USED TO BE, THE ONLY place you saw a Boeing B-17 was at an airshow or in a museum. But in recent years, the World War II bombers have become an increasingly familiar sight in the skies over American cities. Of the 10 that still fly, about half spend the year traveling from city to city and stopping over for a few days at various airports, where they invite the public to visit. The curious can touch the wings, run their hands over the fuselage, even come aboard and see what a vintage bomber looks like inside.
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For about $425, they can buy a half-hour “flight experience.” The people who manage the bombers don’t like to use the word “ride,” because they say their purpose isn’t to entertain, but to educate. They want the public to understand what the bombers did and what their crews went through.
Owning a B-17 is extremely expensive. Hangar rental, maintenance, insurance—all run thousands of dollars a month, and that’s just to keep it on the ground. Once a B-17 takes to the air, the costs jump to thousands of dollars an hour. Only very wealthy individuals and organizations with energetic fundraising staffs can foot the bill.
But operating a B-17 requires more than wealth and a love of aviation history. It takes a certain type of personality. “That airplane demands so much of you that it forces you to be an alpha,” says Tommy Garcia, a civil engineer in Houston and board member of the Texas Armed Forces Historical Society who guided a number of B-17 restorations. Recently, success in operating a B-17 has one more requirement: realization that you can’t do it alone. That’s how the B-17 Co-op got started.
The youngest B-17s flying today were built in the early- to mid-1940s, and no matter how well they are treated, they are very old airplanes. Although most bomber teams have thousands of spare parts in inventory, it’s never enough.
During World War II, the idea was to build as many aircraft as possible, as quickly as possible. Bombers that came back from a mission shot up were repaired slap-dash so they could fly the next day. Nobody worried much about long-term maintenance issues, because most aircraft didn’t last long.
Today, every flying B-17 is lavished with attention that the original crews would have found bewildering. Whenever the airplanes are not being flown, they’re being worked on, cleaned up, or prettified. Every 20 years or so, they are taken apart, sandblasted, and treated for corrosion. Parts get rebuilt or built from scratch, and inspected by a certified mechanic.
One might think that sharing a unique passion for a rare, historic aircraft would create a brotherhood among the owners, but the opposite has been the case. The competition is cutthroat among B-17 owners whose airplanes tour—and fight for the money those tours bring in, which is needed to help defray operational costs. In the process, toes get stepped on and resentments fester. The owners’ mutual distrust often extends to the crews as well. For years, none of them would even talk to one another, and those who tried were ostracized. The problem: With spare parts no longer plentiful, crews hoarded the parts they had.
The B-17’s life after the war is a story about generations: how things get passed on, how one generation differs from the one before it, how things continue as before. By now the first warbird generation, the men who had spent their military careers flying and working on -17s during the war, is almost entirely gone. The generation who took over the aircraft from them began to realize that unless they all found ways to work together—at least on some challenges—the bombers could not continue to fly. That generation, which came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, has been instrumental in getting the B-17 people to finally talk to one another. “We had to keep from having to continually reinvent the wheel,” says Charlyn “Chuckie” Hospers, who, until recently, owned a B-17G named after her.
Evolution of the Co-op