In the Museum
Paul Garber: Eyewitness to History
In 1920, while visiting the Smithsonian, a young Paul Garber noticed that the control wires of the 1909 Wright Military Flyer were incorrectly installed. After pointing this out to a curator, Garber was offered a three-month appointment. He ended up staying at the Smithsonian Institution for 72 years.
Garber was the Air Museum’s first curator, eventually becoming head curator, and then senior historian, before his death in 1992. It was Garber who accepted (and found housing for) the aircraft that U.S. Army Air Forces Commander Henry “Hap” Arnold donated to the Smithsonian after World War II—a large part of the Museum collection. He was born at the turn of the last century, just four years before the airplane, and managed throughout his lifetime either to witness the momentous events in aviation history or to meet the people responsible for them. On the occasion of the magazine’s 25th birthday, we’ve decided to select just 25 of the intersections between aviation and Paul Garber:
“My interest in kites dates from being patted on the head by one of the greatest kite flyers of all time, Alexander Graham Bell,” Garber recalled in a 1974 oral history now in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. The genius inventor lived up the street in Washington, D.C.; one day, as the 10-year-old Garber flew his kite along Connecticut Avenue, Bell walked by, saw that the kite was assembled incorrectly and fixed it on the spot.
At the 1925 International Air Races, Garber saw aviation legends Bert Acosta (chief pilot of Admiral Richard Byrd’s transatlantic flight) and Cyrus Bettis (winner of the 1925 Pulitzer speed race in a Curtiss R3C-1) fly at Mitchel Field on Long Island. “Bert Acosta flew an ancient bamboo outrigger hack over a leg of the race course," he wrote for U.S. Air Services that year. “Everyone was amused to see that ancient crate rattle by with the pilot sitting so far in front that he had to look around every now and then to make sure that the rest of the machine was coming along. Just as Acosta was passing the judges’ stand there was a rush of air overhead, a whine of vigorous power, a flash of vivid black and gold and Cy Bettis whizzed by on a practice flight flying seven feet to Bert’s one. As a bystander remarked, 'By golly, that's progress.' "
Just two weeks later, Garber was in Baltimore watching the Schneider Cup race, where he saw Army Lieutenant Jimmy Doolittle take the prize, with speeds averaging 232 mph. The aircraft, a Curtiss R3C-2, entered the Museum’s collection in 1927.
As a child, Garber rode his bike out to Maryland’s College Park airfield to watch the military pilots practice, a group that included one Henry “Hap” Arnold, the future five-star general of both the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force.
As part of his early apprenticeship with the Smithsonian, Garber worked with R. Luther Reed, who had been the chief mechanic for Samuel Langley, the Smithsonian’s third Secretary. Garber helped Reed assemble and repair the Langley Aerodrome-A.
At the Smithsonian, Garber put on a display about airmail history with the help of Earle Ovington, who in 1911 piloted one of the first airmail flights in the United States.
On May 15, 1918, Garber stood among the crowds watching Army Air Corps Lieutenant George Boyle fly the first airmail out of Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, Boyle got lost not once but twice. Instead of heading for Philadelphia (the stop between Washington and New York), he crashed in rural Maryland.
That evening, Garber remained at the Polo Grounds until Lieutenant James Edgerton arrived from Philadelphia with the southbound mail. In the gathering dusk, cars were lined up and their headlights turned on so that Edgerton could land his aircraft safely.
When Charles Lindbergh took off on May 20, 1927, on his solo transatlantic flight, Garber asked the Smithsonian’s acting Secretary, Charles Abbot, to send a cable to the young aviator requesting the Spirit of St. Louis be donated to the national collection. Abbot balked, reminding Garber that Spirit was still flying over New England and might not reach its destination. Garber persevered; Abbot sent the cable, and the aircraft was given to the Smithsonian, arriving on April 30, 1928. Recalled Garber in 1974, “I had it ready for exhibition on May the 8th, and when we opened the doors—and that was a Sunday—there was a mob out here extending all over the Mall!”
Garber obtained the Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae—the airplane in which Wiley Post made the first flight around the world—in 1937, two years after the aviator died in a crash along with Will Rogers. (Garber had met Rogers some 10 years earlier, when he asked the American humorist to donate a stagecoach to the Smithsonian.) When Garber went to collect the airplane after Post’s death, he said, “I remember as I walked out to the field and saw the Winnie Mae in its hangar, there was a large black shroud on the propeller hub—just as a reverent gesture by his many friends.”
In late 1935, explorer and World War I pilot Lincoln Ellsworth and Canadian pilot Herbert Hollick-Kenyon attempted a trans-Antarctic flight in the Northrop Gamma Polar Star. (The two were meant to travel from Dundee Island in the Weddell Sea across Antarctica to Little America; lack of fuel forced them down 25 miles short of their destination. They then walked for six days, settling down in a camp abandoned by Admiral Byrd some years earlier.) After his rescue, Hollick-Kenyon recovered the Polar Star; Garber accepted it into the Smithsonian’s collection in April 1936.
During a training exercise in enemy waters, Garber’s target kites helped save an aircraft carrier from enemy attack, said Vice Admiral DeWitt Clinton Ramsey during World War II. Because they were engaged in gunnery practice, alert shooters saw two Japanese torpedo bombers approaching, and quickly switched from the targets to the enemy aircraft, blasting them into the water.
In 1910, the Garbers were visiting Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Paul Garber visited the hangar of Walter Wellman (prior to the journalist’s attempted crossing of the Atlantic in the airship America in October)—and saw mission mascot Kiddo the cat asleep on a chair.
In 1934, Garber met Robert H. Goddard. He donated an A-series rocket, the first liquid-fuel rocket the collections had received; the scientist stipulated that under no circumstances was it to go on display without his consent (or, in the case of his death, the consent of Harry Guggenheim and Charles Lindbergh).
The rocket was stored in a basement corridor for many years, finally appearing in a postwar display of Goddard’s technology—after his death.
In the 1930s, Garber broadcast a series of radio programs with World War I ace and commanding officer of the First Pursuit Group Harold E. Hartney.
The day after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Navy Commander Luis de Florez telephoned Garber to ask if he could borrow his display of contemporary military aircraft, as the Navy needed the models to train pilots and sailors in aircraft recognition. (In 1943, de Florez would win the Collier Trophy for his work in training combat pilots through flight simulators.)
In 1941, at the request of chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, Admiral John Towers, Garber produced a 1:16-scale model of the Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero. Garber’s work so impressed the Navy that he was made a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve; he spent the next five years developing models for the Navy.