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The Air and Space museum gets a facelift, and its famous planes get a thorough exam

Sixty-five historic aircraft have gone off exhibit and under scrutiny while the museum empties for a renovation.

Smithsonian workers document details of a Ford Tri-Motor in storage at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. (Michael E. Ruane/TWP)

The elderly airplane sits in the restoration hangar with its wings off and its tail removed as the Smithsonian’s photographers document each section.

It’s a rickety contraption that its conservators say feels like a barn with engines.

The toilet consists of a metal bucket with a seat. Its wings once carried luggage. And its corrugated metal skin earned it the nickname “the tin goose.”

The three-engine Ford Tri-Motor was caked in grime when the institution’s Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar got it from the National Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington three months ago. There, it had hung from the ceiling with two mannequins in the cockpit for 43 years.

Now it has been disassembled, scrubbed and studied as a part of a massive overhaul of the museum that has seen 65 airplanes moved off exhibit in Washington to a new $60 million storage facility at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va.

Most of the western half of the popular museum on the Mall has now closed to the public for construction, deputy director Chris Browne said. Reopening is planned for 2022.

About 2,000 artifacts, including 65 historic aircraft, have been trucked to the museum’s new Dulles Collections Center — often in the middle of the night when traffic was light.

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The three-floor, 90,000-square-foot center, adjacent to Dulles International Airport, was built to house the artifacts. The center opened last January, when the first objects arrived, and is almost at capacity, said Douglas O. Erickson, chief of the museum’s collections processing unit.

The vast building, which is not open to the public, is now filled with storage boxes, airplane parts and oddball items:

— The Explorer II gondola, which, while suspended from a balloon, reached a record-setting altitude of 72,000 feet in 1935.

— The large model of the doomed German airship, Hindenburg, which blew up at Lakehurst, N.J., in 1937. (The model was used the 1975 film “The Hindenburg.”)

Wings have been removed from planes to save space, and stored on special shelves. The camouflage wings of an Italian World War II Macchi fighter rest not far from those of a World War I Spad, which have markings from German bullets.

The elegant wooden fuselage of a World War I German Albatros fighter is there, still bearing the mysterious slogan “STROPP” on its side. The museum is still not sure what the word means.

Elsewhere, huge airplane engines sit covered in clear plastic.

A World War II Japanese Zero fighter, painted green and white, rests in a cradle, cushioned by foam.

And a large box is labeled, “Caution! Object Directly Behind Cardboard.”

The Ford Tri-Motor — the Smithsonian’s dates to 1929 — sits in the restoration hangar next door.

In the 1920s and early ’30s, the airplane was the latest in air travel and was the first practical airliner in the United States, the museum said.

It had a 420-horsepower piston engine on each wing and one in its nose. Passenger seats were made of wicker. The Smithsonian’s still bears the old blue and orange insignia of American Airways.

The plane has a single row of seats on either side of the cabin and could carry about a dozen passengers. But museum expert Bob van der Linden said the aircraft could be hot, noisy and bumpy in flight. “You’re bouncing all over the sky, so air sickness was a constant problem,” he said in a museum video about the plane.

As for the toilet, “it’s a five-gallon pail basically with a nice toilet seat on it,” Luke Jones, the hangar’s restoration shop supervisor, said last week as the photographers documented the plane.

“This has been in here three months, now,” Jones said. “My guys actually had to go on top of the wing. They had to scrub the corrugated metal trying to get [the dirt] out. Every single little piece. Every cable gets polished up and treated to make sure it doesn’t rust.”

“The wings have already been done,” he said, adding that he was amazed to find that they doubled as luggage compartments. “That’s not something you see,” he said. “I’ve been around [old airplanes] my whole life, worked on them for at least the last 20 years. I had never known those were in there.”

“That’s probably the most unique thing about this airplane, outside of three engines,” he said.

“Oddly enough, you would think with three engines it would be able to carry itself for a while,” Jones said. But if “one engine goes down in this, they’ve got to put it down. It is so poorly engineered.”

But in its day it was a prince of the skies.

Admiral Richard E. Byrd flew a Ford Tri-Motor on his record-setting trip to the South Pole in 1929.

That same year, billiards champion Ralph Greenleaf played for an hour aboard a Ford Tri-Motor flying over Detroit. Organizers of the stunt predicted that billiards might be added to recreational activities on airliners, according to news reports.

Ford Tri-Motors thrilled audiences at airshows, and one set a world speed record for multi-engine planes in 1930. Top speed: 164.4 mph. Modern airliners fly at about 500 mph.

In 1932, future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a dramatic gesture, flew in one from Albany to Chicago to deliver his acceptance speech after being nominated by the Democrats. (The flight was rough, with no seat belts for passengers, and many in Roosevelt’s party were airsick, according to the Virginia Aviation History Project.)

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But the airplane could also be deadly.

On Dec. 2, 1928, a Ford Tri-motor crashed in Spur, Tex., killing five people. Three months later, on March 17, 1929, 14 people were killed when one crashed into a rail yard near Newark on a sightseeing flight. The plane struck a freight car and broke in two.

At the time it was believed to be the deadliest plane crash in the U.S., the New York Times reported.

In 1931, Ford’s chief test pilot and a company mechanic were killed when an experimental Tri-Motor configured as a bomber crashed outside Detroit. That same year, six people were killed in Cincinnati when one lost a propeller and crashed on takeoff.

Last week, as the photographers worked, museum aeronautics specialist Bridget Clark stood nearby cleaning a part for another airplane.

She had helped lower the Tri-Motor to the floor of the Air and Space museum and take it apart, she said.

“The really cool thing about all these planes [is] everything single one of them is different,” she said. They have personalities “and scars.”

As for the Tri-Motor?

“It’s super rickety, but also kind of industrial at the same time,” she said. “There’s a weird juxtaposition between its fragility … yet it’s like a barn.”

The airplane cost $55,000 in 1929.

Over the years, the Smithsonian’s Tri-Motor was flown by airlines in the U.S., Nicaragua and Mexico, according to the museum. It later was used as a crop duster in Montana, and ferried cargo to Alaska.

Eventually it wound up back in Mexico, forlorn and turned into a dwelling beside a small airstrip. A wood-burning stove had been installed and a chimney stuck through a hole in the roof.

The airplane was recovered and restored by American Airlines in the 1960s, and given to the Smithsonian in 1962.

In a 1928 advertisement for the airplane, Ford described a Tri-Motor flight:

You experience a sensation that is … one of the most extraordinary man has ever felt.

You are transcending human nature.

You feel immeasurably superior to the crawling beings in the miniature world … two thousand feet below.

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