By BILL WALKER, For General Aviation News
The man was in his 80s, too frail to lift himself through the door of the iconic aircraft being restored in the gallery of the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah, Ga. “What if he hurt himself?” someone asked. “The museum might be liable,” someone else worried out loud. “Well, this guy’s getting in that airplane,” a third person said firmly and the man was gently lifted in as his daughter watched quietly.
He emerged only a few minutes later and when he stood on the museum floor again tears streamed down his cheeks. Some of the volunteers at the museum were wiping their eyes too.
Those who watched knew they had been witness to history, the increasingly rare moment when a B-17 pilot and his plane are reunited in spirit, when he is young again and aboard the kind of aircraft that carried him and hundreds of thousands like him into combat. The veteran didn’t say it, but most likely the tears were for his buddies, airmen who did not come back.
Afterwards, the daughter thanked the volunteers. “Nobody could have done for my father what you just did,” she said.
“That really got to me, and will stay with me forever,” said Jerry McLaughlin, coordinator for the B-17 restoration at the museum. “That’s what we are here for!”
The B-17 has now been in the museum nearly two years and the complete restoration could take several years, perhaps a decade. But visitors don’t see the aircraft as incomplete even now. Most already know what it is and what it accomplished. For those too young to understand, a parent, grandparent or a guide tells the story. This is the Flying Fortress. The bomber that helped smash the Third Reich and the evil it represented.
Young men from every part of the nation flew off to war for the Eighth Air Force in a machine like this one. And more than 26,000 of them made the ultimate sacrifice for their country: Nearly half of all U.S. Army Air Forces casualties were suffered by the Mighty Eighth. That plane sitting regally in the center of the combat gallery silently honors all the fallen.
For the first 13 years, until B-17G 44-83814 came to the museum, there was an emptiness in the building. Not from lack of the artifacts — there were hundreds of items showcased from the museum’s beginning. But there was a certain emptiness of spirit for the lack of the aircraft that embodied the story of the Mighty Eighth.
That changed in late 2008 when the National Air and Space Museum offered the Mighty Eighth museum the B-17. Not long afterwards, four tractor trailer trucks rolled onto the museum grounds, delivering the fuselage, engines, spare parts, and the rest of the four-engine bomber.
The aircraft’s arrival marked the beginning of on-site work for McLaughlin, restoration operations chief Jim Grismer, and an extraordinary band of nearly two dozen volunteers. They are the restorers assigned to make this B-17 whole again.
The Mighty Eighth is an educational museum, so from the start the restoration has been carried out in the center of the combat gallery.
From the first moment visitors began streaming in, the questions were almost nonstop. One volunteer, Dave Talleur, a longtime civilian commercial pilot, was chosen to meet the public and answer their questions while his colleagues continued to work under, inside and on top of the plane.
In addition to Talleur, two other volunteers are pilots, and many work for area aerospace firms, including Gulfstream and LMI. Project leaders McLaughlin and Grismer, each best man at the other’s wedding and friends for more than 40 years, came from successful careers in Washington and New York to retire in the Savannah area.
The Mighty Eighth’s B-17 came off the Douglas Aircraft Co. production line in Long Beach, Calif., in May 1945 under license from Boeing. It did not see action in World War II, but was a working aircraft for three decades, primarily doing map survey operations and serving as a firebomber. “It had a 30-year operational career and then spent 25 years in storage,” McLaughlin said.
“We’ve spent the better part of seven months doing what I characterize as janitorial work,” Grismer said. “There has been a tremendous amount of pressure washing, steam cleaning and grease removal. We’ve spent several hundred hours polishing the plane.”
“Cleaning has been time consuming, but relatively inexpensive,” added McLaughlin. “Now that the cleaning is over, everything we do is very expensive — including acquisition of parts, turrets being the major ticket item. Each turret is $50,000 to $75,000 and there are four on the plane.”
“We already have a full cockpit, the Norden bombsight, radios, lots of stuff in the archives appropriate to the plane,” he added. “And we have a list of what we don’t have.”
The aircraft is named the “City of Savannah” and is the second B-17 to have that honor. The first, in 1944, was the 5,000th aircraft to process through nearby Hunter Field, and the original crew shipped out for Europe not long afterwards.
“The City of Savannah was paid for by war bonds bought by the residents of Savannah,” McLaughlin said. “The crew was shot down on their 13th mission, although not in their plane. Military records indicate the crew was separated from the original City of Savannah upon arrival in England. That aircraft disappeared in the confusion of war, but the new one will always remain in Georgia.
“There are two crew members of the ‘City of Savannah’ still alive,” he added. “Both have been contacted by the plane’s volunteer historian, Douglass Reed, son of a B-17 combat crew veteran. They are both well into their 80s. They have been interviewed so we will get the straight story on the first City of Savannah.”
When McLaughlin and Grismer were reviewing applications from volunteers, one name jumped out at them. Bill Burkel had repaired U.S. Air Force aircraft for 36 years, everything from World War II-era C-47s to C-130 Hercules transports still used extensively by the U.S. military.
Today, Burkel is the go-to guy for all work on the plane. “If anybody wants to do something to the aircraft, we say, ‘talk with Bill,’” Grismer said.
Working alongside Burkel on the day I visited were David Pinegar, Milt Stombler, Dave Talleur, and Joe DiNapoli.
“I get a feeling of great satisfaction working on this plane,” Burkel said. “It’s a great feeling to see what we’re doing here.”
Another B-17, the “Nine O Nine” owned by the Collings Foundation is a model for this B-17’s restoration. “Our plane should be authentic,” McLaughlin said. “By next year we hope to have an airplane that on the outside totally replicates the original City of Savannah. You walk into the combat gallery and you see a B-17 as if it was going to taxi out on a mission.”
Interior renovations will be equally authentic, he said.
An American flag with 48 stars hangs from the B-17. McLaughlin explained its significance: “My uncle was a navigator on a C-47 and was killed on D-Day,” he said. “He was missing in action and a year later the government sent my grandmother an American flag in a box. When we couldn’t find a 48-star flag to put on the plane, I went home and got my grandmother’s stuff out and opened the box. It was the first time in 65 years that flag was out of the box.”
The remains of his uncle, Lt. Joseph Sullivan of the 77th Squadron, 435th Troop Carrier Group, Ninth Air Force, were returned home to Queens, N.Y., for burial in 1949, said McLaughlin, who wrote a book, “D-Day + Sixty Years,” chronicling the events surrounding the fate of his uncle.
As the volunteers continue the restoration, their respect for the men of the Mighty Eighth grows.
“As I spent more time here I began to realize what the Eighth Air Force was,” said Grismer. “There is no unit in American history that dedicated that much sacrifice in any war in our history. It became a very rewarding pastime. I would pay them to let me work here.”
“To honor those guys in the Eighth Air Force is an honor for us,” McLaughlin concluded.
The Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum is open daily 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. except New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The museum is at exit 102 just off Interstate 95 two miles south of Savannah International Airport (SAV). The museum accepts donations for the “B-17 project.
For more information: MightyEighth.org