Just head out the Suitland Parkway for about three miles to Branch Avenue, turn right on Branch for a mile or so and then left on Silver Hill Road. A few hundred yards ahead you'll come upon the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage Facility, "a complex of Butler buildings indistinguishable from the large fire station next door except for the lack of Bingo signs." (Look for the Polaris missile mounted in the parking lot behind the wire-mesh security fence.) Indistinguishable, that is, on the outside.
Inside you will find one of Washington's (and the Smithsonian's) best-kept secrets. Occupying 28 buildings (including six open to the public by appointment) on 21 acres and operated by 28 workers, the Garber Facility is a living monument to its founder and guiding spirit, who, although he retired in 1971 with 51 years of service, has remained active as historian emeritus of the National Air & Space Museum.
Walter Boyne, the museum's new director, tells the story of Silver Hill with charm, wit and undisguised relish at having had a part in rescuing the facility from the obscurity of its early years.
Boyne opens with several pages devoted to the now-legendary Garber, who witnessed the first flight of a military aircraft in the United States (in 1909 at Fort Myer) and the person most responsible for creation of a National Air & Space Museum. Among his many triumphs reported here is his acquisition of the Spirit of St. Louis, in 1927, which he set in motion by wiring ahead to Paris immediately upon hearing of Lindbergh's successful takeoff from Roosevelt Field in New York. Another involves how he found, in 1951, the present site of Silver Hill, then a densely forested rise overlooking a swamp filled with bullfrogs and mockingbirds.
The land proved easier to find than support from the powers at the Smithsonian, a situation Boyne says continued until Michael Collins was named Air & Space director in the early '70s. In tracing the revitalization of Silver Hill, which opened to the public in January 1977, Boyne describes with gusto the roles, personalities and idiosyncracies of many of the key players.
Readers more concerned with "what's there" at Silver Hill than with "how they got there" will be enthralled with the specifics Boyne provides about such items as the Wright Flyer, Curtiss Jenny, Spad XIII, "Roscoe Turner's Dream Machine," the Langley Aerodrome, the various models of the Custer Channel Wing, the DeHavilland D.H. 4 and the Enola Gay. Aviation enthusiasts and aircraft buffs will delight in these pages, copiously illustrated with well-chosen photographs.
The audience for both the book and the facility, however, goes well beyond enthusiasts and buffs. On three visits to Silver Hill in 1978 and 1979, and from numerous reports of visits by others, I have yet to see--let alone hear of--anyone who has ever piloted a plane (or dreamed of doing so) who was not dazzled by the collection. The great virtue of Boyne's account is to enlarge the audience even further, to include museum professionals of whatever specialty, machinists, corrosion control workers, modelers, woodworkers, metal workers, tinkerers and, yes, dreamers.
Another virtue of both the book and the facility will commend itself to the old fuds like myself who, when visiting the museum on the Mall, get a nagging feeling that the chase pilot on the Apollo XI mission (Michael Collins) might somehow have been led to over-emphasize space artifacts at the expense of aviation displays. Most people probably feel the other way round, but there are some of us left who will accept no excuses, however reasonable, for the P-47 "Jug" being absent from the World War II gallery. Thanks to Boyne's book, those who share this and similar biases have a better feel for the constraints imposed by limited space and conflicting priorities. More importantly, they can now see that a visit to the National Air & Space Museum is only half complete until one journeys out to Silver Hill.
The volume closes with a chapter on "ghost airplanes," centering on key aircraft--some existing, some of which there are no known survivors--that the Smithsonian has as yet been unable to corral.
Those who know Silver Hill will definitely want this book. Those who have visited the main museum on The Mall can now learn how it was put together and where and by whom its exhibits were prepared. Those who plan a visit (or return) to either facility have in these pages the most charmingly presented advance homework assignment they could imagine.