Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The B-17; A Labor of Love

This Volunteer Profile appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of "ALOFT," a publication of Seattle's Museum of Flight. It honors the many volunteers who have worked to restore a vintage B-17 for the Museum's collection.

Since its first flight the B-17 has been an icon on the Boeing and the Seattle area aviation scene. Even now, 75 years later, you don’t have to look far to find a Museum volunteer whose life has been touched by the big plane.

Velva Maye, for example, has been working on the restoration of the Museums B-17 since it was acquired in 1991. Why the interest?

“Because my parts are on that plane,” she replies.

In 1942, at age 18, Velva joined Boeing as a “standard parts buyer” for the B-17 program. She’s confident her nuts, bolts and rivets are holding the Museums plane together. The work was exciting for a young woman. When an “SOS,” shortage of supplies, was sent up from the shop floor Velva would, at times, end up shuttling parts from one part of the plant, where there was a surplus, to relieve the shortage. That was the start of a 40 year career with Boeing.

She and other “lady restorers,” like Jean Almeda and Linda Broyles, handled whatever assignments were sent their way; sanding, painting, record keeping, etc. Velva recalls another volunteer, Sarah McDonald, who seemed to get all the “crummy” jobs; treating metal parts in foul smelling solvents, for example. But she and the others stuck with the program.

Early in the restoration Velva had the good fortune to work with the late Roy Ostling, one of the original engineers for the B-17 program. Roy had worked on every model of the plane from the “B” through the “G” models.
“Roy knew that plane down to the smallest detail. He insured that all our work matched the original design in every respect,” said Velva.

Walter Bergstrom, a five year Docent, had a different view of the B-17; from the ball turret slung beneath the belly. Walter volunteers every Friday and enjoys telling of his wartime B-17 experiences. He particularly enjoys working with kids.

He joined his crew as a waist gunner but, since “they had trouble keeping guys in the ball turret,” he volunteered to switch. At 5’ 10” he was a bit tall for the turret but found it comfortable and the view was spectacular. As his bomb group formed up he would curl into the turret and stay there until they left the continent on the return flight; six to eight hour stays were not unusual. Once in the turret he was the pilot’s eyes below and behind the plane. With so many planes maneuvering in a small space his view was critical. It was so snug that he had to leave his parachute up in the plane.

Walter arrived in England in April, 1944, in time to give the British support during D Day. His squadron carried out attacks on Caen in advance of the British. Unfortunately for Walter, he had one more take off than landing. On his 24th mission their plane experienced a serious wing fire and struggled to make England. On final approach Walter and others in the rear decided to jump. The handle on the escape hatch caught on his cuff and stayed with him all the way down. Due to the low altitude his chute barely opened and he landed badly in a dry swampy area. Two local boys made him comfortable on the ground, stole two packs of Chesterfields, and left him for later rescue.

His early exit broke 16 bones, including his back and both legs, and started him on a yearlong rehab in the states. It also earned him a membership in the “Caterpillar Club,” sponsored by the Irving Air Chute Company and open to flyers who used their parachutes in an emergency. Walter is proud of his club membership and, despite his bail out, still swears by the B-17.

“Everyone wanted to fly the B-17. It was the best. Four years ago I got to go up again; this time in the “Aluminum Overcast” when she visited Seattle. But at 210 pounds I don’t fit in the ball turret any longer!”

Docent Ted Gary enjoyed a different view, as a tail gunner on 22 B-17 missions beginning in January of 1945. He was always looking back. Late in the war German aircraft were scarce but the flak never let up. Ted took little comfort from the fact that the canvas gunner enclosure of the “F” model had been replaced by thin aluminum on his “G.”. His kneeling position was cold and cramped and his parachute had to be kept “nearby” during the long flights.

Near the end of hostilities he flew two “chow hound” missions, dropping food from 400 feet over occupied Holland. He can still recall the sight of Dutch civilians running past silent German gun positions to recover the falling food. Since the bomb bay food release system was unreliable some of the pallets fell far from their intended targets.

“I was afraid we’d kill civilians with food canisters,” he said.

During a later vacation in Holland he was nearly smothered by a thankful Dutch woman when she learned that he’d participated in the food drop that saved many lives.

Hank Hendrickson both piloted a B-17 and, since 2004, has been active with the restoration of the Museums plane. Hank picked up a new B-17 in May of “44” in Georgia and by June was flying the first of his 30 European missions. His appreciation of the rugged plane was enhanced on a mission over Germany when flak ripped a massive hole aft of the bomb bay, killing three crew members and sending the plane into a roll. With all engines still firing he regained control and diverted to a secondary target not fully appreciating how badly damaged the plane was. After inspecting the damage they aimed for an emergency field on the English coast and, confident the stress of landing would break off the tail, he ordered the tail gunner to jump before executing a successful landing. The chilly tail gunner was recovered uninjured.

Hanks extensive combat time has made him an ideal tour guide for visitors to the Museums restored plane.

Not all of the Museums B-17 aficionados had wartime contact with the big plane. Herb Phelan, for example, didn’t make serious contact with the program until 1993, following a career in aircraft design at Boeing. Looking for a retirement activity he became hooked on the restoration project and, since 1999 has served as project manager or crew chief for the project. He recently took over the B-29 restoration as well; and all as a volunteer!

Organizing volunteers to do anything can be a challenging task but, from the results and comments of other volunteers, it is clear Herb was the right man for the job. Under his leadership the restoration volunteers strive for authenticity in their work which continues to this day. Using the original production drawings they have fabricated hundreds of parts and systems to bring the plane back to “factory” condition. When a lack of castings or tooling prevent perfect replicas they adapt to achieve the “look and function” of the original parts.

For example, with Herb’s direction, Alan Peover, another volunteer, recently installed a windshield wiper assembly for the bombardier position. Using original drawings new parts were fabricated and matched with authentic components purchased on-line to bring the installation up to factory specs.

In addition to fabrication skills Peover has found agility to be an asset as well. To install pulleys, cables and brackets for an “emergency cable release for the bomb bay doors” Peover had to remove floorboards and squeeze his body into nearly inaccessible compartments.

Peover is now fabricating ten simulated 500 pound bombs for installation in the planes empty bomb bay. Many hours will be spent fabricating fuses, fins and other components based on design drawings acquired from a source in Great Britain but, in the end, they will look like the real thing and further enhance the accuracy of the restoration.

The list of involved volunteers could go on and on; Loody Christofero and many other have invested countless hours in the B-17 program. The Museum is fortunate to have such skilled and dedicated volunteers. Future generations who want to see a truly authentic restoration will benefit from their commitment and hard work for decades to come.


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