Volunteers Restoring the B-17 'Champaign Lady'

B-17 Flying Fortress

URBANA, Ohio -- The stakes aren't as high as when 12,726 of them were built during World War II, but the effort to restore one B-17 in Urbana still needs everyone to do their part.

Close to 90 volunteers at the Champaign Aviation Museum have so far spent seven years returning a single Flying Fortress -- the "Champaign Lady" -- to  condition; and they can always use another Rosie the Riveter.

"The door's open," project manager Randy Kemp said. "Come get acquainted and see what you like."

Don't worry about experience -- all you need is the same can-do spirit that won the war in the first place.

"Most of these guys have never before bent a piece of aluminum in their lives," Kemp explained recently. "But, pretty soon, you're building an engine nacelle."

For history buffs, it's an open invitation to come tinker on the ultimate muscle car -- only this one could carry 8,000 pounds of muscle in its bomb bay.

"It's a piece of history," Kemp said. "You're not going to get the opportunity to do this ever again."

One man comes from Texas a couple of times a year and works for a week. Another comes from England every summer for two weeks.

For a project staffed entirely by volunteers, "It's beating all expectations," said Dave Shiffer, chairman of the museum board.

In 2005, his father, Jerry Shiffer, founder of the local plastics company Tech II, was presented with an opportunity to buy some scrap B-17G parts.

Jerry Shiffer was killed that year in a Montana plane crash at age 67, but his family decided to proceed with the purchase.

"The B-17 is such an iconic aircraft that people want to be involved," Dave Shiffer, 46, said.

To put it mildly, Jerry Shiffer would be surprised to see what's become of those scrap B-17 parts, his son said. He also never conceived of the Champaign Aviation Museum, built at Grimes Field almost three years ago to house the B-17 project, in addition to an airworthy B-25 Mitchell, among other vintage planes.

This past fall, the museum created an endowment, administered by the Springfield Foundation, to support operations and its collection.

Kemp, a 54-year-old Madison County resident and former B-52 crew chief, is the museum's only employee.

After his time in the Air Force, he worked for North American Rockwell in Columbus, where he assembled 100 B-1 bombers.

Compared to modern titanium and fiberglass aircraft like the B-1B, "The B-17's a piece of cake," he said. "It's very, very simple."

Ask him when the B-17 will be done, and he deadpans "a couple weeks."

"We'll call for the gas truck on Wednesday and fly it on Thursday," he said.

He just doesn't specify which Thursday.

Christened Champaign Lady, the B-17 is actually halfway done, he said, and will be only the 15th airworthy B-17 left in the world.

"We've been saying five or six years for five or six years," Dave Shiffer said.

The fuselage is 70 percent complete, Kemp said, and the tail likely will go on this summer.

In theory, the project is a restoration of a single B-17G once used for research by the Curtiss-Wright Corp. Later modified into an air tanker, it crashed in 1980 while fighting a forest fire in North Carolina.

In reality, they're building a B-17 from the ground up in Urbana, with parts from at least five different B-17s.

"We're preserving history. And making history by building one from scratch," said Irv Bence, a 77-year-old former aerospace engineer who makes the drive from Westerville every Tuesday and Thursday to work on Champaign Lady.

The cockpit was rescued from a bombing range in Nevada. A rear section came from 20th Century Fox, which used it in the 1949 Gregory Peck war movie "Twelve O'Clock High."

More parts were salvaged in 2011 from a B-17 crash site in Alaska.

The nose was built entirely on site by the volunteers.

The turret, however, has perhaps the most intriguing lineage -- in 2010, it was found under the porch of a house on North Bellevue Avenue in Springfield.

It likely was manufactured locally in the 1940s by Springfield's SPECO plant.

Regardless of where it all came from, the results speak for themselves whenever a World War II veteran stops by the museum to visit.

"Nine times out of 10," Kemp said, "the adrenaline goes into them and they're not pushing 90 anymore. It's something a doctor can't give them."

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