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Found and lost

When David Piper took an old electric baseboard heater off the wall, something fell to the floor: a slim metal plate imprinted with numbers and Lockheed printed across the top.

Piper was helping his parents, Mike and Deanna Piper, remodel a house in Dungeness.

"I probably would have just tossed it," Mike Piper said, but "Deanna thought it looked interesting." For several months, the metal tag sat on Mike's windowsill.

David Piper was intrigued by it too and asked his parents if he could have it. A few weeks ago, David was accepted to attend a Bible college in New Zealand, and he began selling most of his possessions on eBay, including the metal Lockheed plate.

He listed it for $75 and on Aug. 24, in the auction's closing minutes, hot bidding pushed the price up to $255.10.

The buyer paid immediately, and Piper mailed the item to him.

"At this point," Piper wrote in his blog, www.davidandrewpiper.blogspot.com, "I had not told him about the indecipherable description on the back of it - something that said 'Col Lindsay ... .... ..... 1931 China.' I thought nothing about it."

When the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum contacted him on Aug. 28, Piper wrote, "My heart stopped for a minute."

"What I had found behind the wall at my parents' house and sold on eBay for $255.10 was a priceless treasure," Piper wrote in his blog.

He had sold the data plate to an airplane owned by the museum - the plane Charles Lindbergh flew to China in 1931 and around the world in 1933. The Lockheed 8 Sirius is part of the Pioneers of Flight gallery, currently closed for a major remodel. When it reopens, Lindbergh's Sirius will be a focal point of the display.

Dr. Jeremy Kinney, a curator with the Air and Space Museum, is certain that the item found in Sequim belongs to Lindbergh's plane, based on the identification numbers on the plate and the plane's records.

"The photo looks authentic," he said. "There weren't that many Lockheed Sirius planes."

Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh took off from Maine in the Sirius in 1931, traveling across Canada, through Alaska, Siberia and Japan, arriving near Nanking, China, on Sept. 19, 1931. However, while being unloaded from a ship in the Yangtze River, the plane capsized and was damaged. It had to be returned to Lockheed for repairs. During these repairs, a Sperry artificial horizon and a directional gyro were added to the instrument panel.

In 1933, the Lindberghs left New York in the Sirius to scout an air route to Europe via Greenland on behalf of Pan American Airways. During this trip, when they landed in Godthaab, Greenland, an Eskimo boy named the plane Tingmissartoq, which means "one who flies like a bird."

The Lindberghs continued to several cities in Europe, then down the west coast of Africa, across the Atlantic to South America and north through the Caribbean to return to the U.S., covering 30,000 miles by the end of their journey in December 1933.

Kinney's theory is that the plate originally was attached to the instrument panel but when the plane was modified, it was removed to make room for the additional instruments. The plate normally would have been reattached in another location.

"Our specialists didn't find a place where the plate might have been reattached," Kinney said. "We're not sure when the data plate went missing."

By January 1934, the plane had been donated to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and an archive photo shows the plane being prepared for display. In 1955, it was acquired by the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, which transferred the plane to the Smithsonian in 1959.

How did the data plate from Charles Lindbergh's plane come to be in a house built in Dungeness in the early 1970s?

The Pipers had heard that a former owner of the house, Theodore Hoffman, was a pilot. He owned the home from 1974 until his death in 1989. His daughter Betty Hoffman became the owner. She died in 2006.

Theodore Hoffman's surviving daughter Patricia Detterich, of Arizona, said her father had a long career in aviation, including work for Lockheed in Burbank, Calif., where Lindbergh's plane was built, repaired and modified.

However, Detterich was uncertain about when her father worked there. "He changed jobs because of the Depression," she said.

Between 1935-1940, Hoffman owned an aircraft repair business in Fairbanks, Alaska, and Detterich recalls living in Fairbanks for three years when she was about 10 years old. Hoffman then returned to California to work for Lockheed in Burbank.

He later worked for the Civil Aeronautics Administration, which eventually became the Federal Aviation Administration. Work with the CAA and FAA took Hoffman back to Alaska.

Detterich thinks her father may have worked for Lockheed before going to Alaska, too. But was he personally acquainted with Lindbergh? Detterich doesn't think so.

"I'm sure he would have said something if he had known the man," she said.

When the home in Sequim was cleaned out, Detterich's daughter Linda Newberry, of Centralia, took the personal effects of interest.

"Unfortunately, I disposed of all the pictures of the planes he was around during his lifetime," Newberry said, "and I deeply regret that, now."

Newberry recalled Hoffman as a talented and intelligent man.

"He was a woodworker, an automobile and airplane mechanic, and an inventor. He invented several tools that are used everywhere today," she said, but he did not have the money to complete the patent process and produce them. Their visits were infrequent, Newberry said, and "I never heard him speak of Lindbergh."

Kinney of the Smithsonian is as interested in the future of the data plate as its history. Unfortunately, that future remains murky. David Piper sent the eBay buyer the information from the Smithsonian, but the buyer indicated he had no interest in selling the data plate. Piper is researching the legality of revealing the buyer's name to the Smithsonian.

Kinney hopes that will happen. "It would be wonderful if he would donate it," Kinney said.

"It would be wonderful if we could at least talk to him about it. We would like to reunite the plate with the aircraft."



Reach Sandra Frykholm at sfrykholm@sequimgazette.com.



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