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The vintage Boeing built B-17 “Nine-O-Nine” attracts the curious during a stop over at Mid-America Airport in Shiloh, Ill.

Legend aloft: How World War II B-17 bombers paved the way for modern aircraft logistics


passenger in noseBoeing Photo

A passenger aboard “Nine-O-Nine” sits in the bombardier’s position over a Norden Bombsight in the nose of the bomber. When it came time for the bomb to drop over a target, the pilot would turn over controls of the aircraft to the bombardier who would fly the bomber on course.

A puff of oiled blue smoke burped from one of four throbbing Wright radial engines as a Boeing B-17 bomber, nicknamed “Nine-O-Nine,” lumbered into take off position.

“She’s got a right to do that - earned it,” said Mac McCauley, one of two volunteer civilian pilots on the flight deck of the historic Flying Fortress as it made a short hop to its next engagement.

The “Nine-O-Nine,” one of three vintage World War II-era bombers stopped at Mid-America Airport in Shiloh, Ill., as part of the Collings Foundation’s Victory Tour. The foundation, based in Stow, Mass., maintains about 20 vintage aircraft with a mission of sharing the historic technology with all generations.

During the Victory Tour weekend, several thousand people walked through the legendary aircraft to see for themselves what it was like for flight crews during the war, and a lucky few got to become part of  Nine-O-Nine’s legacy by flying aboard the Boeing aircraft. They may not have realized what a strong connection this legacy has to present-day aircraft and how lessons learned in the past have paved the future for many modern platforms like Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster III, currently serving warfighters in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Valiant history

Boeing’s B-17G Flying Fortress Serial # 44-83575 was built in Long Beach, Calif., near the end of World War II and was accepted by the U.S. Army Air Corps on April 7, 1945. The aircraft flew 18 trips over Berlin, Germany, and dropped more than half-a-million pounds of bombs, sustaining considerable flack damage. The aircraft served as part of Air Sea 1st Rescue Squadron and later in the Military Transport Service after the war. But in 1952, the aircraft, then nicknamed “Yucca Lady,” was pressed into service during the atomic age.

In April 1952, the plane was instrumented and subjected to the effects of three different nuclear explosions. After a 13-year “cool-down” period to wait out the adverse effects of radiation on the government-owned aircraft, the B-17 was sold to the private sector Collings Foundation for restoration and served as a “fire bomber.” The plane, which was originally designed to deliver fire power across the Atlantic during the war, was now charged with dropping water and borate on a natural enemy in the United States – forest fires.
Today, much has changed in the way crews work to keep the historic bomber airworthy and “mission-ready” since its first hours of flight were logged.

name plateBoeing Photo

The Boeing “Flying Fortress” name plate adorned every one of the bombers that left the factory floor and was mounted on the cockpit instrument panel. The phrase “Flying Fortress” was reportedly first used in an article which appeared in the July 16, 1935, issue of the Seattle Times, after a reporter witnessed the rollout of the prototype Model 299 and noticed all of the machine gun positions on the aircraft.

“The airplane is just like it was in combat,” said McCauley. “We’ve had modern avionics upgrades, but what you see is the way it was. It takes an agile logistics and support system to keep her in the air.”

Parts come from all over the world, despite the fact there are only thirteen B-17s that still fly out of the thousands originally made.

“We’ve ordered a lot of parts and try to stockpile them,” said McCauley. “Some of the stuff we get made, like tires, we have Dunlop make them. They’re $3,000 a piece, but we can still have those made.”

Tail wheels for a B-17 also are a hot commodity on the parts market.

“We have two spares,” McCauley added. “We’re always looking, always scavenging.”

Connecting with the past

Terry Langerman, Boeing Fleet Performance and Affordability director of C-17 Globemaster III Sustainment, said the speed of parts distribution that businesses like FedEx and UPS afford maintenance crews today is a far cry from what B-17 crews had to deal with during the war. It could take weeks, even months, before a critical part reached theater. Today, the C-17 team can predict the need for spares years in advance.

“During World War II, the U.S. Army transportation and logistics network relied primarily on ships to move supplies to ports in war zones and then onto forward supply bases by railroad and trucks,” Langerman explained. “In support of today’s global war on terrorism, we collect data for the C-17s throughout the entire supply chain and feed that information into a sophisticated supply chain modeling tool. We can forecast the spare parts we’ll need one to two years in advance so we can maximize aircraft availability and mission readiness.”

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Two U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III maintenance crew members at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, work on one of the heavy lifter’s engines.

U.S. Army Air Corps predecessors never dreamed that someday one could access a computerized database a world away and digitally track and move parts into theaters of war at incredible speed. Officials with Boeing’s C-17 Product Support and Services division said the supply chains of today are far leaner than half a century ago. The Boeing C-17 Globemaster III Global Sustainment Partnership (GSP) has resulted in an average delivery rate of 82 percent at the base supply window for all parts and an average customer wait time of only three and a half days. Still, many of the support and supply chain methods perfected to keep the B-17s mission-ready laid the groundwork for future aircraft programs.

“We’ve learned a lot from the aircraft programs of our past,” said Rick Robinson, director of Product Support for Boeing Defense, Space & Security. “Because the B-17 was produced in such large quantities – with 12,731 sent into two theaters – and had 10 crew members requiring different skills, the B-17 essentially led us to new methods of defining and providing support that we use today in our current programs.”

Sean Downey, Boeing director of Maintenance and Modifications for C-17 GSP, agreed.

“The Boeing C-17 is obviously a very complex machine compared to the venerable B-17, but in many ways it’s very much the same,” said Downey. “As the historically premier large airframe producer for the U.S. and the world, we at Boeing have learned more about supporting these massive machines both militarily and commercially than anyone. We have been able to harness the good and bad of those first experiences and develop outstanding support concepts such as the C-17 GSP, F-18 First, and Gold Care for the Boeing 787 – all integrated logistics programs that ensure parts availability and total support to customers.”

Nine-O-Nine’s airborne pit crew

At the Collings Foundation’s main maintenance facility in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., volunteer aircrews are constantly called into service. Nine-O-Nine is on a progressive maintenance program, and when the pock-marked aluminum bomber isn’t flying, it’s being worked on.

“It’s an everyday thing,” said McCauley. “I’ll jump out of the pilot’s seat and throw on my mechanics hat if I heard a little burp in the number four engine, and we’ll get in there and see what’s going on. We might have to chip a piece of carbon off one of the intake manifolds.”
In contrast, when Nine-O-Nine was flying in the U.S. Army Air Corps’ 323rd Bombing Squadron, there were 12 planes with three crew chiefs assigned to them. Each plane had 15 to 20 mechanics, so when there was a bad cylinder the crews would pull off that engine in about two hours and put on another engine taken from another B-17, according to Collings Foundation members.

The modern-day crews of the historic aircraft do get some expert help. Mechanics in their late 80s, veterans from the war, sometimes visit the facility and watch as McCauley works on the plane.

“I’ll be working on an engine and I’ll look down and they’re just staring,” he said. “They’ll tell me to watch out for the lead gasket and warn me it needs to be tighter, and I thank them. It’s really great.”

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A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III, checks out and readies for flight.

In England, where the original Nine-O-Nine was based during the war, depots were set up for B-17 maintenance.

“When an airplane came in, one group would do nothing but fix the skins and repair bullet holes,” McCauley said. “They had another group for avionics, one group for hydraulics, another for the engines – like a pit crew in today’s NASCAR races. That plane had to fly the next day, no excuses.”

Today Boeing field service representatives live and breathe with U.S. Air Force customers at operating bases 24 hours per day and 365 days per year to provide on-the-spot support. In addition, Boeing Recovery and Modification Services deploys anywhere in the world to assist customers with repairing damaged aircraft.

Rick Gomez, Boeing director of Strategic Initiatives and Business Development GSP, recounted one example where the Boeing team flew to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan to recover a C-17 that had been severely damaged and flew that plane to a Boeing repair station in Long Beach, Calif.

“We repaired the aircraft in record time,” said Gomez. “The motto of these teams is ‘anywhere, anytime’ in support of our customer.”

Lessons learned

Research shows the B-17 underwent a long series of small modifications and successive production advancements during its mission lifetime. These advancements improved the performance of the aircraft. The data was collected over thousands of mission flight hours. Mechanics in World War II had to rely on what the aircrews reported and what they observed during ground testing.

“Now a days, in comparison, technology is recording and transmitting critical system performance data to ground systems with advanced software to analyze and isolate problems on an aircraft before it lands,” said Langerman, Boeing’s C-17 Globemaster III sustainment and affordability director.

But beyond the technical wonders of its day and the legacies of modern aircraft, no one can take the romance away from the Flying Fortress. Though the B-17 is now dwarfed by modern-day bombers and jumbo jets, in its day the Boeing B-17 was the master of the skies.

Roger Christie, a volunteer pilot and member of the Nine-O-Nine flight crew who flew UH-1 and AH-1 Cobra helicopters in the military, said nothing can compare to the feeling of pulling back on the yoke of a B-17.

“There’s no boost, no computers, it’s all pulley cable technology,” said Christie. “For me it’s just a big honor to be able to even just touch one, let alone be a pilot on one.”

Honored passenger

Flying in the Plexiglas nose of the Nine-O-Nine as a passenger with his hand on the B-17’s vintage Norden bombsight, U.S. Army Air Corps veteran and B-17 crew member Ken Johnson could have been flying over the English Channel just as easily as the Mississippi River.

Stationed in England about 60 miles northwest of London during World War II, all of Johnson’s missions were over Germany. He finished his tour of duty one month before the end of the war in April 1945.

“I’m just amazed at how cramped and small everything is,” said the 82-year-old Johnson as he glanced around the B-17’s interior. “Of course, I was 60 years younger and 60 pounds lighter, too.”

Closing his eyes and taking a breath, Johnson traveled back in time, remembering the sounds and smells of the aircraft - the drone of the bomber’s four engines “talking” to him.

“Everybody glamorizes what we did,” Johnson said. “We were just a bunch of kids just doing our jobs, but we couldn’t have done it without these airplanes.”

While waiting for clearance for take off aboard Nine-O-Nine, other pilots often hold up their taxi clearances so they and their passengers can see the legendary bomber take off.

“It’s a sign of respect for the B-17 and the crews who flew them, some of whom never came home,” McCauley said. “It’s a piece of our history, a time when these aircraft literally saved the world.”