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Volunteers add key part to historic bomber

Urbana museum site of B-17 bomber restoration project.

Volunteers completed an important piece of their years-old puzzle to restore a historic bomber Friday, while at the same time honoring a family that helped make it possible.

A small group of volunteers and aviation enthusiasts stood in the hangar of the Champaign Aviation museum as a crane slowly lowered a vertical stabilizer onto the Champaign Lady, a B-17 bomber that is being rebuilt bit by bit in the museum. The large fin, located near the tail of the plane, was marked with an “S” within a black triangle, along with an L in black lettering.

The piece added Friday helps provide directional stability to the plane.

Volunteers initially chose that symbol because the “S” would honor Jerry Shiffer, an aviation enthusiast who founded the local plastics company Tech II. Jerry Shiffer died in a plane crash in 2005, but his wife, Leah, was on hand to watch the critical piece of the aircraft as it was fitted onto the tail section. Shiffer’s family purchased numerous scrap B-17 parts that are still being used to help rebuild the bomber.

The black “L” painted onto the stabilizer was meant to honor Leah, said Robert Buchwalter, a volunteer who worked on the project.

Initially, Leah said she believed the volunteers were teasing her when they explained the markings.

“Jerry would have loved this,” she said as she snapped photos of the stabilizer as volunteers fixed it onto the plane.

During World War II, it could sometimes take as much as 2 hours for the bombers to gather into formation during a mission, Buchwalter said. The markings on the stabilizer were used for identification.

“If you were looking for other airplanes from your group, that’s how you would recognize it,” Buchwalter said.

Volunteers later learned it was significant in another way. Although they did not know it at the time, the markings came from the 401st bomber group, which normally organized gatherings near an Air Force museum in Savannah, Ga. Members of that group learned that the Champaign County project would be using their symbol, and they now plan to visit the Champaign Aviation Museum for a luncheon in August.

Members of the 401st bomber group have been supportive of the project, said Jerry Good, another volunteer who’s worked on the Champaign Lady. In turn, he said the Urbana project will be able to honor that group’s history.

The vertical stabilizer was one of the first large pieces of the plane that was built by the volunteers six years ago, Buchwalter said. After all that time, it’s one more large piece of the puzzle complete.

For most of the volunteers, there isn’t much else they’d rather be doing than saving this one small part of history.

“We all suck at golf, so we may as well work on airplanes,” Buchwalter joked.

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