One of the most most striking monuments to the nuclear age lies not on a pedestal along the Mall, but on the floor, in pieces, at a Suitland warehouse.
There, at the Smithsonian Institution's Garber Facility, a team of airplane enthusiasts is working to preserve the Enola Gay, the B29 bomber that unleashed the first atomic bomb over Hiroshima 42 years ago.
"The restoration of the Enola Gay is an extremely time-consuming and laborious task," said Robert Mikesh, curator of the Smithsonian's aircraft. "But no other plane has had the effect the Enola Gay has had upon our lives.
"Besides drastically altering the outcome of World War II, the Enola Gay introduced the world to the possibility of global annihilation," he said.
The restoration, which began 2 1/2 years ago, is expected to require at least another five years, according to the estimates of the three restorers, Karl Heinzel, Richard Horigan and Dave Peterson. Mikesh said he hopes that the completion of the Enola Gay will coincide with the opening of another branch of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum because the Air and Space Museum on the Mall has no space to display it intact.
Before the plane can be displayed anywhere, however, the three restorers face a challenge. Every inch of the plane, which has a wingspan of 108 feet, must be cleaned and, if necessary, restored. The wire in the maze of electronics must be cleaned and every rivet polished. The plane, which is in pieces in different warehouses at the Garber facility, needs to be reassembled.
"It's a lot of hard, nasty work," said Heinzel, one of the three restorers. "But it's gratifying to know that this plane will be around for at least another 200 years and that it could be instructive to future generations. But on top of that, it's gratifying because I'm an airplane nut."
All three of the restorers separately described themselves as "airplane nuts."
Horigan began hanging out at the College Park Airport when he was 10, eventually getting to know and help the mechanics who worked there. In 1974, after a tour in Vietnam as an Air Force mechanic, his work at a local antique airplane association was noticed by the Smithsonian and he was hired to work at the Garber Facility.
Peterson and Heinzel gained their expertise in airplane restoration on the job at the Garber Facility and, like Horigan, were motivated by a childhood passion for planes.
"I started as a kid on the roof of my house with binoculars watching contrails," Peterson said.
But despite having lifelong contact with airplanes, not one of the three dismisses the Enola Gay as just another plane.
"This plane has an aura about it," admitted Peterson, as he chiseled a block of wood destined for the fuselage. "While I'm performing some monotonous task, it's impossible not to think about what went on in the cockpit when it flew over Hiroshima and dropped the bomb. The way it made a lurching turn after it dropped the bomb to avoid the shock waves, the strange mushroom cloud that formed -- all that."
The Enola Gay is one of the B29 Superfortress series, a plane that was designed for a large bomb capacity and long flying range -- attributes that made it ideal for the bombing of Japan that preceded the atomic bomb. Before its historic flight, pilot Paul Tibbets had "Enola Gay" painted on the nose of the plane in honor of his mother.
After the war, the Enola Gay was kept in storage in Arizona, Illinois and Texas, and made its last flight in 1953, to Andrews Air Force Base. In 1961, it was disassembled at Andrews and shipped to the Garber Facility, to await restoration and a suitable place for its display.
Fortunately for the restorers, not much of the airplane required structural restoration. "The plane was 90 percent flyable on the original parts," Horigan said.
Since the Enola Gay is basically intact, the task the restorers face is more preservation than restoration. Nonetheless, the sheer size of the plane means years of work.
To date, the cockpit and bomb bay sections of the plane have been finished. The wings, the engines, the tail and the landing gear are still to be done. The preservation process is basically the same for each section of the plane.
After all the miles of wiring are unsnarled, cleaned and reassembled in the different sections of the plane, any signs of corrosion or oxidation on the aluminum exterior are removed with a wire brush or pad, or blasted with glass beads in a process similar to sandblasting. Next, the exterior is wiped clean and sprayed with acryloid, an acrylic product recommended by experts at the Smithsonian for a clear hard finish.
If decals are destroyed in the preservation process, photographs of the originals are sent to the Exhibits Production Division at the Smithsonian for replacements.
So far, the greatest challenge for the restorers has been the complete re-creation of the bomb rack, the apparatus used to hold and release the atomic bomb. It had been removed from the Enola Gay for security reasons after the war.
To rebuild the bomb rack, photographs of the original had to be declassified. Horigan scaled the new bomb rack to the photographs by measuring the fixtures for the original that had been left in the Enola Gay.
To ensure that the preserved airplane will be as close to its original state as possible, each section of the plane is photographed and documented before work is done on it.
"I expect that when we finish the restoration, that if we fueled the plane and made some minor modifications, it could repeat its mission to Hiroshima," Heinzel said.
The Enola Gay is just one of the highlights of the free daily tours through the Garber Facility at 3904 Old Silver Hill Rd. that are open to the public.
Among the 90 other aircraft on display at the 21-acre compound are a Chinese air force MiG-15 fighter that began its voyage here with a defecting pilot at the controls, a Hawker Hurricane IIC, and a 1910 Fowler-Gage biplane. Visitors to the Garber Facility also can see the craftsmen at work on the planes to be restored in many of the 18 cavernous hangars in the compound.
Still, the Enola Gay is the exhibit that draws the most interest, according to Mikesh. "Maybe surprisingly, many Japanese come here and are very interested in the Enola Gay," Mikesh said. "They know how significant the plane is to their history.
"The plane symbolizes so much to so many people," he said.