The Coming Out Party
On a beautiful day last May, the airplanes were out at the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility in Suitland, Maryland. Normally, Garber’s inventory of air and space artifacts is sealed in a cluster of windowless buildings, but on this day three flawless specimens—an Aichi Seiran floatplane, a Pitts Special biplane, and a Hawker Hurricane—had been rolled out onto a driveway that runs between the buildings. As the airplanes basked in the warm air, a crowd of more than 100 admirers stared appreciatively, many of them taking pictures like proud parents photographing their babies.
The day was a quiet celebration for dozens of Garber employees and volunteers, who had worked for years to restore the three aircraft, all part of the collection of the National Air and Space Museum. “On the day of the roll out, I felt—‘Finally!’ ” says Tom Alison, who oversees the Garber facility. For the airplanes, their moment of freedom was brief; shortly after noon they were brought back inside. The Hurricane and the tiny Pitts went willingly, but it took some 20 people to slowly push and angle the 8,000-pound Seiran through the large hangar doors of Building 10. By this time, chairs had been lined up next to Building 10’s lunchroom, and everyone sat down to a meal of hot dogs, burgers, potato salad, and baked beans. Elvis Presley tunes played on a boom box as people ate and swapped airplane stories. The Seiran loomed commandingly in the background, perched high upon its massive floats.
The Seiran was designed by the Japanese to launch from a submarine and bomb the Panama Canal during World War II. It entered Building 10 in November 1989. There, paid and volunteer restoration technicians worked on it through March 2000. “On the one hand, I’m glad that the project is complete,” says Garber restorer Bob McLean. “But I will miss the detective work of unraveling mysteries [about the airplane’s history] and the camaraderie of the worldwide ‘Seiran family.’ ”
The Museum’s Hurricane served as a trainer for British fighter pilots during the waning days of World War II, and the Pitts biplane is an aerobatic craft flown by championship pilot Betty Skelton Frankman, who named it Little Stinker (see In the Museum, Aug./Sept. 1998). The restoration of Little Stinker required 6,037 man-hours and cost $45,575. For the Hurricane and the Seiran, the labor costs alone come to more than $1 million for each airplane.
In October, Little Stinker will go on temporary display in the National Air and Space Museum as part of an exhibit on aerobatic aircraft. Within days of the rollout, however, the Seiran was completely disassembled and the Hurricane had its wings removed. Both aircraft will remain in storage at Garber until they go on permanent display at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Since the Hazy center is not expected to open until December 2003, how sweet that the airplanes had their day in the sun.