Saturday, June 11, 2011

Taking a Break

I'll be taking an almost week-long hiatus on the RV-12 project, but I thought I'd leave you with the story of today's ultimate shop visit. The flying weather this year has been pretty miserable and it has put me in a "take what you can get" kind of mood. The forecast for this morning was about what you'd expect on the back end of a few hot, humid, August-in-June days: wet, hazy, and generally unfavorable, with a chance of improvement to a 10,000' ceiling and 6 miles visibility. Safe, legal, but not what you'd call photogenic. I called it adequate.

Cadillac Pete had requested a rain check on the ride I had offered last week and it seemed that today might be a good day to have him cash it in. I had no real plan in mind and the gas is getting pricey, so I figured a breakfast run to Urbana would be a good destination. I've made that trip so many times that I'm often tempted to break my cardinal rule regarding never flying without taking my camera, and sadly enough I actually succumbed to the temptation. As usual, I regretted it.

We met at 8:30-ish and got the plane ready to go. Pete has a private pilot license that he hasn't used for thirty years, but even considering the decades between flights I didn't feel like I needed to spell out every step of the preflight process like I do with people that have never been in a small plane before. I did point out a few of the differences between a taildragger and a nosewheel equipped plane, though. The most important of which has to do with being extra careful not to impede the movement of the rudder pedals on takeoff and landing. The winds were light and the takeoff was routine, and as we climbed through 3,000' I gave Pete control of the airplane. After just a few minutes of rudimentary GPS navigation 101 and some time for him to get comfortable with the light, responsive controls, I was able to just sit back and let him fly us up to Urbana.

I took over for the landing and promptly bounced it.

Drat. My last three were glass smooth, but sans witnesses. Performance anxiety, I guess.

After breakfast we wandered over to the new hangar where the Champaign Lady is being restored. For the link-shy, the Champaign Lady is a B-17 restoration project. It's a fascinating, and in some way, tragic, project.
FEBRUARY 9, 2006

Heralded as a major contributor to the Allied victory in World War II, the B-17 bomber could sustain significant damage and still lumber back to base. Today, though, only 14 of the original fleet of 12,731 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses can still take to the sky. Add one more to this exclusive number when a corps of volunteers completes its mission: the restoration to flying status of a Boeing B-17G bomber, a project that recently began in a hangar on the south end of Grimes Field municipal airport in Urbana, Ohio—under the guidance of the world’s most experienced restorer of vintage military aircraft.

How did such a venture land in Urbana? It all started last July when a fully restored B-17, the Liberty Belle, made a stop at Grimes Field. People flocked to the airport, donating a total of $18,000 to the not-for-profit Liberty Belle Foundation—some for the rare opportunity to fly in the historic warbird and most to make a walk-through.

This enthusiastic reception left an impression with Tom Reilly of Tom Reilly Vintage Aircraft, Inc., who led the Liberty Belle restoration and is now piloting the project in Urbana.

A Timely Call

That’s why Reilly called Carol Hall, assistant manager of Grimes Field, in November. Recalls Hall, “He said, ‘I have a B-17 project that’s ready to start. Do you know anyone who might be interested (in financing it)?’ I said that I knew of someone and that I’d check.” In fact, the man she had in mind, Jerry Shiffer—a local business leader, private pilot, and generous supporter of community causes, including improvements to the airport—happened at that moment to be dining in the airport’s restaurant. Shiffer and his family were among those who flew in the Liberty Belle during its visit, and Hall knew that he was thrilled by the experience. She told him of Reilly’s call. Soon after, Reilly came to Urbana to meet with the Shiffers, and, Hall says, “Within two weeks it all came together.”

November 29, the day the first shipment of B-17 parts—including part of the fuselage—was due to arrive at Grimes Field, Shiffer took off from the airfield, by himself, in his twin-engine Cessna 425 Conquest I. He was headed to Montana to ski. However, near Belgrade, Mont., the plane crashed; Shiffer would not return to see the realization of his dream: a flying B-17 museum based at the Urbana airport.

Seeing the Dream Through

“We’ll see it to the finish,” says Shiffer’s widow, Leah. “He was so excited that everything was proceeding. He left on a good note. When Jerry got excited about something, he couldn’t wait.” Neither can his children, David, Andrea and Eric. David and Eric, in fact, want to learn to fly the B-17, and they want to carry out their father’s wish to create a rumbling, thundering, four-engine memorial to World War II veterans. “History is being forgotten, so this is a way of preserving a piece of the past,” explains Eric. His mother adds, “We want the plane to serve as a reminder of the sacrifices that many men made to protect our freedoms.”

In tribute, many hours of free time will be sacrificed—most of it by volunteers—in restoring the bomber. The project could take 10 years to complete. The enormity of the task is apparent. In the hangar, large crates, bins, and warehouse shelving are loaded with a conglomeration of metal parts. A 25-foot-long wing flap rests against a wall. The stripped-down, skeletal frame of the cockpit and bomb bay hangs, steadied by a hoist, for the crew to work on. And many more parts are on the way.

I didn't have any idea how a couple of walk-ins would be greeted at the hangar, but I figured that the worst they could do was ask us to leave. I needn't have worried; we were greeted by a friendly and knowledgeable group that was more than happy to show us around and answer questions that they have probably answered hundreds of times. The stories behind how they have acquired various parts are intriguing and sometimes humorous. For example, the top gun turret was found underneath a porch in Springfield, Ohio. Apparently a former owner of the home worked in a plant that built the turrets during the war and somehow ended up bringing one home. The belly turret was purchased from a restaurant in Texas that was remodeling and no longer felt the the B-17 parts hanging from the ceiling fit their new ambiance. They are also working on bringing back the husk of a B-17 that crashed in Alaska. In fact, the guy that built my RV-6 is in Alaska right now making those arrangements.

Seeing the parts that they are fabricating and the jigs and templates they have had to build to make the parts was as fascinating as seeing the inner structure of the large part of the fuselage that they have done. The were currently building up one of the engine nacelles for either engine #1 or engine #4. They will have to build a different rig/template for the nacelles for engines #2 and #3 because they are shaped differently.

It sure would have been nice to be able to take some pictures of my own... but here are a couple from their web site:

If nothing else, seeing the patience dedication that they bring to the project was humbling. I'm sure that they have their bad days and a few muttered imprecations now and then aren't wholly absent from the work environment, but the challenges they need to surmount on a daily basis make my little imbroglios with the RV-12 seem very petty by comparison.

Climbing up to, and sitting in, the Captain's seat of their C-47 was just icing on the cake.

And, of course, you're all waiting breathlessly to see if I managed to make a better landing back at Bolton.

I'd rather not talk about that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This will make a nice replacement for Liberty Belle, which crashed-landed with a fire in #2 last weekend. Everyone walked away, fortunately.

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