The painstaking restoration of the world’s only B-17 “D” in a hangar on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base’s Area B exemplifies the kind of work to which National Museum of the U.S. Air Force personnel have been dedicated every day for 100 years.
The oldest B-17 in existence, it is perhaps unique in having served from just hours after the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941 to the end of the Second World War in September 1945, first as a bomber and then as a “VIP” transport, museum curators say.
“It has quite the history,” said Chad Vanhook, restoration lead specialist at the museum.
Museum officials showcased that history for local media Tuesday as part of the museum’s centennial celebration. The museum traces its origins to a small shop at Dayton’s McCook Field between Keowee Street and the Great Miami River.
A “shark fin tail” B-17 called the “Swoose,” the plane is the sole surviving B-17 to have seen action in the Philippines in the opening days of World War II, according to the museum.
The Smithsonian Institution took possession of the Swoose in the late 1940s and it remained in storage (including some time outside) until the Air Force Museum acquired it in 2008.
Three of the plane’s four engines failed on the plane’s final flight to the Smithsonian, museum curator Meghan Anderson said Tuesday. It landed at what is today Joint Base Andrews with a “horrifically smoking” fourth engine, she added.
“It barely made it,” Anderson said. “But a very cool story.”
The plane’s story isn’t finished. Museum leaders said workers are taking a combined restoration/conservation approach to readying the aircraft for eventual display, trying to restore the plane’s appearance from 1942 to 1945 when it served as a high-speed transport for Gen. George Brett, command of the Caribbean Defense Command and Panama Canal Department.
By combining both restoration and conservation, the museum says it intends to preserve as much of the original markings as possible.
That work will take at least seven years.
The plane’s bomb bay area is untouched. Museum specialists will address corrosion issues and many other aspects of the craft.
The 30-odd national flags painted on the fuselage — signifying the Pacific Rim and Caribbean nations the plane visited over the years — will likely not be repainted.
“We’re going to save that and most likely keep it as is, even though they’re kind of faded and worn,” Vanhook said.
The work on the plane so far has been emphatically on conservation and preserving the originality of the early model bomber. The “D” model designation signifies the fact that it’s a straight-tail B-17.
The plane didn’t have a tail gunner position like the later “E,” “F,” and “G” models, or a ball turret, Vanhook said. Instead, it had a gun placement “bathtub” on its belly, with a pair of machine guns pointed aft (to the rear), with two waist-gun positions, like other B-17 models.
Specialists are concentrating in the plane’s waist area now.
“There’s a lot to do,” Vanhook said.
“We can’t wait to showcase it,” Anderson said.