45th Annual Meeting – General Session, May 30, “When An Airplane Acts Like A Painting” by Lauren Horelick

The subject of this talk was the treatment of “Flak Bait”, a World War II B26 Marauder at the National Air and Space Museum with an impressive track record – 207 missions with no crew loss, the only remaining B26 from the Normandy landings, with its original paint intact, though a green and grey overpaint had been added when it originally was put on display. The aim of the treatment was to make the aircraft look exactly as it did at the end of the war. This included not only the painted surfaces, but the doped fabric elevators, rudders, and ailerons, which were the main focus of this talk.

The doped fabric sections had historic patches, from repairs made while the aircraft was in use, as well as post-historic tears. Traditionally, doped fabric parts of aircraft are re-covered, rather than repaired, and the art of doing so is maintained by the aircraft maintenance restorers at the NASM. In order to preserve the “patina of use” of the object, this standard approach would not be an option. Lauren opted to explore different treatment options, and opted to look at how known methods from paintings conservation could be applied to this project, as the doped fabric had a lot in common with a painting on canvas. The eventual treatment involved careful facing of the material and removal from the frame, followed by cleaning thoroughly to remove ingrained dirt and mold. This worked largely according to plan, with one issuee when the stabilized fabric was returned to the frame – the repair of a major tear had allowed 0.5% shrinkage over the length of the object, causing significant registration issues. Eventually it was possible to relax the fabric and return the object to an acceptable position on the frame. A resin coating applied over the surface successfully shifted the color from chalky yellow back to the original olive green, addressing another overarching issue of the treatment, maintaining uniformity of appearance over the entire object.

The part of this talk that resonated the most with me was the discussion of conservation versus restoration, especially when restoration practices such as re-covering doped fabric aircraft are “celebrated practices”. Another presenter also made this connection – Davina Jakobi, in her talk on conservation of ship model riggings, quoted Lauren and expressed that she had found the same challenges in deciding to repair rather than re-rig. Navigating these ethical questions can be tricky territory, but when handled with grace as both Lauren and Davina did, can provide great results. Lauren counted the improved collaborative relationship between conservation and restoration as one of the main benefits of this treatment, along with the development of new methods to save an ephemeral material, and I would have to agree.