Even competitors recognize that the reason for keeping these aircraft flying is not entirely ego. “They know what that plane means in our society, what it represents, and they all want to be part of it,” says Tommy Garcia.
“I had a gal who flew with us in Orlando a few years back,” recalls Sean Elliot, flight operations director for the Experimental Aircraft Association. “When she came off [Aluminum Overcast], she was in tears. I went up to her and asked if anything was wrong with the flight. ‘No,’ she said. ‘It was wonderful. My father was killed in April of 1943 over the Black Sea, returning from one of the raids in Germany, and the airplane was lost. I was born in May 1943, so I never knew my father, and the flight gave me a connection to him I never had.’ ”
Back at the annual meeting, eventually the discussion turns to the bombers that aren’t attending. Usually most of the active bomber teams manage to send representatives, but the restoration projects are a different story. Some stay in close contact. The Mighty Eighth Museum’s City of Savannah, for instance, is Tommy Garcia’s current project. The museum has a B-17G that the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum gave it in 2009, after it sat in storage for 25 years. Now, under Garcia’s mentorship, the Mighty Eighth crew is restoring it to a wartime configuration. According to the deal they cut with the Smithsonian, it will never fly again. But Garcia helped convince the crew to make it airworthy, just because they can.
Then there’s Mike Kellner and Desert Rat, the B-17 he found in pieces in a Maine junkyard in the mid-1980s. He bought it for around $7,500, then transported the pieces, a few at a time, back to Marengo, Illinois, where he’s been rebuilding it in a barn. Kellner showed up for a couple of meetings a long while back, but has been scarce ever since. Still, the co-op keeps tabs on him, and word is that Desert Rat is starting to look like an airplane again—with help from volunteers, including riveters, and from Ray Moore, who built Kellner a fuselage jig to hold sections in alignment.
Another restoration project that has the co-op’s attention is the Champaign Aviation Museum’s Champaign Lady, which is being assembled in Urbana, Ohio, from the scraps of several bombers. Among the scraps are a top turret that spent 65 years under a porch, and parts from a B-17 that crashed in North Carolina in 1980. (Last August, Champaign volunteers retrieved parts from a -17 that crashed in Alaska in 1951; at least 15 percent will be used on Champaign Lady.) A while back the co-op would have dismissed Mike Kellner, Ray Moore, and Champaign Lady project manager Randy Kemp as nuts. By co-op standards, and for what they’re trying to do, their revenue streams are pathetic. But no matter what, they keep going, and some time in the next 10 years or so, they’ll probably all be flying.
Then there’s Paul Allen. The Microsoft co-founder is an avid collector and restorer of vintage warbirds. During the late 1990s, he bought an airworthy B-17E that had spent the 1980s hauling beef carcasses around Bolivia. He had it flown back to his museum in Washington state and set his restoration staff to returning it to wartime configuration. When it comes to vintage warbirds, most restorers are obsessive, but Allen’s attentiveness to detail is downright fetishistic (see “Crown Jewels,” Oct./Nov. 2004). Nobody has heard anything from his shop in years. Word is that his restoration had gotten so expensive that he’d given up and shelved it. Some speculate that even with their hand-to-mouth operations, Kellner, Moore, and the Champaign Aviation Museum will probably get their airplanes in the air before Allen does.
The meeting wraps up. They’ve agreed to some things; others are unresolved. Deals have been made and differences have been ironed out. Resentments continue to fester. Everybody shakes hands all around, except for those who don’t.
Brendan McNally is the author of Germania (Simon & Schuster, 2009), a novel about the Third Reich’s Albert Speer, who was the minister of armaments and war production. McNally lives in Dallas, Texas, where he writes about roller derbies, acrobats, Bonnie and Clyde, and other local characters.