History of the B-17 Project

The Long Road Home: B-17G 44-83814

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There was never a question that a B-17 Flying Fortress should be the centerpiece of the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force exhibits. Judge Ben Smith, a Georgia native, World War II 8th Air Force veteran, and author of the 8th Air Force classic, “Chick’s Crew,” urged 8th Air Force museum planners to seek out and secure rights to a B-17 because of that aircraft’s importance to the story of the Mighty Eighth Air Force. The B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator were the chariots that took the Mighty Eighth into battle. A real B-17, not just a picture or replica, had to be included in the history of the men of the Eighth Air Force in Europe.

Museum officials never ceased their efforts to locate and secure a B-17. They explored every opportunity with enthusiasm. The condition or location of the aircraft didn’t matter; every rumor was examined, from a wreck in the Amazon to the badly maintained property of the U.S. Government at a military museum – every call was made, every contact followed up, every person contacted, every rumor run to ground.

The Air Force had a few B-17s that would eventually be given to deserving museums, both military and nonmilitary. The operative word here was “eventually.” The Mighty Eighth’s name went on a list and, as the B-17s were released on long-term loan or donated outright, the Mighty Eighth Air force Museum moved up the list. After 12 years, the museum had finally advanced to number five. When would “eventually” mean the Mighty Eighth was number one?

The B-17 is Located

b-17Stories had circulated about a B-17 in storage at Washington Dulles International Airport. The airplane was structurally sound, it was said, but had never seen action in the war. Assembled just as the war ended, it was bought as war surplus. Over the next 30 years, it was converted twice, first to serve as a photo-mapping platform and then as a slurry bomber or forest fire water bomber. Eventually, the airplane, tail number 44-83814, became part of a 1984 aircraft trade between the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the Black Hills Aviation Company in North Dakota. The B-17 was flown to Washington Dulles International Airport by its owner and placed in long term storage by the Smithsonian. It was to be displayed at some future date in an exhibit.

In the summer of 2008, the loan agreement between the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force and the Smithsonian Institution for a World War II German Messerschmitt Me 163 “Komet” expired, and the Smithsonian sent a crew to collect its property. The Me 163 had been on display in the museum’s Combat Gallery. A crew made up of representatives of the Smithsonian and the Mighty Eighth disassembled the German war bird and prepared it for shipment back to the Smithsonian. During a chance conversation, the subject of B-17s came up, and one of the Smithsonian mechanics mentioned to the Mighty Eighth’s maintenance superintendent that there was a B-17 in storage at the Smithsonian that the Mighty Eighth could get just for asking. The Eighth Air Force Museum man dropped what he was doing and went straight to the office of Dr. Walter Brown, the museum’s Chief Executive Officer at the time. He relayed the conversation with the Smithsonian employee to Dr. Brown, who immediately contacted Dr. Dik Daso, Curator of Modern Military Aircraft at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Dr. Daso confirmed that the Smithsonian was considering releasing the B-17. Indeed, he said, the Smithsonian was looking for a good home for the aircraft, a home where it would be put to use for educational purposes and never flown again.

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A Glimmer of Hope

Dr. Daso expressed a willingness to present paperwork to the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents urging release of the B-17 to the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force if the Mighty Eighth would agree to a series of terms:

  • It was to send a letter attesting to the fact that it was an educational museum
  • It was to store the B-17 permanently inside the building
  • It was to promise the airplane would never fly again
  • And it was to pay the cost of moving the B-17 to its location in Pooler, Ga.

b-17If the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force were to agree to these terms, Dr. Daso said he would petition the Board of Regents at its meeting in August of 2008 to release the airplane to the Mighty Eighth. Dr. Brown prepared the letter and posted it immediately. He also contacted several sources associated with the Mighty Eighth to ensure that funds would be available to transport the airplane to Pooler.

On the day of the Board of Regents meeting, the employees and trustees of the Mighty Eighth held their breath. Would the measure be approved? Agonizingly, the day passed with no word. Then a week passed with no response despite several calls to the Smithsonian.

Finally, the museum received word that the de-accession papers had not gone before the Board of Regents after all. Other matters had taken priority at the meeting and the Mighty Eighth would have to wait until the next meeting—probably three to six months away. Needless to say, the staff and the museum’s Board of Trustees in Pooler were keenly disappointed. Dr. Brown tried to keep the tone upbeat and positive, but the news was devastating to him. He had been diagnosed with cancer and feared his chances of ever seeing a B-17 arrive at the museum were very slim if the transfer of ownership was delayed.

An Appeal from the Heart

Unbeknownst to him, a member of Dr. Brown’s staff called Dr. Daso and relayed the news of Dr. Brown’s terminal illness. If the de-accessioning were delayed, he might never see the aircraft in the museum. The Mighty Eighth was fully prepared to receive the aircraft. It had the funds on hand and the manpower to transport it; it had a dedicated space for the display, an educational program to support it—everything required to meet the Smithsonian’s terms for gifting the B-17 to the museum. Was there nothing that could be done to overcome this barrier?

After several phone calls between the staff and Dr. Daso, the curator agreed to walk the de-accessioning papers through the Board of Regents or to do the unthinkable—call a special meeting of the regents for approval. Then, more silence.

Then, in mid-December, on the date of the monthly 8th Air Force Historical Society meeting, Dr. Daso sent an email to Dr. Brown. “Mission accomplished,” it said. “When can you come and get her?”

This is but the first small chapter in the saga of the long journey of the “City of Savannah.” B-17G 44-83814 stands proudly today in a place of honor at its permanent home in the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force.