FEBRUARY 9, 2006
Heralded as a major contributor to the Allied victory in World War II, the B-17 bomber could sustain significant damage and still lumber back to base. Today, though, only 14 of the original fleet of 12,731 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses can still take to the sky. Add one more to this exclusive number when a corps of volunteers completes its mission: the restoration to flying status of a Boeing B-17G bomber, a project that recently began in a hangar on the south end of Grimes Field municipal airport in Urbana, Ohio—under the guidance of the world’s most experienced restorer of vintage military aircraft.
How did such a venture land in Urbana? It all started last July when a fully restored B-17, the Liberty Belle, made a stop at Grimes Field. People flocked to the airport, donating a total of $18,000 to the not-for-profit Liberty Belle Foundation—some for the rare opportunity to fly in the historic warbird and most to make a walk-through.
This enthusiastic reception left an impression with Tom Reilly of Tom Reilly Vintage Aircraft, Inc., who led the Liberty Belle restoration and is now piloting the project in Urbana. A timely call It’s why Reilly called Carol Hall, assistant manager of Grimes Field, in November. Recalls Hall, “He said, ‘I have a B-17 project that’s ready to start. Do you know anyone who might be interested (in financing it)?’ I said that I knew of someone and that I’d check.” In fact, the man she had in mind, Jerry Shiffer—a local business leader, private pilot, and generous supporter of community causes, including improvements to the airport—happened at that moment to be dining in the airport’s restaurant. Shiffer and his family were among those who flew in the Liberty Belle during its visit, and Hall knew that he was thrilled by the experience. She told him of Reilly’s call. Soon after, Reilly came to Urbana to meet with the Shiffers, and, Hall says, “Within two weeks it all came together.”
November 29, the day the first shipment of B-17 parts—including part of the fuselage—was due to arrive at Grimes Field, Shiffer took off from the airfield, by himself, in his twin-engine Cessna 425 Conquest I. He was headed to Montana to ski. However, near Belgrade, Mont., the plane crashed; Shiffer would not return to see the realization of his dream: a flying B-17 museum based at the Urbana airport.
Seeing the dream through “We’ll see it to the finish,” says Shiffer’s widow, Leah. “He was so excited that everything was proceeding. He left on a good note. When Jerry got excited about something, he couldn’t wait.” Neither can his children, David, Andrea and Eric. David and Eric, in fact, want to learn to fly the B-17, and they want to carry out their father’s wish to create a rumbling, thundering, four-engine memorial to World War II veterans. “History is being forgotten, so this is a way of preserving a piece of the past,” explains Eric. His mother adds, “We want the plane to serve as a reminder of the sacrifices that many men made to protect our freedoms.”
In tribute, many hours of free time will be sacrificed—most of it by volunteers—in restoring the bomber. The project could take 10 years to complete. The enormity of the task is apparent. In the hangar, large crates, bins, and warehouse shelving are loaded with a conglomeration of metal parts. A 25-foot-long wing flap rests against a wall. The stripped-down, skeletal frame of the cockpit and bomb bay hangs, steadied by a hoist, for the crew to work on. And many more parts are on the way.