Skip to main content


To Fly Or Not To Fly?

Spring 1995 | Volume 10 |  Issue 4

WILMINGTON, DEL. : Any dedicated viewer of television’s “The A-Team” knows that the high point of each episode is the engineering scene. First the team stumbles on a rusty old airplane, tank, or rocket launcher that just happens to be right where they need it; then Mr. T patches it up with paper clips, toothpicks, pipe cleaners, and his Swiss Army knife; and finally the team members use it to subdue the bad guys and save the orphanage from ruin. It all makes for great television, which isn’t saying much; but in real life last names are longer than one letter, and old airplanes don’t fly two minutes after you dig them out of the mud.

Finding and rescuing old planes has clearly caught the public’s fancy. Not so clear is what to do after digging them up.

In fact, they often require years of work to make them flyable, or even presentable. In the process parts may be replaced, markings may be painted over, and signs of wear may be effaced, to the point where a plane approaches the gray area between restoration and replica and its value as an artifact can be compromised. The question of how much spiffing up of old aircraft is appropriate has become one of the field’s biggest controversies in recent years, with flying buffs and air-show promoters on one side, historical purists on the other, and museum professionals in the middle, trying to keep everyone happy.

A leading member of the handle-with-care school is TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery), a nonprofit organization based in Wilmington. TIGHAR’s mission is severalfold: to locate and rescue old aircraft; to ensure that their remains are treated with the proper respect for historical integrity (in some cases, by not flying them); and to standardize the terminology used in preservation, so that one museum’s “replica” is not another’s “reconstruction.” The goal behind all these efforts is, in the words of TIGHAR’s motto (which quotes John Aubrey, an antiquarian of the seventeenth century), “That they might escape the teeth of time and the hands of mistaken zeal.”

It all sounds innocent enough, but not everyone is a TIGHAR fan. After a 1992 speech by the organization’s director, Richard Gillespie, one museum administrator wrote: “I have … tried to be open-minded about your vapid claims …. [your] speech shows your almost total lack of historical aviation knowledge … you are becoming a joke in aviation historical circles.” Others point out that despite all its talk, TIGHAR has not yet actually found, recovered, or preserved any aircraft. A rival Amelia Earhart scholar calls TIGHAR’s theory that she perished on a remote island in the Pacific “ridiculous and mendacious.” Clearly more is at work here than a simple debate over decals and semantics.

The origin of these disputes goes back to the earliest days of the aircraft-preservation movement, which started as a hobby for active and retired pilots in the late 1950s, when there were few aviation museums. Soon organizations like the Confederate Air Force were drawing huge crowds to watch painted-up restorations fly with a widely varying mixture of original components, parts cannibalized from other planes, and modern replacements. These early efforts set the pattern for several decades of aircraft preservation, because while museums and scholars were slow to understand the historical importance of airplanes, fliers quickly noticed the potential for showmanship. And when there’s too much showmanship and not enough scholarship, it gets TIGHAR’s dander up. “Altering an aircraft solely for interpretive purposes destroys something real for the sake of creating an illusion,” it sternly notes.

To be fair, there are good reasons to fix up and fly old planes. Doing so attracts crowds, helping pay for research and getting the public interested. Aircraft were meant to be in the air; when one is flown, both pilot and spectator learn things they wouldn’t if it were sitting on the ground. Planes in service are routinely repaired and upgraded; why should antiques be any different? And what’s wrong with painting an old bomber to look the way it did during the war?

TIGHAR does not disagree with any of these points, nor does it advocate grounding every historic aircraft or holding each original scratch and paint chip sacred. Yet while it recognizes the importance of flying aircraft, for reasons of both history and simple human nature, it thinks there is entirely too much misrepresentation and needless rebuilding going on. In the process, it feels, valuable information is being destroyed, or as a TIGHAR Tracks editorial puts it, “the destruction of historic aircraft occurs most frequently not in airshow crashes but in ‘restoration’ shops.” Such opinions put TIGHAR at odds with the practical, down-to-earth nature of most old-plane buffs. There are many different participants in aircraft preservation, and the interests of a large government-funded research institution can be quite different from those of a local museum run on a shoestring—let alone someone in a swamp with a metal detector. Gillespie does not suffer fools gladly, and he’ll let the fools know it, whether the subject is Earhart (who “made little progress against the sexism of the 1930s”) or the mislabeling of exhibits (“Will the Museum of Flight agree to stop calling its post-war Nord in bogus Luftwaffe markings a Bf 108?”). TIGHAR’s boldness has won it both devoted supporters and sworn enemies.

Amidst all the controversy, TIGHAR has accomplished much since its founding in 1985. It has compiled what it hopes will become a standard dictionary of aircraft-preservation terminology, elucidating such distinctions as rare vs. historic and reconstruction vs. rehabilitation . It teaches a course in aviation archeology and conservation to amateurs and professionals worldwide and has developed standards and investigated the application of such technologies as remote sensing. It has conducted search operations from Newfoundland to New Guinea and investigated, skeptically, rumors of World War II Luftwaffe planes stashed in secret underground shelters. Recently a TIGHAR party found scraps of metal and clothing on the Pacific island of Nikumaroro that just might be from the Earhart flight, although the question is far from settled.

Perhaps TIGHAR’s greatest accomplishment, though, has been to ignite debate on issues that have all too often been glossed over in the past. Even those who disagree with the group’s purist approach will benefit from the question it has raised: To what degree is it necessary to destroy the artifacts of aviation’s past in order to save them?

TIGHAR’s address is 2812 Fawkes Drive, Wilmington, DE 19808 (Tel: 302-994-4410). A one-year membership costs $45, including a subscription to TIGHAR Tracks .

ENCINO, CALIF.: In 1926 William James Sidis, a mathematical prodigy who had entered Harvard at the age of eleven and lectured on the fourth dimension as a freshman, published his only book. It was a treatise on streetcar transfers. In A Study in Scarlet Sherlock Holmes was said to have written a monograph on the varieties of tobacco ash. These works show how the intense study of a single subject, however specialized, can beguile the subtlest of intellects. The latest example in this genre is Manhole Covers , by Mimi and Robert A. Melnick (MIT Press, $39.95).

The Melnicks’ interest in this topic arose in the early 1970s, when they were looking to ornament the blank wall over their sofa and decided that a nice manhole cover would be just the thing. Problems soon led them to abandon their novel decorating scheme—for one thing, most manhole covers weigh about three hundred pounds—but by then they had fallen in love with the sometimes fanciful, sometimes utilitarian art to be glimpsed underfoot.

Flush with excitement, the pair photographed sewer entrances, utility covers, vents, grates, and handholes across the city. In 1974 they published Manhole Covers of Los Angeles , now out of print. Over the next few years the Melnicks expanded their survey nationwide, until Robert’s illness (he died in 1982) brought the project to a halt. Now MIT Press has issued an elegant collection of the Melnicks’ best pictures, along with a detailed description of manhole-cover history, manufacture, design, use, and lore. For readers interested in such things, there is also a foreword by an art historian that invokes Nietzsche and Nathanael West and calls manhole covers “the very image of the discrete ceremonial opening to the urban cloaca.”

Although the pictures in the book are a scant two decades old, much of what they document has disappeared. Urban renewal, safety requirements, and other factors have led to the replacement of many old manhole covers, along with their characteristic flourishes, Art Deco lettering, and starburst patterns. A few cities are taking action: Los Angeles landmarked its antique manhole covers in 1985, while Seattle has installed new models decorated with Indian motifs and maps of the city. Tourists love them, but unfortunately the idea has not spread as quickly as coffee boutiques, and all too many cities are installing manhole covers that are as drab and standardized as fast-food outlets. Mimi Melnick, who lobbied vigorously for the Los Angeles landmark ordinance, is doing her best to rescue an underappreciated urban art form. With Manhole Covers she and her late husband have hit a home run—or, as the stickball players in Brooklyn would put it, a four-sewer shot.

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support America's only magazine of the history of engineering and innovation, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to Invention & Technology.


Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
The subscriber's email address.