After World War II Uncle Sam had hundreds of surplus B-17s. The ones that were not scrapped became cargo aircraft or fire bombers. A few were even converted into executive transport.
B-17G Serial #44-85790 may have had the most unusual fate of the Boeing brethren as it was converted into the roof of a gas station in Milwaukie, Ore., near Portland.
It happened in 1947 when Arthur Lacey, a civilian pilot and entrepreneur, bought the airplane and had it put on pylons. The wings stretched over the gas pumps at 13515 SE McLoughlin Blvd., and Bomber Gas was born. In 1948 Lacey opened a drive-in restaurant next door. Over the years more shops followed and today the area is known as the Bomber Complex, Inc. The complex contains a restaurant, a locksmith, a coffee kiosk, a catering business, an apartment complex and an outdoor garden supply store. Although the gas station was shut down in 1991, the bomber remains as a symbol of the family-owned business.
“Growing up we had lots of airplanes,” notes Punky Lacey Scott, Arthur’s daughter. “During the war both he and my mother were civilians employed by the military in the Army Corps of Engineers, so he didn’t fly. But he was a private pilot who had a burning desire to fly and after the war he owned several single-engine aircraft, including an AT-6, a BT-13 and a P-51 Mustang.”
Arthur Lacey was known as quite a daredevil. His wife finally asked him to give up flying after he flew underneath the Oregon City Bridge, among other things, said Terry Scott, the company’s historian and publicist. She’s married to Jayson Scott, Arthur’s grandson. “He barely made it up again to miss the trees,” she explains. “The story goes that his propellers hit the trees as he just climbed over them.”
Arthur Lacey went west in 2000 after living a long life and giving his descendants lots of vivid memories, not to mention a successful business. Punky is the boss of operations. Her son, Jayson Scott, a private pilot, is in charge of the restoration of the B-17, known as “Lacey Lady.”
Restoration of the bomber, dubbed the “Wings of Freedom Project,” began in earnest in the 1990s.
“It takes a lot of money and we have other expenses, like the paychecks of the 30 or so employees here, so it is slow going,” Jayson Scott explains. “In 1996 we removed from the front of the bomb bay forward to the nose and that’s being worked on. We will do the rest when we can. We’ve been trying to set up a 501(c)3 organization for the bomber.”
Someday he hopes “Lacey Lady” will take to the skies again.
The bomber is quite a tourist attraction. It draws dozens of visitors each year who learn about the complex from aviation and travel magazines, word of mouth and television shows. People come to have their photos taken next to the aircraft.
“There are photos of it in airports all over the world,” Punky says proudly.
She notes that on the first Friday of each month there is a USO-style coffee get-together for veterans in the complex. “Veterans of any war are invited,” she says. “Mostly we have World War II vets who tell us such wonderful stories!”
There is a lot of local lore connected to the bomber, according to Jayson.
“The rumor was that Grandpa landed it here on the boulevard in 1947,” he said. “The truth is that he landed at nearby Troutdale Airport. There it was disassembled and brought here on trucks. The truth is that Grandpa used to land his BT-13 on the boulevard, but at that time there was no traffic and not much resistance to something like that.”
Terry Scott notes the company will celebrate 60 years in business next year.
“We are excited about that and will be doing a big fundraising event for the restoration project,” she says. Called the Bomber Homecoming, the event is slated for June 27, 2007. “That is the date that the Bomber was dedicated to all those who fought valiantly during World War II in the air and on the ground.”
For more information: 503-654-6491.