Remembering Dr. Paul E. Garber

Published 10:37 am Friday, June 27, 2008

My short tenure as Historical Chairman of the San Diego chapter of the Institute of the Aeronautical Sciences allowed me to meet many notable aviation figures, among them Paul Mantz, Dr. Paul E. Garber, Curator of the National Air and Space Museum, and Martin Cole, who became a lifelong close friend. Cole is another story, but today I want to tell you about Dr. Garber.
Dr. Garber came to San Diego (c.1958) to present a paper on Glenn Curtiss to the IAS. I gave my report on our Montgomery Glider project on the same program. When Fran and I traveled to Washington DC a few months later, I presented myself to a guard at the old National Air Museum in the castle on the mall, and asked to see Dr. Garber.
To our surprise, he soon appeared, bounding toward us with a big grin and hand outstretched in greeting. After brief pleasantries, he was bursting to tell us all about the just-completed restoration of Billy Mitchells SPAD. He had not even seen it yet, but told us that it was in perfect flying condition. The rules of the museum prevented even starting the engine, but all the airplanes are in factory-new condition when they go on display there.
During a personally guided tour behind the scenes of the castle, Dr. Garber told us about seeing the Wrights fly their plane at Fort Meyer in its Army acceptance tests, how it inspired his lifelong love of airplanes. He learned to fly in a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny and went to work at the Smithsonian in 1920. When Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris after his solo crossing of the Atlantic, a cable from Dr. Garber asked for his airplane for display. After a tour of the country, including a stop at Spartanburg, The Spirit of St. Louis was suspended from the ceiling there in the castle.
Dr. Garber also told us that over the years Lindbergh called him several times to ask to visit the museum after hours. He would place a tall step-ladder so that Lindy could climb up into the cockpit of the Spirit, where he would just sit for a while before climbing back down.
When the Smithsonian credited their own Samuel Pierpont Langley with building the first successful airplane, Orville Wright took his Flyer out of the Smithsonian and packed it off to England. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed right after WWII, and Orville allowed them to send for the Flyer shortly before he died. When the new Air and Space Museum was built on the mall, its central space was called the Hall of Firsts, and includes the Wright Flyer, Lindys Spirit, Yeagers Bell X-1, and MacCreadys Gossamer Condor.
The Restoration Facility at Spring Hill, Maryland, was named for Dr. Garber before the huge new Museum was built at Dulles. Several of my airplane friends join me in feeling strongly that the Dulles building should have been named for Dr. Garber, but as with race tracks and sports arenas, he who puts up the most gold gets to name the place. I wish that the generous Mr. Udvar-Hazy had revered Dr. Paul E. Garber as so many do who love airplanes and flying them as much as Dr. Garber did.
A small part of Dr. Garbers legacy is a bit of verse he composed to celebrate the joys of flight. Called To Fly, it is addressed to Dear God in Heaven, and concludes But then, alas, I must go down again,/To earths gray shadows, to mankinds domain,/But my heart is enriched, my soul lifted high,/Because for a while I was up in Thy sky. Amen, brother.

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