He's up? The news bursting from the radio that morning in 1927 stunned Paul Garber, who was eating breakfast at home and was about to leave for another day's work in the Smithsonian's museum shop of aeronautics. The news changed everything.
Charles Lindbergh, flying the Spirit of St. Louis, had just left Roosevelt Field in New York, the radio report said. He was headed for France. And he didn't plan to stop. Garber sensed history; he formed a cablegram in his head as he drove to work, quickly wrote it when he arrived, then placed it on the desk of Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory Director Charles Abbot.
"It was a message to Lindbergh, saying the Smithsonian needed to have his plane when he was done," Garber remembered yesterday. "I must have written that cable before Lindbergh had even flown over New England."
Abbot didn't share Garber's enthusiasm; Lindbergh had not yet edged past Nova Scotia, much less the Atlantic Ocean. "Mr. Abbot was only tolerably patient with me," recalls Garber, who will be honored today for his nearly seven decades of service to the Smithsonian Institution's aeronautical collection. "But I kept saying, 'We've got to get that plane, sir. He's going to make it. He's got a great plane, with a great engine.' "
Off the cable went. It greeted Lindbergh upon arrival in France. The pilot eventually replied: It was a good idea. And on April 30, 1928, Paul Garber stood on the runway of Washington's Bolling Field, eagerly waiting for Charles Lindbergh to land the Spirit of St. Louis for the last time.
It was a big catch. But not Garber's last. For the past 67 years, Garber has scurried around the country in the Smithsonian Institution's name, acquiring most of its world-renowned collection of historic aircraft. Today, as part of the tribute, the 87-year-old Garber will serve a one-day honorary stint as director of the National Air and Space Museum.
Garber jokes that "heads will roll" during his brief reign, but says his most important task will be opening the treasure chest of memories he's gained from a lifelong fascination with flight. He will give a presentation to the public this morning at 10:30 in the museum's Early Flight Gallery.
"Paul Garber not only made this museum possible, he made it necessary," said Donald Lopez, deputy director of the Air and Space Museum. "He went around collecting so many important airplanes, he made it imperative that we have this for the public to see."
The government made Garber retire in 1969 at age 70, but he still works as Historian Emeritus and Ramsey Fellow in the Air and Space Museum, working Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. His office walls are filled with nearly 50 plaques -- more are stacked in corners of the room -- most applauding him "for preserving the history of aviation." His office mirror is shaped like a hot-air balloon. Tiny gold eagles dot Garber's navy blue tie.
These days, he works mostly on compiling biographical information on pioneer fliers, and recently he began work on an autobiography. "I call it my aerobiography," Garber says. There's so much to include: In 1909, Garber watched the Wright brothers test the first military plane on an airfield in Fort Myer. He got to know Orville well. He knew Lindbergh well. Once, in the early 1950s, Lindbergh called Garber with a special request: He wanted to sit in the Spirit of St. Louis one more time.
Garber obliged. The two met after the Arts and Industries Museum closed (the Smithsonian's collection of aircraft used to be housed there). Garber propped a ladder alongside the plane, and climbed up behind the famous pilot. "He sat there silently for almost an hour," Garber recalls. "I could tell he wanted to be alone, so I quickly backed down the ladder. He finally looked down from the cockpit and said, 'Paul?' Looking at him like that, I got a very peculiar feeling, a shiver and a thrill."
Garber proudly proclaims his birth date: Aug. 31, 1899, just two months after Orville Wright mailed a letter to the Smithsonian Institution asking for all its information on aviation; four years later he and Wilbur made the first successful flight, near Kitty Hawk, N.C. Garber can quote paragraphs from that letter. He can also quote from the poem he wrote the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The last two lines go like this: New knowledge evermore we'll try to find/ We thank all heroes, trying, for mankind.
"I think I've always loved flying because it's such a new experience for humanity to do this, and it all began right when I was born," Garber says. "It's such a wonderful feeling to be free of everything, just up there, looking down at the planet."
Garber first left the ground in 1905. He was 5 years old, and his uncle had tied a kite string around his wrist on the beach in Atlantic City, N.J. "I was so light, the wind started pulling me up. I was headed for Europe," Garber says, loudly laughing. "But my uncle grabbed me when I had just got into the surf."
He later started a model airplane club, and flew -- a biplane hang glider -- for the first time in 1915. During World War I, as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, Garber underwent pilot training, but the armistice was signed before he finished. He worked as a member of the ground crew for the U.S. Air Mail Service in College Park, and in 1920 began work at the Smithsonian as a preparator. "That means I did anything," he says.
But he did one thing best: finding important aircraft. Garber, who left the Smithsonian during World War II to serve as a Navy commander, claims his biggest catch, his greatest accomplishment, came two years after Congress established the National Air Museum and appointed Garber curator. In 1948, he brought the Wright brothers' Kitty Hawk Flyer to the Smithsonian.
Orville Wright had lent the plane to the London Science Museum, where it stayed on display for 20 years. But Wright had intended it to eventually become part of the Smithsonian's collection. Garber finally arranged for the plane to be brought back. It came by ship to New York, but there was a dock strike. The ship sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia. But the dock strike spread there, too.
"I was along the dock, and the captain of the boat said he couldn't unload the plane because of the strike," Garber remembers. "And I yelled back, 'You've got an international treasure in there, and as a U.S. Navy commander I insist you unload it.' And he did."
Garber then called the Navy. He asked for a boat to pick up him and the plane. One week later, the boat came and the Wright brothers' plane was on its way to Washington. "When I made that call from Halifax, I really think I caught one of the commanding officers off guard," Garber recalls. "The first thing he said was, 'Paul, you think of the damnedest things.' "