NMUSAF Resumes Restoration of “The Swoose”!

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is preparing to resume restoration of their unique Boeing B-17D Flying Fortress, known as The Swoose. (image by Ken LaRock via NMUSAF)
Aircorps Art Dec 2019


by Adam Estes

The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (NMUSAF) has just announced that they will resume the restoration of Boeing B-17D Flying Fortress 40-3097, nicknamed The Swoose, one of the most storied survivors of its breed. The museum issued the following statement regarding the process they intend to follow in refurbishing the aircraft, the oldest intact Flying Fotress extant…

This is both a restoration and conservation project. Some airframe areas need repair and restoration for structural integrity and exhibit-worthiness, while others will be conserved as-is to maintain originality. The overall aim is to present the artifact in the context in which it was received, i.e., to preserve it in the configuration of its final mission. A combination of restoration and preservation will ensure its longevity, structural and historical integrity, and safe public display in a controlled environment. This means that the aircraft’s identity as ‘The Swoose’ will be maintained with as much original fabric in situ as possible. The minimally invasive preservation approach is one option in the spectrum of possible restoration / preservation / conservation practice, and as in all NMUSAF restoration work assures the artifact’s ethical treatment as a museum object.”

The museum released a further statement regarding their justification for pursuing the project…

“This project strengthens the NMUSAF’s identity as the premier collection of American combat aircraft and promises to increase visitorship by being the only “straight tail” B-17 on exhibit in the world. The Swoose’s distinctive shape and its fascinating record of combat, reconfiguration, and transport service rounds out the Pacific Theater WWII air power story and improves the Museum’s Global Reach interpretation. Preserving the plane as it was received, i.e., as a transport, respects its integrity as an artifact, eliminates very difficult or impossible physical restoration and equipment issues, and helps tell Airmen’s stories with authenticity. Airpower enthusiasts eagerly await its completion, and casual visitors will appreciate its unique story and appearance.” 

The Swoose, laid out like a model kit, awaits the careful, skilled attention of the restoration team at the NMUSAF. (Ken LaRock photo via NMUSAF)

The following is a brief summary of the aircraft’s history and historical significance:

Boeing manufactured the aircraft at their factory in Seattle, Washington, delivering it to the US Army Air Corps on April 25th, 1941. After flying the aircraft to Hawaii over the course of May 13th/14th, 1941, the ferry crew then took the bomber to the Philippines in September of that year, with stops in Rabaul, Port Moresby and Darwin. Dispersal orders issued in the days preceding the Japanese attack on the Philippines ensured that the B-17, then nicknamed Ole Betsy, survived to fly sorties against the Japanese invasion fleet. However, with Japanese ground forces gaining ground against American and Filipino defenders, Ole Betsy and several other locally-based B-17s relocated to Java, where they could continue flying bombing raids against the enemy invaders. With the situation getting steadily worse, however, the aircrews had to retrench their fleet in Australia. After sustaining combat damage and regular wear and tear, 40-3097 underwent a major overhaul. As part of this process, the aircraft received a new tail unit, the donor aircraft being B-17D 40-3091. As a result, the aircraft’s pilot, Weldon Smith, renamed the aircraft as The Swoose – a name derived from “Alexander the Swoose”, a popular song of the day which features a bird which is half-swan and half goose.

An image depicting The Swoose in flight. (image via Wikimedia)

By March 1942, The Swoose is performing a new role, serving as the personal transport for General George Brett, then the Deputy Commander of Allied Forces in Australia. Several other notable figures would become associated with the aircraft, including Olympic diver Frank Kurtz, who flew the aircraft for a period (naming his daughter ‘Swoosie’ after the airplane). Texas Congressman (and future president) Lyndon B. Johnson also flew aboard the aicraft as a passenger. The Swoose received regular modifications throughout the war, especially when General Brett arranged to keep the aircraft as his transport following his transfer to head up the US Caribbean Defense Command and the Panama Canal Department. By VJ-Day, The Swoose was the last remaining B-17 in the US inventory which had taken part in the defense of the Philippines from 1941-42, but after it flew with General Brett to Kirtland Army Airfield, it soon moved on to the storage yard in Kingman, Arizona where so many other aircraft met the scrapper’s torch.

B-17s awaiting the scrappers torch at Kingman in February, 1947, with several thousand other aircraft awaiting a similar fate glittering on the skyline. (photo by Bill Larkins via Wikimedia)

However, The Swoose received an eleventh hour reprieve when then-Colonel Frank Kurtz convinced the city fathers of Los Angeles to purchase the aircraft to serve as a war memorial. However, even though Kurtz flew The Swoose to Los Angeles, the intended memorial never materialized.

The Swoose at Mines Field (LAX) on May 20, 1946. (image via wikimedia)

Thankfully, three years later Paul E. Garber heard about the aircraft’s plight. As curator of the Smithsonian’s National Air Museum (now the National Air & Space Museum), Garber was eager to save important aircraft at a time when few others were. He was successful in purchasing the The Swoose for the Smithsonian, but in those days, the National Air Museum did not have a home large enough to store the aircraft in their collection, so The Swoose bounced between a number of storage locations, from Park Ridge, Illinois to Pyote, Texas and even Andrews Air Force Base, in Clinton, Maryland. After several decades outside, the airframe finally got a reprieve from the weather, moving to the museum’s storage facility at Silver Hill, in Suitland, Maryland (later renamed in Garber’s honor) where it remained for nearly 50 years. In  2007, the National Air and Space Museum’s collections committee voted to deaccession the aircraft and transfer it permanently to the NMUSAF in Dayton, Ohio; it arrived by truck the following year.

The fuselage for B-17D Flying Fortress ‘The Swoose’ leaving NASM’s Paul E. Garber facility in Suitland, Maryland on July 11th, 2008. (photo by Richard Mallory Allnutt)

While the restoration team at Dayton carried out some initial work on the airframe soon after its arrival, this effort stalled once the museum chose to prioritize the restoration of B-17F Memphis Belle and some of their WWI-era aircraft. Now that those projects are complete (or nearly so, for the Curtiss Jenny), the museum’s restoration team will begin to focus their attention on The Swoose, an endeavor which they currently expect to take around seven years to complete. We look forwards to providing regular progress updates once more information becomes available. 

Array

7 Comments

  1. The only problem is that the NMUSAF decided to revert the plane back into it’s original bomber configuration instead of leaving it alone. So it has a replacement bathtub gun position installed. So, you will see a pre- war configured reconstruction, not the Swoose. Not too happy about it either.

    • Thank you for writing in… while the museum may originally have considered converting the airframe into a standard D-model B-17, and did indeed have a ‘bathtub’ gun position constructed, they did not install it. If you look at the photographs in the article, you will see that this is true. Furthermore, the museum has stated that they plan to ‘conserve’ the aircraft in its final configuration… i.e. as ‘The Swoose’.

    • I’ve heard the bathtub will be removed and then finished as a cargo plane. That’s a bummer to me but at least it will be viewable. Finally.

      • Many thanks for writing in Mike…

        The B-17’s ‘bathtub’ compartment, while re-manufactured, was not permanently fitted to the airframe, which is clear from the images of the aircraft as it presently sits. Besides, the aircraft’s history is more invested in it’s passenger service, rather than its earlier bombing role… indeed The Swoose only survives because of this fact so, to me, it seems perfectly reasonable to leave it configured as such. Besides, returning it to a true D-model airframe as Ole Betsy would have required replacing significant amounts of the aircraft’s wartime structure with newly-manufactured material, which would be the greater shame, in my opinion. Besides, I am sure they will figure out an appropriate way to tell the aircraft’s full history in its eventual display, and am certain that the bathtub structure will be a part of that exhibit.

  2. Once 40-3097 was configured as a ‘fast transport’ for General Brett, it lost its identity as a member of the 19th Bomb Group as a B-17D and the only survivor of the defense of the Philippines.General Brett had an easy chair installed in the bombardier/navigator compartment to lounge during long flights…it that how we’ll want to remember her-a general’s ‘hack?’

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