Cindy Weigand stood in a small closet at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City on Thursday inspecting a piece of wood, about a foot and a half long and splintered on its ends.
The discarded plank didn't look like much, but to Weigand, it was an important family relic, one she had traveled hundreds of miles from her home in Georgetown, Texas, to hold.
“This just fills the story in more,” Weigand, 64, said while standing in the dark room that houses the museum's artifacts.
The fragment is what’s left of The Answer, a biplane flown by Weigand’s great uncle, Jack Ashcraft. In June 1929, Ashcraft was attempting to break an endurance record with a co-pilot when they crashed at Hicks Nurseries in Westbury. He died on impact while his partner, Viola Gentry, was injured, according to local reports of the crash.
A Westbury resident who died several years ago, salvaged the part from the crash site, according to Gary Monti, the director of museum operations and the Westbury Village historian. The boy scribbled on the piece in pencil some details from the accident: “Man killed. Woman badly hurt.”
He kept the part in his home for years and eventually donated it to the Westbury Historical Society before it was turned over to the Cradle of Aviation Museum, according to museum archivist Julia Blum. It remained in a closet for decades until Blum began moving pieces of the archive last year.
“I didn’t think much about it. It just looked like a piece of broken wood,” Blum said.
When she learned it was part of Ashcraft’s plane, Blum said she was shocked. Blum and Weigand became friends years ago after meeting at a convention on early female aviators, so Blum said she immediately recognized the barnstormer as the man Weigand had been researching for the past 25 years.
“It blew my mind,” Blum said. “What were the chances?”
Weigand said she’s been captivated by her aviator great uncle since her mother began telling her stories about his stunts, and is working on a book about his life.
She’s planning to visit Ashcraft’s old home in Jackson Heights, Queens, and also will go up in a biplane in upstate Rhinebeck. She and Blum have already visited Hicks Nurseries and were shown the spot where the hickory tree, which according to Cradle of Aviation records brought down The Answer, once stood.
When Blum handed the wooden piece to Weigand, unwrapping it from white tissue paper, Weigand said the man she’d been reading about for years, who died more than 20 years before she was born, felt more alive to her than ever.
“I feel so connected to him," she said.