THERE'S NO END TO THE WEIRD artifacts stashed at the National Air and Space Museum's Garber Facility in Suitland. But none seems so incongruous as Gilmore the Flying Lion. Alongside other fragile relics, such as World War I flying outfits and Apollo spacesuits, the full-grown, stuffed feline resides in a climate- controlled vault set to 50 degrees and 50 percent humidity. "We just keep a piece of plastic over him," says Al Bachmeier, chief of collections management at the National Air and Space Museum. "That way we don't have to vacuum him."
In his glory days in 1930, Gilmore the Flying Lion was an enormously successful public relations gimmick for both the Gilmore Oil Company and air racer Roscoe Turner. Turner, whose aerial achievements and gaudy publicity stunts kept him in the news, convinced oil magnate Earl Gilmore that a flying lion cub could enhance his company's image. Gilmore gave Turner his blessing and a $15,000 check to buy a new plane and a lion from the World Jungle Compound in Los Angeles.
Turner and his 5-week-old feline passenger -- which he named Gilmore, of course -- drew hordes of photographers and reporters. The Humane Society insisted that Gilmore wear a parachute, and Turner dutifully strapped it on the lion.
Turner and Gilmore shared luxury hotel suites on the air-racing circuit and attended banquets, where the bored cub chewed on the guests' shoes. Gilmore lived in Turner's house when the two were not traveling and loved to skate on the small rugs scattered across the hardwood floors. The lion was also the first to answer the doorbell, which both delighted and terrified visitors.
The partnership lasted for six months. By then Gilmore had outgrown both the cockpit and his owner, and Turner reluctantly returned the lion to the World Jungle Compound. For the rest of Gilmore's life, Turner sent the compound a $40 check each month for fresh meat and visited him every chance he got.
When Gilmore died, Turner had him stuffed and brought back home to his trophy room. "The trophies belong to him as much as they do to me," he said. And when Turner died in 1970, his wife Madonna decided that Gilmore, the trophies and Turner's RT-14 Meteor race plane belonged in the Smithsonian.
Museum officials agreed and accepted the collection in 1972. Gilmore and the Meteor were originally exhibited in the Arts and Industries building, then moved to the Exhibition Flight Gallery in the new Air and Space Museum in 1976.
Tourists thought Gilmore was the cat's meow when it came to finding offbeat souvenirs of Washington to take back home. "Unfortunately, in the new gallery, Gilmore was out of sight of the guards most of the time, and people were pulling out his whiskers," says Don Lopez, the museum's deputy director. Museum of Natural History taxidermists rewhiskered Gilmore a few times, but in 1981 the Turner exhibit was replaced, fittingly, by one on jet aviation. Gilmore and the Meteor were sent to Suitland, where Gilmore went into cold storage to save his hide.
Retirement has proven to be a virtual fountain of youth for the aged lion. Despite his 57 years, as Lopez puts, "He still looks good."