The restoration of a rare B-17G test-bed is a family affair.
At first glance the hangar at Grimes Field outside Urbana, Ohio, seems like a typical repair facility, but inside it’s reminiscent of a World War II aircraft factory. And just like the workers who came together to build American warplanes during that protracted conflict, volunteers at Grimes Field are combining their skills on an impressive construction project: restoring a Boeing B-17G right down to the last nut and bolt, ready to someday return to the skies. “This is going to be a flying airplane, not a static display,” said site supervisor Dave Burdick.
The reconstruction had its genesis with the Shiffer family, owners of Tech II Inc., an Urbana plastics manufacturer. Eric Shiffer explained that the project began after a visit to Urbana by the B-17G Liberty Belle: “They were giving rides, and my father, my brother and I are pilots, so we stopped in to see it and took a ride.” At the time, Tom Reilly’s Vintage Aircraft in Kissimmee, Fla., owned Liberty Belle. The Shiffers later met with Reilly, who told them, “I happen to have a B-17 I’m selling.”
“We talked about it and thought that would be a project we’d like to take on,” Shiffer recalled. “However, at the time I don’t think we realized what it would entail— which might have been a good thing because we might not have started it,” he said with a laugh. “Although we’re pilots, we’re not really WWII antique collectors or WWII history buffs. But we thought it would be great for the community to bring a B-17 here.”
Reilly’s plane had been damaged in a crash landing several years earlier and was in far from flyable condition. The Shiffers brought the damaged bomber to Urbana in 2005. “At the time we bought the plane we didn’t have a nonprofit organization,” Shiffer noted. “We now have a nonprofit organization set up and in place. That will now be the mechanism that is restoring the plane. It’s called the Champaign Aviation Museum.” The organization name extends to the name of the B-17. “We’re going to call it Champaign Lady,” a name suggested by the museum’s volunteers, since they live in Champaign County.
Their B-17, serial number 44-85813, has an unusual history. After WWII the Curtiss-Wright Corporation used it for engine and propeller research. It was one of three B-17Gs converted to engine test-beds after the war, designated JB-17Gs. The plane’s nose section was modified and strengthened with a mount for a fifth engine. Pratt & Whitney XT-34, Wright XT-35, Wright R-3350 and Allison T-56 engines were all flight-tested on JB-17Gs.
The museum’s airplane was then sold to Ewing Aviation Company, which held onto it from 1966 to 1969, after which Ewing-Kolb Aircraft became the warbird’s registered owner until 1970. Arnold Kolb of Black Hills Aviation purchased the aircraft in 1970 and subsequently used it as a water bomber to fight forest fires. About 10 years later the venerable B-17 crashed on approach to Bear Pen, N.C. In 1985 Reilly bought the damaged plane and salvaged some of its parts for other Flying Fortresses in his collection.
The effects of the North Carolina crash were very evident when the plane arrived in Urbana, according to volunteer Paul Good: “The whole cockpit section was crushed down. So we’re rebuilding and repairing all that.” One of the first things they did was purchase plans and drawings for the B-17—on more than 100 rolls of microfilm. “We got the full drawing and data package on the airplane on microfilm from the Smithsonian,” Good said. “Then we had a company convert it to CDs that we can use in our computer.” He explained that they also have the capability to make full-size drawings from the plans. Those drawings have proved invaluable when they haven’t been able to locate a usable part, in which case they just make their own.
“We can then use those full-size drawings to make new ribs, bulkheads and things like that,” Good said. “We’re able to duplicate all the processes.” He noted that the drawings also include specifications for making new parts, explaining, “That way we can make sure we have all the right materials and they’re heat treated properly.” An FAA inspector checks every step of the restoration.
The tail section has its own unique history. “The tail is off another B-17…from the 3215 Drone Squadron, which was at Patrick [Air Force Base, Fla.],” Good said. After WWII B-17s were used as unmanned drones for several projects, including atomic bomb tests in the Pacific and at several bases in the U.S. where they served as targets for missile tests.
One reason the Shiffer family purchased the B-17 was to encourage young people to learn about aviation. The Champaign Aviation Museum has partnered with a Joint Vocational School in Urbana, Ohio Hi-Point. Students attend classes at the airport and also occasionally help with restoring the B-17. “This is the second year for the class,” Eric Shiffer said, “and part of it is to work on the B-17. That was really my dad’s idea—to have students involved in the project and a piece of history.” Eric’s father, Gerald, died in a flying accident in 2005, before he could see his vision come to fruition. But his dream lives on in the dedicated work being carried out by the restoration team at Grimes Field. Gerald’s daughter Andrea Tullis has been affectionately dubbed the team’s “Rosie the Riveter.” Other volunteers include a former Boeing employee, a retired farm implement assembler and a retired Air Force pilot.
The Shiffer family has also purchased a North American AT-6 Texan, to serve as part of the flight training program for the B-17. Given that the AT-6 was a flying classroom for most Allied trainees, it seems appropriate. “None of us had any radial time, and we figured we’d better learn just like the WWII pilots learned,” Shiffer said. “So we started with an AT-6. We’re learning the radial engine and how to fly a tail wheel design.”
The group has two paid workers, Dave Burdick and Jack Bailey, who manage the project, as well as Tom Reilly, who’s a consultant. They have help from an average of 10 volunteers each day, with crews working six days a week.
The hangar currently housing the B-17 project would not be large enough for the completed plane, so a new facility is currently under construction. “That will also have a museum display area,” Shiffer explained. “We’re going to build the hangar big enough to handle other airplanes as well. We hope to start that in the next year or two, with hopefully a 2009 completion date. We’re still five to seven years out before we get done with the B-17 restoration. And right now we’re a little bit ahead of schedule.” Shiffer said they currently have about 90 percent of the parts they’ll need to finish the job.
Once complete, Champaign Lady will continue to be based in Urbana and will probably not be making any countrywide tours. “I don’t see us doing that,” Shiffer said. “I think there are enough B-17s out there touring that other people will still have the opportunity to see those. To have an airplane that will bring people into our community is our goal.”
For more information about Champaign Lady, visit the Champaign Aviation Museum Web site at b17project.com.
Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.