Over the course of its more than 30 years hanging in Lambert, the monocoupe was been exposed to dust and other airborne pollutants along with the stress of being suspended from the ceiling. The cumulative effect of these conditions made it necessary for the plane to undergo a complete conservation effort in order to ensure the continued preservation of the aircraft. Stress fractures along several seams in the plane’s fabric covering and the tears caused by general wear required professional attention. When Lambert announced that Terminal 1 would be renovated, the Missouri History Museum worked with Lambert to remove the plane and use the time needed to complete the renovations to conserve the plane.
Charles Lindbergh’s Monocoupe plane was built by Lambert Aircraft Corporation in August 1934 and was one of the first three planes built completely in St. Louis by the company. Lindbergh donated the plane to the Missouri History Museum in 1940.
Before Lindbergh’s plane was placed on display in at Lambert Airport in 1979, Museum staff studied it and found that they had to deal with some issues. They contacted the local Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 32, and with the help of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation, the plane was prepared for long-term display.
Preserving Lindbergh’s Legacy
Late in March 2011, Museum employees, including Curator Sharon Smith and Conservator Linda Landry, assisted specialty contractors with moving the Monocoupe from Lambert to a storage hangar. Little did they know that a mere two weeks later a tornado would rip through the airport, damaging the very spot where the Monocoupe had hung since 1979.
Conservator Linda Landry managed the conservation effort. Test results revealed that the fabric of the Lindbergh Monocoupe was the original 1934 aircraft skin. This is exceedingly rare for an aircraft to have maintained its original covering for so long. Once the age of the fabric and covering was established, all effort was made to retain the historic integrity of the plane.
The Monocoupe was constructed using “fabric and dope,” a process still used today. Historic materials and the passage of time create unique challenges for preservation and conservation. In this type of construction, fabric is fitted over the frame and then covered with several layers of airplane dope, a lacquer that is used to protect, waterproof, and make taut the cloth surfaces of airplanes. As the dope dries it shrinks, causing the material to stretch tightly over the frame, creating a smooth surface. Unfortunately, the dope never stops shrinking, so over the years the ever-tightening fabric can put pressure on the framework until the fabric either tears to relieve the stress or weaker parts of the interior structure snap.
Landry and her conservation lab assistant Cailin Carter performed the conservation treatment. The conservation team repaired seams and tears with precision patches and paint compounds. A full inch by inch cleaning of the interior and exterior of the plane was undertaken to remove nearly 34 years of accumulated contaminants.
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