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In a no-frills metal building somewhere in Suitland, Dick Haven stands next to what looks a bit like a flying shotgun. The strange machinea last-ditch Nazi attempt to thwart Allied bombers at the end of World War IIis called the Bachem Ba 349B-1 Natter; it launched like a rocket but leveled off to fly horizontally, like the space shuttle. As he neared approaching bombers, the pilot would launch the 24 missiles loaded into the craft’s nose before bailing out. The Nazis destroyed a battery of Natters as the Allies advanced, and the one in Haven’s care at the National Air and Space Museum’s Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility is one of only two known to survive.
Garber’s ad-hoc gallerywith floor space roughly equal to that of the lobby of Air and Space’s flagship location on the Mallis part of a complex that has stocked much of the Smithsonian museum’s reserve collection, including aeronautic curiosities such as the Natter, since the mid-’50s. (It was built to store some of the Smithsonian’s World War II aircraftwhich previously sat in a dormant Chicago airplane factory that was reactivated to meet Korean War production demands.) In 1977, the Smithsonian began public tours of the Suitland facility, which also houses a team of preservationists.
Garber’s jumbled display of aircraft, spacesuits, and flight paraphernalia resembles an aviation enthusiast’s garage more than a proper museum. Exhibits are lined up relatively neatly, and placards identify each piece, but no narrative ties them all together. A model of the mother ship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind sits along a back wall. A Martin K-III Kitten, a failed biplane thought to be the first aircraft equipped with retractable landing gear, hangs roughly 20 feet off the ground”higher than it’s ever flown before,” laughs Haven.
The 81-year-old Virginia resident is one of 31 volunteer docents who guide daily tours of the collectiontours that can last for hours with a loquacious guide such as Haven, who served as a Marine Corps navigator in World War II.
Though roughly 70 percent of Air and Space’s collection is housed at Garber, the museum draws a disproportionately small share of visitors: It takes Garber about two-and-a-half years to get as much traffic as the Mall collection gets on an average day. Granted, the facility isn’t quite as family-friendly as its parent museum. The Garber Web site discourages visits from children under the age of 16, and the only visible concession to comfort is a row of puffy blue chairs that look as if they’ve been in place since the ’70s.
That’s all about to change, though. The $312 million, 760,000-square-foot Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport is slated to open Dec. 15; Garber will welcome its last visitors on March 31, then close down for good. While Udvar-Hazy won’t have Garber’s rugged charm, it will feature modern accouterments that the Suitland venue lacksincluding a food court, a gift shop, and an IMAX theater. The new facility will allow a projected 3 million visitors annually to see, among other things, the space shuttle Enterprise and the Hiroshima-bomb-carrier Enola Gay, which will be completely assembled there for the first time since the early ’60s.
There will be plenty of room for docents at Dulles, toomore than 100 will be trained, though those already working at Garber or the Mall facility won’t have to reapply. That’s good news for visitors looking for a sense of institutional memory: Haven, who’s been a Garber docent for 26 years, promises, “I’m going to try that out, yeah.” Joe Dempsey