Urbana's B-17 Restoration Project Now Halfway Done

Volunteers working on the B-17 construction project at the Champaign Aviation Museum said they are about halfway done with making the "Champaign Lady" fly

Feb. 07--Volunteers working on the B-17 construction project at the Champaign Aviation Museum said they are about halfway done with making the "Champaign Lady" fly.

Bill Albers works on the plane and led a presentation Thursday to update about 40 people from Springfield, Urbana and Columbus about the group's progress.

"We are not under any time constraints except some of the older guys are in their 70s and want to see it fly before they part with us," he said. "And I'm probably one of them."

Albers remembers seeing the B-17 bombers fly over his house on their way to Germany. He grew up in Holland during the German occupation and was five when the war ended. He remembers his mother telling him stories of 1,000 bombers being escorted by 1,000 fighter jets.

"Why I do it is because I was liberated by the Americans you can say, and I feel I'm giving something back to the American society,"Albers said.

Albers said the B-17 has special meaning to him, because it helped save thousands from his home county. The Germans were cutting off food and supplies to Holland and 25,000 people died of starvation. America sent 400 B-17s to drop food all over the Netherlands, which he said saved thousands.

Jim Heiser of Urbana started working on the plane when the project started in 2005. His wife was from Holland and he said she told stories of eating tulip bulbs when the Germans were starving the country.

Heiser is retired Air Force and calls himself an "aviation enthusiast." He said the neatest thing about this is that most restoration projects don't get the planes "airworthy."

"These planes fly, most museum's planes don't fly," Heiser said.

There were more than 12,000 B-17s made in the 1940s and about 4,000 survived the war.

The B-17 is known for having the most causalities of any airplane, more than 40,000.

Now there are only 11 B-17s that can still fly, and about 40 are found in museums.

The Champaign museum has gathered parts for the plane from all around the United States. The body of the plane came from a B-17 that crash landed in Alaska, one piece was purchased from a bar in Colorado, part of the plane was used in the set of "12 O'Clock High" and others were bought on eBay.

The top gun turret was found underneath the porch of a Springfield woman's house in 2010.

That part is being used on the plane, but most of the parts have been used as templates to make new pieces. About 98 percent of the plane is new, Albers said.

"This will be the best B-17 ever built," Jack Bailey said.

Bailey works on the plane four or five days a week. He said the reason he donates his time is because the men who work on the plane with him have become a new family to him.

The B-17 restoration and construction project was to be at 7- to 10-year project, but now the museum hopes to have the "Champaign Lady" in the air by 2023.

Copyright 2014 - Dayton Daily News, Ohio

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