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The Silver Hill Story
November 1969 American Aircraft Modeler

November 1969 American Aircraft Modeler

November 1969 American Aircraft Modeler magazine cover- Airplanes and Rockets Table of Contents

These pages from vintage modeling magazines like Flying Aces, Air Trails, American Modeler, American Aircraft Modeler, Young Men, Flying Models, Model Airplane News, R/C Modeler, captured the era. All copyrights acknowledged.

Melanie and I visited the Udvar-Hazy annex of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum for the first time. We visited the main building in Washington, D.C., a time or two a couple decades ago. A major renovation of that facility is underway now, but with the rewriting of history going on these days, their claim of "reimagining" the displays is worrisome. It is amazing to me when looking at the airplanes represented in this story from the November 1969 American Aircraft Modeler that most of them have been restored by now and are on display in one location or the other. The Eastern Airlines DC−3 in the first photo has been hanging prominently in the main Air and Space Museum gallery since the mid 1970s. It appears maybe the authors' pleas were heeded after all. If I ever have the time, I'll visit the museum and post pictures of the restored versions along with those provided in the article.

The Silver Hill Story

Will Congress Act in Time?

By Frank and Nancy Pierce

With a handful of dedicated experts and a tiny budget the Smithsonian wages a desperate struggle to save many of aviation's treasured historic aircraft.

Lack of hangar space makes necessary a temporary use of storage crates - Airplanes and Rockets

Lack of hangar space makes necessary a temporary use of storage crates to protect some specimens from the elements. Large crate in this photo houses a disassembled Japanese bomber from WW II. The Museum hopes to erect additional hangar space but funding is slow-coming.

Discouraging junk heap actually is collection of parts for two distinct aircraft - Airplanes and Rockets

Discouraging junk heap actually is collection of parts for two distinct aircraft, awaiting classification. The original parts are used whenever possible. Value to researchers is paramount. Motto is preserve rather than restore, restore rather than replace.

Al Williams' Gulfhawk II now looks like new, will shortly be loaned - Airplanes and Rockets

Al Williams' Gulfhawk II now looks like new, will shortly be loaned by Smithsonian for exhibit at Experimental Aircraft Association's Museum. Other museums who meet requirements will be similarly honored, in preference to keeping famous airplanes in dead-storage.

War trophy Japanese Kamakazee "Baka" is complete except for Jap copy of German Walther rocket engine - Airplanes and Rockets

War trophy Japanese Kamakazee "Baka" is complete except for Jap copy of German Walther rocket engine. External lock on cockpit made ditching this flying bomb impossible. Flower pattern was frequently used badge by suicide pilots. Baka means stupid.

Sikorsky S43 (JRS-1) used by Navy - Airplanes and Rockets

Sikorsky S43 (JRS-1) used by Navy was military follow-on to famous transpacific airplanes in prewar period. Wings are missing. If funds were available Museum believes it could fabricate·copies of original wings - if they cannot be found in the meantime.

Amelia. Earhart's "Red Bus" - nickname of her Vega - Airplanes and Rockets

Amelia. Earhart's "Red Bus" - nickname of her Vega - is oldest Lockheed aircraft in existence. Ship actually consists of parts from two airplanes due to crackups, and originally was on display by Franklin Institute. Museum also has Post's Winnie Mae.

Nieuport 15, once exhibited at now-vanished Roosevelt Field - Airplanes and Rockets

Nieuport 15, once exhibited at now-vanished Roosevelt Field. Many companion items were lost because of lack of post-WW II storage space.

French Voison, one of group of aircraft received in 1919 - Airplanes and Rockets

French Voison, one of group of aircraft received in 1919, is considered restorable. Needed is a 280·hp Renault engine with 12 cylinders. A Peurot engine is a legitimate substitute but would require new hardware, which would detract from the desired authenticity, considered so important.

Caudron G4, acquired in 1919 - Airplanes and Rockets

Caudron G4, acquired in 1919, was sent to the U. S. for an engine and structural evaluation in 1918. The missing LeRhone rotary engines were replaced from spare-parts stock. Interesting French plane was on exhibit for years, but removed to make room for another exhibit.

A prize from WW II is this Messerschmitt ME163 rocket-powered interceptor - Airplanes and Rockets

A prize from WW II is this Messerschmitt ME163 rocket-powered interceptor. It was extensively tested at Edwards AFB after the war. One of the most dangerous aircraft ever built, the Komet often exploded on mild bounce-landing, or on over-running field, after touchy glide to earth.

Curtiss F9CZ Sparrowhawk from dirigible Akron - Airplanes and Rockets

Curtiss F9CZ Sparrowhawk from dirigible Akron provided fighter escort. It was lowered on trapeze-like rack, which it engaged on return to mother-ship. This sample is the last survivor of small fleet. "Hook" extended above top wing, which gulled nicely into fuselage. A great modeling favorite.

This Bleriot from Roosevelt Field collection was of many built before WW II - Airplanes and Rockets

This Bleriot from Roosevelt Field collection was of many built before WW II in both France and America. It is similar to English Channel-crossing Bleriot. Note the characteristic "B" on the top cowling. Judging by this photo, ship is in fair shape.

DeHavilland DR4 is one of the few reproductions at Silver Hill - Airplanes and Rockets

DeHavilland DR4 is one of the few reproductions at Silver Hill. It was constructed from parts of DH which crashed 1922 in the Rockies. Pilot helped find wreck 45 years later. Rebuilt plane flew Coast to Coast in 1968 to commemorate U. S. Airmail Service 50th Anniversary.

First 1,000,00-miler, an aged DC-3 from Eastern Airlines - Airplanes and Rockets

First 1,000,00-miler, an aged DC-3 from Eastern Airlines, now stripped of wings and engines, was ordered completely refurbished by Eastern in 1953! Eventually, it should be a wonderful exhibit when new museum building finally becomes reality. Meanwhile, years pass.

Fokker DVII will be returned to factory-new condition - Airplanes and Rockets

Fokker DVII will be returned to factory-new condition. Yards of silk- screened fabric in the original lozenge camouflage were contracted for, rather than resort to authentic hand-painting, Museum frequently prefers a restoration to weathered operational condition.

For those who hold a deep-seated affection for the glory and excitement of aviation history, there is perhaps no place on earth quite like the National Air and Space Museum's Preservation and Restoration Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland. Few people know of its existence. There are enough sights and smells and memories of historic aircraft at Silver Hill to relive in one day the entire chronology of flight.

Housed in and around a group of metal hangars, the Smithsonian Institution has gathered a collection of some of the world's most important aircraft. The Silver Hill collection lies fenced off from the world, a sort of aircraft limbo until the final authorization for the new National Air and Space Museum building becomes a reality. When? Perhaps next year, the following year, .maybe ten years. No one can say.

Don't mark Silver Hill on your itinerary for your trip to Washington. Surrounded by fencing, its gates are permanently closed to the public. No one enters unless he has specific permission from a senior Museum official. Once in, a guard escort is assigned to you. Freedom of movement is as carefully controlled as it is on a U. S. nuclear weapons station. These precautions are essential. The Smithsonian is the custodian of an aircraft collection of such size and significance that it cannot be evaluated in cash values.

Through the dedication of a small staff and the stretching of a very small budget, the Silver Hill Facility has managed to preserve in a state of suspended animation nearly 200 aircraft, and find enough money left over to restore some items in the collection.

With few exceptions, most of the aircraft are preserved but not restored. "We are holding our own, at least for the time," one official told me. Their primary task is to keep time from taking further toll. Older, fabric-covered aircraft are stored partially disassembled in large dry hangar-like sheds. More recent and more rugged aircraft must be left outside, protected only by shards of plastic cocoons over more vital areas. As fast as funds and personnel become available, new hangars are constructed, or large packing crates are built to partially protect the aircraft from the weather.

Our escort opened the padlocked door of the largest hangar. Saturated by a ghostly green light filtering down from the few plastic skylights, stood a double row of aircraft, stripped of wings, and covered by the accumulated dust of years. The sensation was that of meeting an old friend after many, many years. I recognized them immediately, but could not help being struck by what the years had done. The fact that they were older didn't decrease the pleasure at all.

The clean, sleek beauty of a Northrop Gamma comes through, even with its wings removed. A familiar curve of a fuselage, the recognizable lines of cockpit and wind-screen, a characteristic rudder which you have known since you were a boy. Though covered by a plastic sheet, how could anyone fail to recognize the massive, but somehow arrogant fuselage float of Grover Loening's famous amphibian of the twenties.

A SPAD XIII occupies one corner, sans tires and wings, but endowed with a magical grace and beauty which years can't take away. I remember this SPAD when, as a youngster, I used to visit the Museum during World War II, and World War I seemed even farther removed than it does today.

The SPAD was flown by a young AEF officer, when it was returned to the States to spearhead a Liberty Bond drive. When he saw the old SPAD on display, he caused consternation among the guards at the old aviation building, when he crossed the railing and climbed into the cockpit! Then he signed autographs, to the delight of visitors.

A German ME 262, stripped of its wings and jet engines like a dead gray shark, just as it had been shipped from Europe. Scratched, dirty, the black Balkancruz insignia peeling and flaking from its fuselage, it was one of WW II's secret weapons. The dirt on the cockpit floor, bits of trash and litter, left there by some unknown Luftwaffe pilot. When the Smithsonian restores this aircraft, something will be lost in the process - that bit of litter.

In another building, almost hidden behind a fully assembled Grumman F6F, was an aircraft which I had known personally. I hadn't expected to see it in the collection so the feeling of nostalgia and recognition was particularly strong. Suspended awkwardly atop its single center-mounted float was the fuselage of one of the N3N-3 "Yellow Peril" trainers from the NAF training squadron at the Naval Academy.

During the Korean War, I was stationed at the Air Facility across the Severn River from the Academy. Even then we took a certain pride in manning the last operational squadron of biplanes anywhere in the world (a dubious claim, but we believed it). Here was number 44 from the original group of 48, old, crippled, but a plane which I had fueled, hosed down, trundled from the hangar for morning flights, and waded waist-deep in the Severn to recover at the end of a day's flying.

I went from one hangar to another, taking photographs where there was room to focus. Nowhere was there really enough room, because space at Silver Hill is at a premium. Some aircraft were buried so deeply that photography was impossible. A DeHavilland Mosquito fuselage for example.

In spite of the crowding, there was order. Fuselages, wings, and component parts, were all marked with a catalogue number. But there is space around each aircraft. Nowhere did two aircraft touch in such a way that either would be damaged.

You must know where to look. Somewhere in Hangar 7 are the remains of an Albatros DV. I was curious to see how the plywood fuselage had withstood storage. But toward the rear of the hangar was Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega.

This was a premium aircraft! The quality of construction still shows through the dust - in the fit of the plywood skin and smoothness of the paint, the beautifully constructed fillets. Lockheed constructed the Vegas, Altairs and Sirius to the custom of each purchaser. The Earhart Vega still wears the Lockheed crest proudly on its vertical stabilizer.

Silver Hill also maintains aerospace hardware. Some of the Mercury and Gemini spacecraft are stored there in a hangar similar to those which house the aircraft collection. These are part of my own time, however. The burned and charred capsules sitting mutely on wooden pallets couldn't recapture the grandeur of the moment at Cape Canaveral. Space hardware is designed for an alien environment, not intended to conquer an ocean of air.

A space capsule is a coldly calculated thing. It is pure function, down to the last ablated inch of blackened heat shield. None of the intuitive curve, the graceful sweep, conceived mostly by inspiration and a deep-rooted feel for the air. In short, none of the sheer majestic beauty of the Northrop Gamma, or the light and delicate grace of the Nieuport Scout which still come through in spite of a half-century of decay. The capsules speak more of what is yet to be.

Time is truly of the essence. As years pass, in spite of the efforts of the people at the Air Museum, all of this will gradually diminish. Fabric rots, metal corrodes, records are lost, last survivors disappear and the type is extinct. The aircraft which could be preserved this year will require complete restoration next year, and ten years hence will require extensive re-fabrication of many parts. Then it is, to some extent, a copy and its worth to aviation research is reduced by that much.

Congressional action could prevent this.

Funding for the construction of the new National Air and Space Museum building in Washington would provide a long-needed center for aviation research and a show-place worthy of this magnificent collection. But Congress must appropriate the funds. The Silver Hill-collection should be given back to the people.

First aircraft to fly non-stop coast-to-coast - Airplanes and Rockets

First aircraft to fly non-stop coast-to-coast (East to West at that!) was Fokker T2. It is now fully restored. Thanks to Fokker's design genius it still holds record for greatest weight per horsepower. Engine was wartime Liberty of 423 hp. On record flight groundspeed was 92 mph.

Now undergoing complete restoration is Douglas DTZ World Cruiser "Chicago" - Airplanes and Rockets

Now undergoing complete restoration is Douglas DTZ World Cruiser "Chicago," flagship of round-the--world flight in 1924. Liberty V12 engine will be sent to Iceland this year for 25 Independence Anniversary. Plane stopped there on flight. Restoration and display will follow.

Messerschmitt ME262 twin-jet-powered recon served during last days of WW II with Jadgeschwader 7 - Airplanes and Rockets

Messerschmitt ME262 twin-jet-powered recon served during last days of WW II with Jadgeschwader 7. It was one of 11 captured at end of war. Serial number and name plate were removed by a souvenir hunter after plane was shipped to this country, making identification and history difficult to track down.

SPAD XIII scheduled for restoration to service condition - Airplanes and Rockets

SPAD XIII scheduled for restoration to service condition, as it was at end of war, preserving bullet holes and sears. Ship was sent here for incentive in Liberty Bond drive. Original fabric will be backed by new technique. Museum was to acquire Rickenbacker's SPAD but aircraft was destroyed by fire while on exhibit in Illinois, a sad loss.

Gull-winged F4U Vought Corsair of Pacific Theater fame in WW II - Airplanes and Rockets

Gull-winged F4U Vought Corsair of Pacific Theater fame in WW II is typical of complete series of naval aircraft donated by Navy at war's end. Unfortunately. from Museum's viewpoint, log books were destroyed and individual histories lost. Nevertheless, these are historic aircraft meeting Museum criteria.

Lincoln Ellsworth's trans-Antarctic Northrop Gamma is in excellent shape - Airplanes and Rockets

Lincoln Ellsworth's trans-Antarctic Northrop Gamma is in excellent shape. Ellsworth was reluctant to donate aircraft, thinking he would use it again. Museum agreed to store craft, even keeping battery charged. Plane will be preserved, not restored. Rough-landing wrinkle in fuselage will remain as was.



Posted October 28, 2021
(updated from original post on 8/8/2012)

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