In the Mu­seum

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - RE­BECCA MAKSEL

Lind­bergh’s trea­sure

LAST JAN­UARY, one of the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum’s most fa­mous trea­sures, which had been sus­pended from the ceil­ing for 22 years, was low­ered to the Mu­seum floor. Its tem­po­rary lo­ca­tion “gives our vis­i­tors a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to see this re­mark­able air­craft up close in a way that nor­mally they will not have a chance to,” says cu­ra­tor Bob van der Lin­den. “It’s a very rare op­por­tu­nity.”

The air­craft is un­der­go­ing preser­va­tion work for sev­eral months and will be sus­pended once again as part of the re­fur­bish­ing of the Boe­ing Mile­stones of Flight Hall.

Charles Lind­bergh and the Spirit of St. Louis made their fi­nal flight to­gether on April 30, 1928, when the famed avi­a­tor trav­eled to the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion to do­nate his Ryan NYP.

Four hours and 58 min­utes af­ter leav­ing St. Louis, Lind­bergh landed the Spirit at Wash­ing­ton, D.C.’S Bolling Field. Af­ter taxi­ing to a hangar door, Lind­bergh sat qui­etly for a mo­ment. Ac­cord­ing to the Chicago Daily Tri­bune, he then gath­ered a blue sweater and some bag­gage and stepped out of the air­plane. “Lind­bergh walked slowly around it, look­ing it over. He said the plane had flown more than 40,000 miles, and could ‘carry on’ that far again.”

The iconic air­craft has been dis­played ever since, ini­tially in the Smith­so­nian’s Arts & In­dus­tries Build­ing, then in the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum when it opened in 1976.

The re­cent low­er­ing could be de­scribed as an­ti­cli­mac­tic, says van der Lin­den, who adds, “Thank good­ness! The last thing you want is ex­cite­ment when you’re low­er­ing the Spirit of

St. Louis.”

Dur­ing the low­er­ing, van der Lin­den spoke with head con­ser­va­tor Malcolm Col­lum about the gold fin­ish on the air­craft’s cowl­ing. “We had al­ways as­sumed that we were go­ing to re­verse it,” says van der Lin­den, “that it was es­sen­tially lac­quer that we had put on. But Malcolm told me that Ryan Air­lines added the var­nish. Although it didn’t ap­pear golden in 1927, it is his­tor­i­cally cor­rect.”

“A lot of this is tied to the met­al­lurgy of the time,” ex­plains Col­lum. “Back in the 1920s, air­craft were made of du­ra­lu­minum, which is a way of mak­ing a nice mal­leable and strong alu­minum al­loy. But the big­gest draw­back is that it’s very sus­cep­ti­ble to cor­ro­sion. Any ex­posed alu­minum sur­faces were al­ways painted with a clear lac­quer or paint coat­ing for cor­ro­sion pro­tec­tion. These lac­quers are very sus­cep­ti­ble to light degra­da­tion, so over the years they will start to be­come more brit­tle and they will turn a beau­ti­ful golden, al­most bronze color. And that’s the color you see to­day.”

While the var­nish won’t be al­tered, other items on the cowl­ing

will be sta­bi­lized. Af­ter his 1927 solo transat­lantic flight, Lind­bergh took the Spirit on a tour of the United States and Cen­tral and South America. Flags of the coun­tries he vis­ited were painted on both sides of the cowl­ing.

“Un­der each flag there’s an in­di­ca­tion of when he landed and the city in which he landed,” says Col­lum. “Ev­ery flag is painted by a dif­fer­ent per­son, and they used a dif­fer­ent kind of paint and a dif­fer­ent let­ter­ing style. Each flag has its own unique char­ac­ter.

“But over time,” says Col­lum, “some col­ors have faded more than oth­ers, de­pend­ing on what kind of pig­ments were used by that par­tic­u­lar artist. Some of the flags have very badly color shifted. So a yel­low strip in a flag will now look like a dark brown. Deal­ing with that is one of the big­ger chal­lenges. The goal of this treat­ment is to sta­bi­lize and pre­serve as much as pos­si­ble. So if we see paint that is cleav­ing off the sur­face and is go­ing to be sus­cep­ti­ble to rou­tine dust­ing and clean­ing, then we’ll go in with a syn­thetic resin and try and sta­bi­lize those ar­eas. We will not be re­paint­ing any­thing.”

Con­ser­va­tors are also eval­u­at­ing small tears in the fuse­lage fab­ric. In the past, ex­plains Col­lum, if the Mu­seum had a his­toric air­plane that had a tear in it, they would re­pair it ac­cord­ing to the meth­ods that main­te­nance crews would ap­ply to a fly­able air­plane, so that the fab­ric would be strong and meet a va­ri­ety of per­for­mance char­ac­ter­is­tics.

But con­ser­va­tors no­ticed a side ef­fect of the re­pairs that were done 22 years ago, when the air­craft was last worked on. Says Col­lum: “The process of brush­ing new dope onto the sur­round­ing, orig­i­nal dope has ac­tu­ally caused col­lat­eral dam­age to the pe­riph­eral ar­eas. So we’re now look­ing at us­ing an ad­he­sive that is not only go­ing to be rev­ersible but also is not go­ing to cause ad­di­tional col­lat­eral dam­age as it ages.”

The staff has been sur­prised by a num­ber of sub­tle de­tails that are ev­i­dent only in a close view­ing. “There’s a gap be­tween the con­trol sur­faces,” says Col­lum. “That hinge gap was orig­i­nally cov­ered with fab­ric. When it left the Ryan Air­craft fac­tory, they had all those seams cov­ered up with fab­ric as a way of help­ing with the stream­lin­ing. And then at some point—i think it was in New York—if you study the pho­to­graphs, you can see [the fab­ric cov­er­ings are] there one mo­ment, and then in another pho­to­graph they’re all gone. Some­one went in and tore them all off. We can still see the wit­ness marks in the dope where there was pink-edged taped fab­ric cov­er­ing all of the gaps. So for some rea­son, per­haps it was in­ter­fer­ing with the op­er­a­tion of the con­trol sur­faces, some­body tore it off all the ailerons and the el­e­va­tors.

“That’s re­ally the amaz­ing thing about this air­plane: It’s so un­touched. Even though it has had a bunch of re­pairs, it’s still an in­cred­i­bly orig­i­nal air­plane.”

The Mu­seum ten­ta­tively es­ti­mates that the Spirit will be on the floor through July.

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