Among the numerous photos of the retired space shuttle’s fly-by around D.C. was a shot of it going past the U.S. Capitol. The statue of Freedom atop the dome is shown shrouded in scaffolding. What is going on with that? Some 25 years ago, that statue was lifted off the dome by a huge cargo helicopter and lowered to the east front plaza. That was the beginning of a supposedly full and complete restoration. So only 25 years later, workers are up there again. What is the story?
— Richard Erb, Clear Brook, Va.
Answer Man remembers exactly where he was on the morning of May 9, 1993: at the U.S. Capitol with Answer Daughter No. 1, who was not yet 2 years old. He wanted her to witness the historic event, the first time Freedom had been removed since being placed atop the dome 130 years earlier.
Unfortunately, the scene — the crowd, the noise of the helicopter, the gust from its rotor blades — was too much for AD No. 1 and she sobbed the entire time. It has become part of family lore, along with The Time Daddy Took Her to Cirque du Soleil When She Was 4 and The Time Daddy Took Her to “Sweeney Todd” When She Was 11.
Daddy eventually learned his lesson.
But we were talking about Freedom. The big refurbishment that the 14,985-pound statue received in 1993 was never meant to be the final act of cosmetic upkeep.
“We do regular preservation work every four to five years,” said Eva Malecki of the Architect of the Capitol’s office. “So this is our regularly scheduled maintenance. She’s made of bronze, and when you have bronze out in the elements, you can expect a little rusting and pitting, from hail or other things that strike her. She does get hit by lightning.”
About three weeks ago scaffolding was built around the statue, which is 19 feet tall. A maximum of four conservators can work at any one time. They wash Freedom with a mild soap and water, fix any cracks or pitting, and sharpen the points on the lightning rods.
Once an area is cleaned, the bronze receives a coat of Incralac, an acrylic-based protective coating. “We liken it to a really strong sunscreen,” Eva said.
The work is being done in conjunction with restoration of the Capitol’s dome skirt, which is the very bottom of the dome. You can’t really see the dome skirt work, since it’s surrounded by a white scrim. Rust and old paint are being removed from the cast iron before it is primed and repainted.
The dome skirt work should be done by October, just in time for workers to start constructing the inaugural stands. Freedom’s face-lift should be finished by mid-May.
“Hopefully we’re doing a great job of protecting her for another four years,” Eva said.
Last week’s column about the man who flew a biplane under the old 14th Street bridge prompted a recollection from Oak Hill’s Jim Fearson. In the early 1950s, Jim worked at the gas station that used to be at the Virginia end of Chain Bridge.
“In those times, that was a sleepy area, not much traffic and when not taking care of a gas customer the only thing to watch were the fishermen or the occasional passing vehicle,” Jim wrote. “While river-watching, all of a sudden a yellow Piper Cub came swooping down the river, went under the bridge and was gone — that quick. No pictures, no documentation, but it happened.”
Bob Shvodian of Bethesda wrote that on the opening day of the first span of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, “a daring Naval aviator stole the show by flying a complete loop around the center span. He flew up from Pax River Naval Air Station and unfortunately some official noted his wing number and reported it to the U.S. Navy and the pilot was cashiered.”
So, said Greg Broad of Silver Spring, was the Air Force pilot who flew a B-47 under Michigan’s Mackinac Bridge in 1959.
Some pilots can’t resist daredevilry. A reader named Rebecca Beeman of Calvert County wrote that when she was at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska in the early 1980s, a pilot flew a massive E-4 747 a scant 50 feet over the runway during an air show — wheels up.
“He soon lost his flying status,” Rebecca wrote. “He was a hoot to work with. I was sorry to see him go.”
She wondered how many planes have flown under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Well, according to a 2001 article in Air & Space Magazine, five have, plus a balloon.
“It’s kind of a sensitive subject — the less we publicize it, the less people will do it,” a Park Service historian told author Phil Scott.
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