Restoring B-17 planes for the Vets

Americana, History, Traditions
on May 10, 2009

Lauri Koski, 91, stands at the DeKalb (Ill.) Taylor Municipal Airport listening to the four engines of a B-17 sputter, pop, spit smoke and rumble to life. Koski, a pilot during World War II, smiles as the 1944 bomber roars down the runway, the sun glinting off its aluminum sides.

"That's sweet music to my ears," says Koski, as the airplane lifts into the sky. "I flew 51 missions in one."

Named Sentimental Journey, the vintage plane is one of only eight B-17s still operational, and flies thanks to dedicated members of the Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, based in Mesa. Rotating eight-man crews tend the aircraft during 60 appearances across the nation each May through September as a tribute to the iconic airplanes and the men who flew them.

"We love the World War II generation," says Don Raber, 60, of Fort Wayne, Ind. The Vietnam War veteran and his wife, Glenna, have volunteered with the B-17 since 2004, giving tours and manning the souvenir trailer. "We want to keep their history alive," Don says. "Bringing the plane to them is a way to share their stories."

About 350 Arizona Wing volunteers pay $250 annual dues, raise money for the B-17's $3,000-per-hour expenses, and restore other wartime aircraft. Of those, 100 volunteers crew with the plane on tour. Pilots and co-pilots must qualify with the Federal Aviation Administration to fly the historic plane, while other crewmembers must attend mechanic and crew chief ground schools in Mesa.

Crew chief Russ Kozimor got hooked five years ago and volunteers 1,000 hours annually. "In the beginning, it's all about the airplane-get an engine running and see it fly," says Kozimor, 52. "Once you meet the vets, it's all about them."

Seeing the restored B-17 took Koski back to 1944 when German flak blew a 5-foot hole in his bomber while flying his first mission over Ploesti, Romania, severing the rudder and elevator controls. "It was touch and go," Koski says. "The engines brought us back."

Over the years, Sentimental Journey flew photo mapping and air-sea rescue missions in the Pacific, controlled drones over nuclear testing sites, and even fought forest fires. In 1978, the Arizona Wing acquired the stripped-down plane and spent four years restoring the craft to its military condition, complete with rare top turrets, a once-top secret Norden bomb sight, 13 machine guns, bomb bay, and classic Betty Grable nose art.

"It's an honor, truly an honor, to fly her," says Russ Gilmore, 61, a 13-year volunteer and US Airways pilot.

Of the 12,731 B-17s manufactured, only 50 remain, with Sentimental Journey being the most fully restored. More than 17,000 visitors see it annually at festivals and air shows, and another 22,000 visit the Arizona Wing museum during the off-season.

"I took pictures of the bombs, ball turret, and where the tail gunner sat," says Quentin O'Connell, 11, of DeKalb, touring the plane with his mother, Stephanie Kemp.

Others, especially military veterans, purchase a deafening 45-minute ride aboard the B-17 for their family members. Koski bought a ticket for his son's 55th birthday.

"I got to stand behind the pilot's seat and pretend what it was like for him," Kevin Koski says. "It was like riding in a tin can. You realized how vulnerable you were-even without people shooting at you."

Crewmembers easily identify the veterans as they approach the plane. Some, like one who crawled out of his wheelchair and sat by himself in the B-17, want to be left alone. For others, the plane unlocks unspoken experiences of bailing out or flying through anti-aircraft fire.

"I get a lot of satisfaction knowing the plane is a medium for veterans to tell their stories," Raber says. "Sometimes crowds will gather and listen to them. It gets very emotional. We get emotional, too."

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