Displayed in a museum halfway between Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska, is probably one of the finest—and undoubtedly one of the most lovingly restored—Boeing B-17s in existence. Flying Fortress serial No. 44-83559 is the centerpiece of the $30 million Strategic Air & Space Museum facility that opened on Armed Forces Day in May 1998. While the museum’s B-17G never saw battle during World War II, it did play an important role in the ensuing Cold War.
The Douglas Aircraft Company of Long Beach, Calif., manufactured the Boeing Aerial Battlecruiser, as B-17s were nicknamed early in their history, under license from Boeing Aircraft Company. The Flying Fortress program began as Boeing Project 299 on September 26, 1934, with a $275,000 appropriation from the War Department. The first flight of the four-engine bomber took place less than a year later, on July 25, 1935. A total of 12,726 B-17s were built in the next 10 years, with 8,680 G models rolling off the lines before production ceased in May 1945.
The museum’s aircraft was turned over to the U.S. Army Air Forces on April 5, 1945. Its four Wright R-1820-97 Cyclone 9-cylinder, air-cooled 1,200-hp radial engines gave the bomber a maximum speed of 300 mph at 35,000 feet. The range was calculated at 1,850 miles at a cruising speed of 170 mph. The estimated cost of the aircraft was $276,000.
The museum’s Flying Fortress is officially designated a B-17P (DB). After 14 years of varied service, 44-83559 was flown in May 1959 to the former Strategic Air Command Museum at Offutt Air Force Base, where it became the first aircraft to be displayed at the Bellevue, Neb., facility.
Early records of the aircraft’s history at the museum are sketchy, but it appears that sometime after the bomber arrived it was painted in the standard WWII battle dress of olive drab and neutral gray. It bore the markings of an Eighth Air Force B-17F from the 100th Bomb Group, with a fictitious serial number, 42-3474, on the tail and the name King Bee emblazoned on the nose.
In 1995 Dan Kirwan, restoration specialist and former Nebraska Air Guard Boeing KC-135 boom operator, and a crew of museum volunteers set to work evaluating what needed to be done to keep the aircraft from deteriorating beyond repair. “We started by removing all of the screening and bird nests,” Kirwan later recalled. “In the process,” he added, “we found that a lot of critters had made their home in every place there was an opening.”
The next task was to remove all the layers of latex house paint that had been applied over the years. In 1995 the museum did not have the equipment to utilize the now common soda blasting technique to remove paint from an aircraft’s skin. “We had to use paint stripper,” Kirwan noted. “We bought it by the 55-gallon drum.” The crew “slathered the stuff on” and then waited until the paint blistered. “We had big scrapers made from aluminum scrap that one of the restoration staff members made,” Kirwan said. “Since the paint stripper was expensive, we had to be conservative with it. We would scrape a section and then roll the loosened paint over on top of itself. We called it making an omelet.”
Underneath the olive drab and gray paint the volunteers found coats of aluminum paint. “We sandblasted that off and found the bare metal in pretty shabby condition,” Kirwan explained. The removal of the old paint and preparations for restoration took more than three years, but once that was done, it was possible to assess the condition of the metal. Kirwan recalled that they found some corrosion around the tail area that had to be repaired, and the work included some rebuilding of the ribs that supported the fabric on the control surfaces.
In early 1998, the new Strategic Air & Space Museum’s hangars were ready to receive exhibits. Worldwide Aircraft Recovery of Bellevue separated the B-17’s fuselage into two sections, making a break just aft of the wings. The empennage was also removed, along with the outer portions of the wings and the propellers. The disassembled aircraft sections were placed on two flatbed trucks and hauled 25 miles to the new museum at Ashland, Neb.
When the bomber arrived at the museum it was reassembled and painted with 15 gallons of acrylic modified alkyd silver enamel and given the markings of the Eighth Air Force’s 96th Bomb Group, 339th Bomb Squadron. As it was to be the focus and centerpiece of the museum’s dedication ceremonies on Armed Forces Day 1998—then fast approaching—there was no time to begin the restoration of the interior of the aircraft. While the plane’s exterior glistened in the new hangar’s lights, the interior remained untouched. “We did this restoration from the outside in.” Kirwan said. “It should have been the other way around.”
The plane’s first assignment after rolling from the Douglas plant on April 5, 1945, was at the Air Transport Command (ATC) in Topeka, Kan. On April 8, the bomber was sent to the 4100th Army Air Forces Base Unit (AAFBU), ATC, at Patterson Field, Ohio. On October 15, 1945, the aircraft was declared “excess to USAAF needs.” On November 11, however, it was assigned to the 4168th AAFBU at Lubbock, Texas. In June 1946, 44- 83559, now a transport, went to the 4141st AAFBU, Air Material Command, at Pyote, Texas. It served with the 4141st until February 17, 1950, when it was sent to the 2753rd Aircraft Storage Squadron at Pyote.
This last move seemed to spell the end for the Fort, but less than a month later it was sent to Olmstead Field in Middletown Depot, Pa., for modification into a DB-17. Its first assignment after conversion to a “drone director” was to the 3200th Drone Squadron, Air Proving Grounds, at Elgin Air Force Base in Florida.
On February 28, 1951, after more than a year of service in Florida, 44-83559 moved with the squadron to Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. There are no records from this period as to what role the aircraft played during its stint in the Marshalls, but it was during this time that the United States was testing nuclear weapons at the Pacific range.
In late May 1951, the B-17 returned to Elgin until it was transferred to the 3205th Drone Squadron at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., on October 13, 1952. Three days later it was sent back to Florida and remained until July 26, 1953, when it flew to the 3310th Technical Training Wing at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. Less than three weeks later it was back in Florida, reassigned to the 3205th. Finally on September 10, 1953, the aircraft landed at Holloman once again, where it remained until May 1958, when it was dropped from the Air Force inventory. A year later it was flown to the former SAC museum.
Once the dedication festivities were over in 1998, the interior restoration was ready to begin. As a result of serving as a transportation aircraft and a drone director, the plane had had all armament and turrets removed and plated over. A crew of dedicated volunteers—including Larry Kirwan (Dan’s father) and Del Foster, a WWII B-17 tail gunner—set to work restoring the tail gunner’s position. The group worked from pictures and Foster’s memory to build a new turret from scratch. Walt Meier, a retired commercial sheet metal worker, fabricated replicas of the .50-caliber machine guns and the tail turret itself.
Up in the nose of the bomber, Mark Hamilton, manager of the museum’s restoration department and a retired Air Force aircraft structural maintenance technician, reported that time and the sun had done serious damage to the cockpit and what was left in the radio compartment. “The best way to describe the cockpit was that it was a dirty mess,” he later said. To restore the front office required stripping out everything inside to the bare walls. A complete scrubbing was next, with a coat of interior green paint topping it off. Since almost all of the wood floors had rotted or were seriously damaged, new plywood flooring was fitted throughout the aircraft. The interior was now ready for the reinstallation of all the items that had been removed and stored, but workers then discovered that those who had removed all the parts from the cockpit had not kept any records, photos or drawings as to where they should be returned. Worse yet, the two volunteers who had handled the original dismantling were no longer available to answer questions. “We were new to the restoring process,” said Kirwan. “We learned an important lesson about documentation.”
To solve their problem, Kirwan’s father spent many hours looking through picture books and cutaway drawings. “Whenever we got word of a traveling B-17 in the area, we’d go to see it and photograph everything we could,” Dan recalled.
All the gauges that had been removed were cleaned, repainted and then returned to their correct positions in the freshly painted instrument panel. The seats got a complete cleaning and a fresh coat of paint. Parts missing from the original aircraft were fabricated in the museum’s shops. In the radio compartment, the HF radio along with the Morse code key, the chair and table were refurbished and reinstalled. The radio room is now virtually complete, but when new parts are found, they are installed, said Hamilton. All windows in the cockpit, the waist gunner’s position and the tail turret received new Lexan sheeting. “We like using Lexan for the windows,” said Kirwan. “It’s easy to work with and really improves the plane’s appearance.”
The Bendix chin turret, which distinguished the B-17G from the earlier versions of the bomber, was missing. A salvaged one was located in Florida. When it arrived, the top of the turret was crushed, and only some parts could be salvaged. The damaged upper part of the turret was removed and a new one rebuilt in the museum’s metal shop. “The bottom part, where the guns protrude, had to be pounded out,” recalled Hamilton.
Kirwan and Hamilton still consider the B-17’s restoration “a work in progress,” adding that they think they are “95 percent finished with the job,” but they agreed that “we are always finding parts and little things to do.” As an example, the dust cover fabric and the zippers that surround the chin turret’s gun barrels were just recently fabricated and installed. Ammunition boxes and shell belts have also been fabricated and installed in the waist gunner’s position.
Looking back at all the work that has gone into their B-17, Steve Prall, the deputy director of the Strategic Air & Space Museum, summed up the feelings of all who worked on the aircraft when he said, “This aircraft has significant historical importance to us— and it’s the only one that is roped off to visitors.” Everett Webster, a WWII tail gunner and six-year volunteer guide, agreed with Prall, adding that the B-17 seems to be the most popular exhibit at the facility. “A lot of the visitors are former Eighth Air Force crew members who served with B-17s,” he said. “It’s probably the first time in 50 or 60 years that they’ve seen this kind of aircraft. It’s a real treat for them.”
Originally published in the March 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.