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Restoring B-17G Flying Fortress 390th Bomb Group (H) Exhibit, Pima Air and Space Museum

By Michael Benolkin

In the fall of 1981, I reported to a brand new squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB that would bring a new mission and aircraft into the US Air Force. When I had reported to the squadron, there were only 40 people there and no aircraft. Over the next year, we’d build up to full squadron strength in personnel and equipment, but in those early days it was interesting to be on the ground floor of something new. A month or so after my arrival, I came into work as usual, to be told that our first aircraft had been delivered. Excellent! I wandered over to the maintenance hangar to eyeball our new bird only to find an all-white, tired-looking B-17 Flying Fortress inside. Okay, score one for my buddy, I’d pay him back shortly thereafter. But here was this B-17, what on earth was it doing here?

In the early 1980s, units within the Strategic Air Command were creating heritage exhibits around the country to signify the history of their respective air and missile wings. At Davis-Monthan, we had the 390th Strategic Missile Wing and their fierce Titan II missiles deployed in silos surrounding the city of Tucson. Prior to standing up as a missile wing, the 390th Bomb Group (Heavy) was a B-17-equipped member of the mighty Eighth Air Force delivering bombs almost daily to the Germans. This B-17 in front of me was destined to be restored as a memorial to that era of the 390th’s existence.

Not long afterwards, I wandered over to the Pima Air Museum to take a look around at their impressive collection of aircraft. One of curators there, Art Prunty, was a member of IPMS/Tucson and he introduced me to the coordinator there, Bob Johnson. Bob had been a flight engineer on the EC-130E airborne command posts over South Vietnam (callsigns Moonbeam and Alleycat). He was interested in the EC-130Hs that we were bringing into Davis-Monthan and was even more interested that his EC-130Es of the 7th ACCS were our sister squadron. When I asked Bob about volunteering to help around the museum, he assigned me to a team that was just assembling on a new restoration. He took me over to show me that very same white B-17. I wondered where it had been moved…

The team lead for this project was from the 390th, Captain Geoff Hayes. He had been placed in charge of the wing’s heritage project, so this was one of his additional duties and he had two other 390th folks and one other base volunteer assigned to the project besides myself – the core team stood at five. As I recall, of the five of us, I think it was the other base volunteer who was the only one of us that was remotely qualified to work on aircraft. Bob Johnson kept a close eye on us. Fortunately we had other specialists who would come in from time to time to help on special tasks.

Our B-17 had an interesting life - it was a Lockheed-Vega-built B-17G that was delivered to the US Coast Guard for submarine hunting and air rescue duties. It had never seen combat in Europe nor the Pacific. In place of the chin turret, our aircraft once had a radome to perform its search mission. Since the aircraft lived by the ocean, bare metal was out of the question. The Coast Guard applied coats of white paint to keep the corrosion under control. When the aircraft was retired from military service, she eventually found her way to dropping Borate on forest fires. Slurry tanks had been installed in the bomb bays. The firefighting crews kept up the tradition of corrosion control – more white paint. While I don’t know the details of its acquisition, somehow the 390th had acquired the aircraft and our B-17 was flow with P-51 escort into Davis Monthan for its new mission as the 390th Missile Wing’s Heritage Exhibit.

On those first few days, we eyeballed the aircraft to size up the problem:

  • First, the aircraft had no turrets. The chin, dorsal, and ball turret openings had been blanked over with aluminum panels. These were easy to remove.
  • The tail turret was supposed to be a Cheyenne-type, but that was going to need some serious attention.
  • The engines were in very good condition (she had flown in, after all) and these were scheduled to be preserved by the engineers from MASDC (now AMARC).
  • The bomb bay doors were on the airplane (thank you!) as these had been off the aircraft for God only knows how long while the slurry tanks were installed. While the previous owners did reinstall the bomb bay doors, none of the mechanisms were there – the doors were wired shut.
  • With the exception of the cockpit area, the rest of the aircraft interior was gone. Naturally a fire bomber needed to be as light as possible. We had some scavenging ahead of us.
  • Then there was that white paint. I have no idea how many coats of paint were on this airframe, but I think she sighed out of relief when we finally stripped all of that weight off of her.

While the specialists came along and dealt with the engines, re-finished the fabric flight controls, and made sure the rest of the hydraulics and pneumatics were properly preserved, we, the unskilled, set about stripping paint. I am amazed that any of us had fingerprints left for all of the MEK we used to strip that airplane. It took us the better part of a year working weekends to get that bird stripped down to the bare metal. The airframe was in surprisingly good shape after being so well protected in white paint!

Bob Johnson and Art Prunty had located a ball turret for us, but the problem was that we didn’t have a B-17 yoke to hang the turret. This yoke mounts to the ceiling of the mid-fuselage and the ball turret is clamped in its fork and hangs out through a hole in the bottom of the airplane. The answer turned out to be simple enough – they had a B-24 yoke. The difference between the B-17 and B-24 yokes turned out to be minor – the B-17 ball turret fit in the yoke just fine. The unique feature of the B-24 yoke was it was retractable – the ball turret was brought inside the aircraft for take-off and landing. Bob and Art obtained the proper length of the B-17 yoke and welded the B-24 yoke to match. When it was installed in the aircraft, nobody was the wiser.

One weekend we showed up for work to find a second B-17G parked next to ours. It seems a gentleman had donated the airplane to the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, but since they didn’t have anywhere to park a large intact aircraft at that time, they arranged to fly it into Davis-Monthan and store it at Pima. We watched as the dignitaries performed the hand-over ceremony and then left. As soon as the prior and current owners of the aircraft had departed, we wandered all over that B-17. Imagine that, fresh parts delivered to our doorstep! The data placard in their B-17 indicated it was a Boeing-built machine. That was when we learned that all B-17Gs were not created equal. Several of us had different parts off that aircraft heading over to our airplane. As I recall, I had the overhead window to the radio compartment. It didn’t fit! Neither did the overhead dome assembly for the navigator in the nose, nor had anything else we tried. I suppose we could have jacked the airplane up and swapped engines and wheels, but our aircraft was in good shape there. Bugger! Oh well, back to our MEK.

As if I didn’t have enough to do, I also was a volunteer tour guide for the base Public Affairs office for tours through MASDC. One Saturday per month, I’d take visitors on a photo tour of the mothballed aircraft ranging in age from a B-18 Bolo to the F-14 Tomcat. It was cruel, yet gratifying to show the tail spotters from the UK an area containing 100+ aircraft and give them only 15 minutes to wander “freely” around. I loved that job…

When I came in to work on the B-17 after such a tour, I heard about a visitor that had been there earlier. An older gentleman and his wife had walked by the aircraft and he just kept staring at the aircraft. He didn’t say anything, but his wife asked if it was possible for him to look inside. We had been warned by the museum staff about insurance problems if someone were to get hurt and the team expressed their regrets. I’m not sure what she said to our team leader, but he did get permission to escort this gentleman into the aircraft. As I understand it, he entered through the rear entry door, looked back toward the tail gunner’s position, walked past the waist gunners’ and ball turret positions, paused at the bomb bay walkway, looked back and said “none of these guys made it…”. He went through the cockpit, down into the nose compartment and sat up in the nose. He explained that he had been a Toggler, an enlisted Bombardier, in his unit and on one mission they lost an engine to battle damage. As they limped home on three, the formation was long gone. That’s when someone spotted a pair of aircraft at twelve o’clock climbing fast. Too fast. These aircraft circled around the crippled bomber just outside of gun range, then settled in behind the aircraft. Suddenly one of the aircraft opened up with its four 20mm canons and blew the right wing off their B-17. He was trapped in the nose of the spinning aircraft.

The co-pilot had managed to unstrap from his seat and crawl to the forward escape hatch, but the centrifugal force had pinned him in place. There was a noise and suddenly this gentleman was falling free. The nose had sheared off just ahead of the windscreen and he was clear of the aircraft. That was the good news. The bad news is that crewmen in the nose didn’t wear parachutes – the crawlway into the nose was too confined. Instead, they wore a tether that they kept fastened to the closest parachute. When he looked up, the tether had brought a parachute with it. As he quickly donned the shoulder harnesses, he saw the ground rising rapidly and only put one leg strap on before pulling the ripcord. Even so, he only got one swing in the chute before hitting the ground, breaking both legs. He had lived. Nobody else had escaped the aircraft. He spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. When he was debriefed after the war, he found out that his was the first documented case of a B-17 falling to the guns of an Me 262. I wish I’d been there to hear that story first-hand!

After stripping paint and polishing aluminum for over a year, we learned that the 390th Bomb Group Association was going to hold their annual reunion in Tucson to see the aircraft. The 390th Missile Wing’s historian had selected an aircraft for us to recreate: B-17G 42-31892 named “I’ll Be Around”. We didn’t have photos or any other information, so we found a color profile of a typical 390th airplane in bare metal and the base paint shop came over and did their magic. The result was stunning and there were lots of happy 390th veterans that admired everyone’s work at the reunion.

The Crew

As we spoke to several of these crewmen, we discovered the fate of the original “I’ll Be Around”. The aircraft was enroute back to Framlingham after a combat mission and over the English Channel. One of the crewmen had removed the protective cover off of the very hot chin turret to safe the guns. Somehow a parachute dropped into the turret and caught fire. This in turn caused the .50 caliber rounds to start cooking off and the crew was forced to abandon the aircraft.

Shortly after we finished the aircraft for the reunion, I saw a movie on HBO called “Reunion at Fairborough” with Robert Mitchum and Red Buttons. Mitchum played a veteran B-17 pilot who is tired of life but decides to attend one last group reunion before ‘checking out’. He has these flashbacks of the war, many of them in color. If I recall correctly, the very first flashback was a color image of a B-17G, the “I’ll Be Around” Square-J sitting on the tarmac. The airplane was camouflaged, not bare metal. I couldn’t believe it! We’d spent many weekends and many gallons of MEK stripping the white off of our aircraft to get a bare metal airplane and we could have just slapped another coat of paint on the bird and called it a day. Doesn’t it just figure? Don’t believe everything you see in museums!

Anyway, not long after that reunion, our squadron finally had a full compliment of aircraft and we were starting to spend lots of quality time away from home as we brought ourselves and our aircraft up to operational status. The “I’ll Be Around” was mothballed until a building could be constructed to house it.

I returned several times over the years to visit the aircraft. Not only is the aircraft in mint condition, but another army of volunteers picked up where we had left off. What we did was get the basic airframe refinished and preserved. The next team scrounged up a complete interior for the aircraft as well as the top and chin turrets we couldn’t locate. I was honored to be given permission to look close at the work done by these volunteers. They were SO thorough at restoring the interior of the aircraft, I was surprised to see a complete radar set that this aircraft used in its life with the Coast Guard!

If you get a chance to visit Tucson, you must stop by the Pima Air & Space Museum and visit this beautifully restored and maintained aircraft in its own hangar. Until you can stop by, you can click here and see my walk around of this fine looking airplane (but I’m not the least bit biased!).

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