Letter from Aviation History—May 2015 | HistoryNet MENU

Letter from Aviation History—May 2015

By Carl von Wodtke
3/11/2015 • AVH Issues, Letters and Issues

Now waiting patiently in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, Flak-Bait still bears the scars of its World War II combat service.
Now waiting patiently in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, Flak-Bait still bears the scars of its World War II combat service.

What’s the difference between a restored airplane and a replica? How far should a restorer go to preserve original components, and do remanufactured parts make a warbird less authentic? How much of the aircraft needs to consist of original components, or parts from the same type, for it to be considered a restoration rather than a replica? These are questions the warbird community has grappled with for decades, but as the number and quality of original airframes dwindles over time, they have gained a greater sense of immediacy.

Three stories in this issue underscore the difficulties inherent in modern warbird restorations. In “Restored,” Jon Guttman traces the convoluted path of a Hawker Hurricane Mark XIIB from scrapheap to flying status. The 12-year effort required components from two different Hurricanes as well as some remanufactured parts, topped off by two distinctly different paint jobs. In “Briefing,” Stephan Wilkinson reports on the return to flight of a thrice-restored Bristol Blenheim and profiles MeierMotors, a specialist in resurrecting rusted warbirds to squeaky-clean, like-new appearance. Two of the German restoration shop’s current projects, for Virginia Military Aviation Museum owner Jerry Yagen, involve restoring and converting existing airframes to similar though different types.

Of course there is another whole level of this process that doesn’t involve airworthiness considerations, one at which the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum excels. That approach, focusing on conservation and preservation, was recently on full display at the museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport. In the center’s 48,000-square-foot Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, all the components of the celebrated Martin B-26B Marauder Flak-Bait have been gathered for restoration and reassembly. But in keeping with the museum’s mission, the estimated 5½-year project will entail far more cleaning and conserving than restoring and replicating. As NASM restoration specialist Anne McCombs notes of the bomber’s fabric-covered rudder, which is in poor condition, “On most airplanes I would simply remove this and replace it with new fabric; however, in this case, because the airplane has such a storied past, we’re trying to save the original fabric and keep it on the airplane.” McCombs reports that the museum is experimenting with techniques to accomplish that, using similar fabric in equally bad condition from another aircraft. “We’re going to be learning as we go,” she says.

Upstairs in the Emil Buehler Conservation Laboratory, they’re working on another iconic craft, this one familiar to legions of Star Trek fans: the starship Enterprise studio model used in the original TV series. It’s being treated with the same care as the priceless historical artifact Flak-Bait, since it represents a pop-culture touchstone for many Americans who grew up in the 1960s, this editor included. Using a radiography unit borrowed from the National Zoo, they’re X-raying the model to see how it’s constructed and to identify any structural features that require special attention before the model is displayed in the revamped Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall at the downtown museum in July 2016. “Our overall goal is to strive for preserving the original artifact,” chief conservator Malcolm Collum says of the effort. “One of the goals of preservation and conservation is to try to improve the stability of the artifact for long-term display, but to try to alter it as little as possible from the original materials.

“Being a conservator is sort of like following the same Hippocratic oath as being a doctor,” continues Collum. “These are all our patients: We try to treat them with an equal amount of care, with ‘do no harm’ as our main mantra. This model did so much to really engage the public with space exploration, it’s hard to put in words. People get emotional around it.”

I’ll say.

 

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