This Hangar Takes Old Warplanes and Restores Them to Museum Condition, X-Wing Makes Cameo

Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar 11 photos
Photo: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Mary Baker Engen Restoration HangarMary Baker Engen Restoration HangarMary Baker Engen Restoration HangarMary Baker Engen Restoration HangarMary Baker Engen Restoration HangarMary Baker Engen Restoration HangarMary Baker Engen Restoration HangarMary Baker Engen Restoration HangarMary Baker Engen Restoration HangarMary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar
The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, is one of the East Coast's premier aviation museum spaces. With over 150 different aircraft of all sizes and shapes on display, it takes tons of TLC to keep everything looking shiny.
But among the iconic and famous names among these hallowed halls, this includes the Enola Gay and Space Shuttle Discovery, mind you. Some require a little more work than others to get ready for display. Welcome to the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar, perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the entire museum. Why? Because you can peer right into the hangar and watch all the work.

Named after the wife of one of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's oldest contributors and former directors, the MBERH, as we'll refer to it from now on, was one of the cornerstones of this official annex of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C.

Let us be the first to tell you. If you thought auto restorations looked grueling, vintage warplane restoration makes that look like washing off your old HotWheels toys in the kitchen sink after they get mystery stains on them. There is absolutely zero room for error with hardware so old, rare, and brittle as is often sported when it gets this old. A substantial enough mess-up can even result in the loss of the whole airframe.

So, safe to say that the staff employed in this hangar take their sweet time with every project. The first aircraft to complete its restoration in the MBERH was a Curtis SB2C-5 Helldiver dive-bomber. The very same aircraft former museum director Don Engen, husband of Mary Baker Engen.

Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar
Photo: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Today, that Helldiver is on public display in the museum. Since 2003, dozens of planes and other aviation-related goodies have found their way under the bright LED lights and massive window panes that guests can't get enough of peering into. It's like peeking into a time nexus that flows backward, with the end result being airplanes that look as new as they did decades ago.

Perhaps the longest stay in the hangar belongs to Flak Bait, a Martin B-26 Marauder twin-engined bomber believed to hold the record for the most bombing missions survived over Europe without being shot down. Legend says over 1000 flak and enemy aircraft shells battered Flak Bait over its historic career. Given the state it sits in now, that's all the more believable.

Many large aircraft of this age utilized a semi-modular construction. By which components like the cockpit, fuselage, and wings were constructed separately before being joined with bolds and welds into a complete airframe.

Deconstructing this airplane that was never designed to be taken apart without damaging even a single nut or bolt is a task no ordinary DIY guru could do with some degree of skill. Only the best of the best are given permission to work on such planes. When you're the Smithsonian Institution, you can afford these luxuries, it seems.

Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar
Photo: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
Other notable contraptions in the hangar at the moment include an Ilyushin Il-2 Russian ground attack plane from World War II. With 30,000 or more built-in its day, the Sturmovik, as it was called, only a handful remain on display today. Only three Il-2s are known to reside on U.S. soil at the moment. Of those three, only one is airworthy. The men and women of the MBERH are working diligently to raise that number by one tick.

To the left of the Sturmovik is the cabin of the Explorer II high altitude balloon, the very same that set the world altitude record of 72,000 feet in 1935. Adjacent to that is perhaps the most emotion-evoking item in the hangar, the very same Lockheed Vega single-engine personal aircraft Amelia Earhart flew solo across the Atlantic ocean with. She followed this up by flying non-stop across the continental United States in it, the first woman to do so.

Lovingly named "Little Red Bus" by Earhart herself, the plane is undergoing scheduled preservation maintenance in the hangar while other more labor-intensive projects take priority in the short term. Fascinatingly, the T-65 X-Wing prop from the Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker movie from 2019 also had a brief stay in the hangar right alongside Flak Bait.

The movie prop, fresh from the film set , received a few touch-ups before going on display at the Air and Space Museum's main facility in Washington D.C. Perhaps we'll even write about it when we go to visit the Smithsonian Air and Space museum's main facility later this year.

Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar
Photo: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center
For a museum only open for less than two decades, a fairly remarkable group of planes have come and gone from the MBERH so far. It makes a trip to Chantilly worth it in itself, not even counting the other amazing items on display. Check back from our trip to the museum soon right here on autoevolution.
If you liked the article, please follow us:  Google News icon Google News Youtube Instagram

Editor's note: Article contains combination of self-taken and official photos used with the formally requested permission of the National Air & Space Museum.


Would you like AUTOEVOLUTION to send you notifications?

You will only receive our top stories