trotted this up to Charles Abbot, then director of the Smithsonian, and asked him to sign it.

Mr. Abbot read the cable and listened as Mr. Garber ticked off these firsts, arguing that St. Louis was going to try for the plane and the Smithsonian should have it. Finally, Mr. Abbot replied, "Now, Garber, he hasn't got there yet."

"Yes, sir," Mr. Garber said, "but he's going to make it."

The cable was sent, and after a successful tour of the country, Lindbergh returned to Washington and arranged with Abbot to turn over the plane.

"On April 30, 1928, he flew it into Bolling Field in Washington and showed us how to dismantle it," Garber recalls. "I had a hard time keeping everyone's hands off it."

The plane now hangs, along with the Wright brothers' kitty Hawk Flyer, in the Milestones Gallery at the Air and Space Museum. The gargantuan building, the ful fillment of Mr. Garber's dream, is "too small," he complains. The historian says he would have no problem filling up another one.

"I've always been a bit of a scrounger," he smiles. "That's what makes my job."

That, and his still-kindled thrill over the airplane.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.