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Desert Rat Reborn

By Brendan McNally
6/26/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

A rare B-17E is slowly being brought back to life in an Illinois pole barn.

When word came in June 2011 that Liberty Belle, one of the few still flyable Boeing B-17s, had burned after making an emergency landing in a cornfield near Aurora, Illinois, a sense of sadness and loss spread far beyond the warbird community. More than 20 years had passed since one of the venerable bombers had crashed, and in that time much had changed. With the last of the World War II generation now almost gone, B-17s have taken on near-mythic significance, becoming a touchstone that connects people with the past.

Now another B-17 is being restored to flying condition not far from where Liberty Belle burned, inside a pole barn in Marengo, Ill. After lying in a Maine farmer’s field for 40 years, cut up and forgotten, the Flying Fortress known as Desert Rat is slowly being reborn.

Restoring any warbird is costly and time-consuming. A large, complex bomber is even more so. Whatever cannot be restored has to be remanufactured from scratch. If the builders are unable to fabricate a part it gets farmed out to an outside manufacturer, and that is nearly always expensive. This is why B-17 restorations are done either by rich individuals, foundations with millions of dollars behind them, or both. Of all the recent B-17 restoration projects, Desert Rat has to be the longest shot of them all.

Desert Rat’s owner, Mike Kellner, is not a millionaire. He is in fact, among other things, an intermittently employed installer of custom hardwood floors. Kellner does not have a foundation, because he says that foundations are bound by very strict rules about where their tax-exempt money comes from, and should something go wrong—which Kellner says happens all too often—he could end up losing his bomber.

So Kellner has positioned a barrel at the barn’s front entrance, where visitors drop fives and ones and the occasional $20. He says the take is so small, it’s barely worth bothering with. But he and his friends continue the work, mainly because they’re nice guys and Desert Rat is their passion.

Kellner isn’t sure, for that matter, if Desert Rat is actually the B-17’s name. His team found it painted on the side of the fuselage, far from the nose, when they were removing a layer of paint. The name stuck.

If you go to Marengo now, you’ll see a B-17E fuselage, more or less intact, but stripped to the skin and ribs and bristling like a porcupine with round plastic pegs called clecos, which keep the skin attached and aligned to the rib until they can be riveted together. After working on the airplane for 20 years, having the fuselage finally together in one piece has provided a much-needed morale boost for the workers. “Right now we’re putting most of our effort on finishing up the nose section,” says Kellner. “We’re about 60 percent riveted on that. Same with the vertical fins: about 60 percent finished. We haven’t started riveting the rear fuselage yet. We’ve also started rebuilding the dorsal fin.”

The plan has always been to get Desert Rat flying again. “It’d already be done if we just wanted it static,” explains Kellner. “You don’t have to worry about the right materials, heat treating and all the other stuff you have to go through for an airworthy part.”

He says his crew’s best recent accomplishment was stretch-forming a stabilizer bow: “It was a 300-hour job, making that one part. We worked on it about two months. I’d been pretty much unemployed, so I was able to put a lot of time into it.” Though Kellner’s crew does most of the stretch-forming, Alcoa makes all their extrusions .“A lot of them have to be bent and shaped afterwards,” he says, “and we do that with a series of presses.”

Besides the donation jar, some of Desert Rat’s restoration has been financed via work on other warbirds.“We’ve made a lot of parts for other B-17s,” Kellner explains. “I’ve also made a set of T-28 wings, and now I’m looking for another job where I can help somebody else out. We just made the steel carriage/carrier tubes that go through the fuselage that the wings attach to. We made a run of them—I think we’ve got five sets that have been sold that are out there on some of the other airplanes. We’ve been doing a lot of stuff that’s going to keep these things going for years to come, that nobody’s made in probably 60 years.”

When Kellner first found Desert Rat in 1984, all he knew about it was that its last owner had been a farmer with an airstrip and a Piper Cub franchise. An air base in Bangor was selling off surplus aircraft, and the farmer had bought the B-17 there, along with a B-25 and a P-47. But his interest in aviation didn’t involve preserving warbirds for future generations; dismantling airplanes and selling scrap metal was just a way of supplementing his farm income.

“He gave it to his kids to scrap and keep the money,” says Kellner. “When they got to the B-17, they chopped the fuselage into about seven sections, and they beat up everything in between. Then they got older and started driving and dating, and it never got finished.”

Nearly 40 years later Kellner heard about the bomber and drove to Maine to check it out. He found it in an overgrown field, with other fragments of dead airplanes. Kellner bought the chopped-up B-17 for $7,250, then spent the next seven years loading it aboard flatbeds and trucking it back to Illinois. Looking back, he observes that what he paid for the aircraft was about the cheapest part of the whole experience.

For a long time everything was stored at an airport. But as the years passed, the rent kept going up. Finally he decided to buy some farmland and build a barn, where he could do the restoration. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the reconstruction started in earnest.

After Kellner found the B-17’s data plate, he began piecing together the bomber’s remarkable story. It was B-17E serial number 41-2595, delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces on April 14, 1942. The Flying Fortress spent its first year as a training aircraft, first with the 97th Bombardment Group, at Sarasota, Fla., then with other training units in Washington and Nebraska. In March 1943, it went to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, where it was used as a transport. That August, the decision was made to convert it to the XC-108 transport configuration and send it to India, where it would help fly supplies over “the Hump” to China.

The conversion process should have been relatively simple—sealing the bomb bays; removing gun turrets, bomb racks and interior bulkheads; relocating the radio operator’s station; and installing a large cargo door where the port waist gunner’s station had been—but it took six months. In March 1944, the converted bomber departed MacDill Field, Fla., headed for India, a trip that should have taken no more than a few days. Instead it took two months. When one of the engines caught fire four hours out of Belém, Brazil, the pilot told the crewmen that they could bail out, but everyone decided to stay aboard. Ultimately the B-17 landed safely at Accra, in what is today Ghana. Despite repeated repairs, however, the aircraft kept breaking down.

The Fort lasted only a few months in India, and according to Kellner, much of the time it operated satisfactorily on only three engines. It was apparently also hit by gunfire during that time, since there are signs of a repair to the airframe. In October 1944, the B-17 returned to the States. It spent the remainder of the war ferrying cargo between Maine and Labrador. In late 1945, it was declared surplus and sold to the Maine farmer.

Now that Desert Rat’s fuselage is back together, people often ask Kellner when he thinks the B-17 will return to the air. “We always tell them, ‘On a Thursday—we just don’t know which Thursday,’ ” he says. He has a theory:“It will be ready when the weight of all the paperwork equals that of the aircraft.” That’s a lot of paperwork, but Mike Kellner claims it’s getting there.

 

Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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