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Aluminum Overcast was donated to the Experimental Aircraft Association after its owners found the restoration and maintenance costs too high. The EAA started touring with it in 1994. (Scott Slingsby)

At the B-17 Co-op

Like bomber crews on 100-plane raids, today’s B-17 owners find strength—and survival—in numbers

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In a few months, some of the bombers will start on their national tours. They need to come to some agreement on their visitation schedules so that one doesn’t show up in a city only to find out another bomber just left. Everyone knows this is easier said than done. They just hope that if they don’t work it out as a group at the table, they might do it afterward by themselves at the bar.

It’s time to place another order for main-gear tires. They’ve got a specialty tire manufacturer in England with the molds for B-17 tires, which need replacing after 75 to 100 landings, and he’s ready to do another run. The more tires he makes, the lower the per-unit cost and the less it will cost to ship them. How many does everybody want? Then the subject turns to spark plugs. Do they all still have enough, or can they wait another year before putting in an order? They go back and forth and decide it can wait another year, at least.

What about brake expander tubes? They’re a key part of the B-17’s braking system, and by now much of the rubber has deteriorated. The company offering to make them won’t start tooling up unless the co-op comes up with $75,000 worth of orders—about 100 sets. So how many brake expander tubes does everyone want?

An Aluminum Overcast rep mentions how that team thought they had three spare sets that were still good, but when they slapped on one set, no sooner were they up in the air than it started leaking fluid. They were able to land and put in a new set—it’s holding fine, but it did reduce their complacency a tad.

Then Chuckie Hospers announces she’s decided to sell her bomber. Since Doc died the previous March, the toil of running a bomber along with the Vintage Flying Museum, established in 1990, has gotten to be too much. It’s already a done deal. Jerry Yagen of the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach will take delivery of Chuckie in January, though he promises to bring it back in the fall for a hangar dance at Hospers’ museum.

Everyone looks at everybody else. The idea of Chuckie going to Yagen makes sense: He has some 30 airworthy warplanes and a bunch more in restoration. High time he added a B-17.

For a moment, they’re all thinking about what this means: the end of an era. Chuckie and Doc were part of the crew that set up the co-op. If not for those two, the B-17 teams still might not be talking to one another.

Plays Well With Most Others

Don Price of Texas Raiders says that even when there’s a little bit of uncooperativeness from the top guys in the “head sheds,” “the people in the trenches help each other.” After being down eight years for a main wing spar replacement, Texas Raiders ran into problems on its first long tour. “I can tell you we got a lot of help from Yankee Air Museum [in Michigan, which sells rides in Yankee Lady], and the Liberty Foundation [of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which toured with Liberty Belle until the bomber caught fire last June] helped us with one of their mechanics, and then Sentimental Journey sent a couple people over,” Price says. “Some people who helped us, I can’t tell you who they were. They’d say things like ‘The people who run the organization wouldn’t be happy about this.’ But the operators tend to look at it like ‘This could be me broken down next year and I’d need their help.’ ”

A couple of years ago, the guys from Aluminum Overcast came across a huge bonanza of B-17 parts in the city of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. Says John Hopkins, an Experimental Aircraft Association maintenance manager: “Brake drums, wheel assemblies and landing gear jack-screw assemblies, drive links for the main gear, main gear axles, flap links, cowl flap components, several engines. Plus a box of 120 brand-new, still-in-their-wrappers turbo cooling caps. Turbo cooling caps erode over time because they’re in the pathway of the exhaust. They’re non-existent. You just can’t find them.” Hopkins says his team has no intention of hoarding them. “We get a call from anybody, we’re more than happy to share because we’ll never use 120 cooling caps. Everybody else can use them.”

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