B-17 to ‘fly’ again at museum

The scene inside the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center at the National World War II Museum is that of a construction zone and an assembly line.

As some workers scurry about in order to finish the $35 million, 26,540-square-foot building by this time next month, others are busy putting together the centerpiece of the new space: a 30,000-pound B-17E Flying Fortress that was abandoned for more than 50 years in Greenland.

The aircraft is one of several pieces of equipment, including other airplanes, artillery and tanks, that will be on display in the new pavilion that pays tribute to the industrial efforts that helped to win the war.

“It tells the story of America’s industrial might toward the war effort,” said Owen Glendening, the museum’s associate vice president of education and access.

The exhibition space, one of several new areas under construction, will include many interactive features designed to give visitors a new appreciation for the production efforts of the Boeing Co. and others during the war.

Of the static displays, though, museum officials are particularly proud of the B-17, called “My Gal Sal,” which sat abandoned for decades in Greenland before it was recovered in the early ’90s.

Thirteen members of the Army Air Forces were in the plane, en route to England, in June 1942 when bad weather forced it to make an emergency landing on an ice cap.

Stuck there with an immobilized aircraft and no way to communicate, crew members spent 20 hours sawing off the tips of the propellers to free them from the snow, allowing the plane to power up so radio contact could be made for a rescue, said Tom Czekanski, director of collections and exhibits at the museum.

While the crew was rescued, the aircraft was not, something that was not uncommon during the war when aircraft went down, Glendening and Czekanski said.

It wasn’t until 1995 that a private citizen recovered My Gal Sal. By that point in time, many of the Flying Fortresses produced for the war had been reduced to scrap, making the aircraft a rarity.

While the B-17 was a “fairly rugged plane” designed to take a certain level of abuse, it was no match for nature, Glendening said.

“It was pretty tore up,” Czekanski said of the plane’s condition upon its recovery.

The bomber’s restoration began in 2000 in Cincinnati. Businessman Bob Ready and 23 volunteers spent more than 80,000 hours working on the aircraft before donating it to the museum.

There are now 14 people putting the plane back together inside the pavilion after it was recently shipped down in pieces. It will soar nearly 90 feet above visitors’ heads once it is reassembled, Glendening said.

Though none of Sal’s crew members survive today, being able to display the aircraft pays tribute not only to the industrial might of the country, but the spirit of the men who served during the war, Czekanski said.

“It’s amazing to think of 12,000 of these with 10 young men in it. You see it’s just this aluminum,” he said pointing to an open portion of the aircraft that showed just how little there was between the men and the open sky. “The idea that so many Americans were willing to hop into these things is amazing.”