How I Got to Sit in the Enola Gay and Other Youthful Excursions

March 17, 2012 by  

My siblings and I spent several weeks with our sister and brother, Jan and Art, in McLean, VA, every summer. On one of these visits, one evening my parents and adult siblings went to a party. Their regular sitter was unavailable to take care of my kid sister and brother (MyMac Magazine’s own Guy Serle), my niece and nephew, Chris and Doug, and of course me, at the ripe old age of 13. Our substitute sitter, Rick Smith, was the younger brother of one of Jan’s regular sitters (whose name escapes me at the moment).

It turned out that Rick and I shared a common love of stamp collecting and became fast friends. When he wasn’t working or otherwise occupied, he would take me into Washington, D.C. to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History (in those days, called the National Museum of History and Technology), the main U.S. Post Office building (now a popular eating establishment and multi-use facility), and even a magic and novelty store on Pennsylvania Avenue. Rick had also worked at the Smithsonian as a volunteer, I believe in the Philately department. This was the first I had heard of such an opportunity to do volunteer work at the Smithsonian. Well, along with being a stamp nut, I was also an automotive and aviation nut (yeah, as my bio states, just a nut…). Rick used his Smithsonian employee credentials to get me into the back rooms of the National Air and Space Museum (NASM), where I interviewed with the manager of the aviation library, Bob Wood–a more patient man I have never met. I had had some experience working at my high school library, which, along with my love of flying things, made it a cinch for me to get the job, which started the following summer, in June, 1969.

The significance of this date was multi-fold. First, this was the summer that two members of the Apollo 11 crew walked on the Moon. Second, this was when lobbying moved into high gear to move the NASM from their shared quarters in the old Arts and Industries building and a World War II surplus Quonset Hut to the building where the main part of the collection is now housed on the National Mall, and whose opening was one of the major celebration events on July 4, 1976, the National Bicentennial. Now, I may not have this entirely (or even partially) correct, but it is how I remember it–Congress allocated the funding to begin construction of the new museum on property on which was formerly located a large array of “temporary” office buildings constructed during WW II. The new Air and Space building was designed by famed architect I.M. Pei. It eventually became one of the crowning jewels of the National Mall, and the most visited museum on the Mall. In 1969, however, the U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam was still growing, and an executive order was executed by the Nixon White House to delay the disbursement of the funds needed to begin construction, should those funds be needed to support U.S. operations in Southeast Asia, those being the days before our government got addicted to serious deficit spending.

It was into this interesting time in history that I began my two month volunteer (meaning unpaid) job at the Smithsonian. My job in the large but rather primitive library (at that time, organized by author’s surname and larger general categories: civil aviation, military aviation, space flight, etc.) was to shelve books, fulfill orders for aircraft blueprints and other free research material, and anything else needed by the museum staff, including Dr. Paul E. Garber, Director Emeritus (or somesuch title), the man who through sheer force of will got Congress to authorize a separate aviation museum in 1946. That same force of will got Orville Wright to finally agree, just before his death in 1948, to authorize the return of the original Wright Flyer to the new National Air Museum, after residing at the British Museum for over 40 years, due to an unfortunate insistence that Smithsonian Secretary Samuel Langley’s Aerodrome was the first mechanism capable of powered flight. Later tests proved that it was almost impossible for it to have performed as originally described, and with Langley and his supporters long dead, it was possible for the Smithsonian leadership to revise their stance and admit that the Wright Flyer made the first powered flight in 1903. The clothing worn by the dummy of Orville Wright on the Wright Flyer was originally owned by Dr. Garber. Other staffers with whom I regularly worked included curators Dr. Louis B. Casey, Dr. Ernest Robischon, Dr. Frank Bingham, and Guggenheim Fellow Frank Winter.

It was noted in a recent issue of Air & Space, the house organ for the NASM, that Frank Winter had just retired after 38 years of service that saw him eventually move up to Assistant Curator in the Space Science and Exploration department. When I knew him, he was a really fun guy who enjoyed going through the card catalog of captured WW II German aviation records, to find German surnames with obscene spelling. Something only a true geek could appreciate…

Since the job was a voluntary one, I pretty much set my own hours, and when not busy with my various tasks, I had the run of most of the Smithsonian buildings, which permitted me to do some of my own research on aviation and automotive history, including going through their excellent photographic collections. The NASM also had a number of films, many of which I was able to view during my lunch break. I also participated in one or two of the “Lunchbox Forums” hosted by the Museum. Here, experts in various fields related to aviation and rocketry gave presentations during the traditional lunch period. Participants were encouraged to bring their lunch to these seminars. It was here that I met J. Gordon Vaeth of the Environmental Space Sciences division of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA). Vaeth was a well-known author of books on a number of topics including lighter-than-air flight, and with whom I enjoyed several years of correspondence.

That’s all well and good, but what about the Enola Gay? Well, I’m getting to that…

One of the things associated with the NASM that I wanted dearly to see was the “Silver Hill” (later renamed the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration, and Storage Facility) storage and restoration facility in Suitland, Maryland. This facility stored many of the Smithsonian’s aircraft that could not be displayed due to insufficient space in the old galleries. One of the most famous aircraft stored there was the B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, which dropped the first nuclear weapon in August, 1945. This is probably one of the most important, valuable, and controversial aircraft in the Smithsonian’s possession, and as an aviation nut, I really wanted to see it.

Finally, as my two month stay was winding down, my boss, Bob Wood, drove me out to the Silver Hill site and gave me an excellent tour, introducing me to many of the incredible craftspeople who restored these aircraft from as little as a box of parts to what you see today in the NASM’s two facilities–the original building on the National Mall, and the new Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, located next to Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia. Anyhow, Bob was taking his time with the tour, and I kept asking where the Enola Gay was. We saw a number of WW II German experimental aircraft, President Truman’s C-54, known as the “Sacred Cow“, and others. Finally, we entered a large, darkened hangar. Off in the distance, I saw the aluminum panels of a large airplane, slightly oxidized from long-term storage. There it was. The Enola Gay, named by Colonel Paul W. Tibbets (left), for his mother. The wings and tail section had been removed to facilitate storage. We walked over and climbed up on a ladder into the bomb bay. We made our way forward, and entered the cockpit. It was there, surrounded by the large wraparound windows that made the B-29 so distinctive in appearance, that I sat in the cracked and faded leather “left seat”–the aircraft commander’s seat–occupied that warm August day in 1945 by Col. Tibbets.

As the story went, the Enola Gay approached Hiroshima. Tibbets handed off control of the massive aircraft to his bombardier, Thomas Ferebee, to make the final run and release the as yet untested uranium-based Little Boy nuclear device (the Fat Man device was plutonium-based). As we all know, the device performed its job as designed, and made the United States the first nuclear power, for right or for wrong–that discussion is not within the scope of this blog. The controversy as to the necessity of using such a weapon rages on to this day, and has still not been satisfactorily resolved, nor may it ever be.

When the front section of the Enola Gay was first displayed at the NASM in 1995 (the museum was too small to house the complete assembled aircraft), it was done so under high security to protect the aircraft and the museum from those who loudly expressed their objections to the display of this significant aircraft. The accompanying text that was part of the display wound up being rewritten at least once, due to objections by several opposing groups who considered the Enola Gay to be a symbol of their respective political positions.

Personally, I can see the passionate arguments on both sides of the nuclear coin, but this blog is about a 14 year old aviation crazy getting a chance to sit in the pilot’s seat of one of the most famous and valuable aircraft in the world. It was just about the coolest thing an aviation geek could ever do.

The Enola Gay, now fully assembled with a gleaming aluminum skin, is one of the centerpieces of the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, the annex to the National Air and Space Museum at Chantilly, VA.

Thanks to Bob Wood for putting up with me for the summer. Special thanks to Dr. Richard Smith, now a top expert in computer security and cryptography, for helping me make the contacts that made my Washington D.C. adventure possible.

As a brief side note, I lost contact with Rick for almost 35 years as we went our separate ways, until about two years ago, when out of the blue, I got an email from Rick. He happened upon my website, and immediately recognized my writing style, which apparently has not changed since high school (is that a yay or a boo?). We have continued an enjoyable, if sporadic correspondence since. Another example of the power of the internet.

Photo info: both images were originally official US Government photos, therefore they are in the public domain.