B-17D “The Swoose” Update

Aircorps Art Dec 2019


Back in April, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force (NMUSAF) announced that they would resume the restoration of Boeing B-17D Flying Fortress 40-3097, nicknamed The Swoose, one of the most storied survivors of its breed. Being the oldest intact Flying Fortress extant, this is both a restoration and conservation project. Scott Thompson of AeroVintage stopped by the museum and produced the following report.

This may well be the final display configuration for “The Swoose” when it emerges from the NMUSAF restoration shop circa 2031. While some are disappointed it won’t be displayed as a combat B-17D, it is historically correct to have it appear as it did at the end of its AAF service in 1945. Not a bad-looking airplane. (USAF photo)

By Scott Thompson of Aero Vintage

The sole remaining early “shark fin” B-17, B-17D 40-3097, is in the initial stages of a restoration or, probably better put, reassembly and preservation at the shops of the National Museum of The United States Air Force  (NMUSAF) at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. This is exciting for anyone familiar with the history of this B-17D, best known as The Swoose, as it will finally be reassembled and put on display after nearly seventy years of storage by the National Air Museum, later the National Air and Space Museum, and finally by the NMUSAF. I had the opportunity to visit the airplane and spent some time looking at it in detail. There is much to look at.

As can be seen, there is a long road ahead to put the airplane back into the condition represented by the photo above this one. The nose map and markings skin was removed in 2010 or so in the early restoration effort. It is being reattached with the decision now made on the display of the B-17D. The nose flags and markings were altered when the airplane received a hastily-applied camouflage scheme in March 1946 prior to it going to the city of Los Angeles. It has not been announced yet how the nose markings will be restored…or just preserved.

First off, though, it is the announced intention of the NMUSAF to restore the B-17D to its last wartime configuration…that of a VIP transport for Gen. George Brett who was the commander of the Caribbean Defense Command and Panama Canal Department from November 1942 until April 1945. When this intention was first announced back in April 2023, it was received with some disappointment among many B-17 enthusiasts.


There are really three points of this aircraft’s history that represent important historical milestones: a factory-fresh natural metal finish B-17D off the assembly line, the B-17D as it served as a combat bomber in the first month of World War II in the Pacific, or as the VIP transport. Given the trend of many museums to preserve rather than destroy historical artifacts, the decision was made to return 40-3097 to its last configuration as a transport.

Most of the hastily-applied olive drab paint on the upper surfaces has worn away by years of outdoor storage, leaving deteriorated aluminum alloy skin. However, it appears that this skin is mostly in good enough condition to be polished back to good display condition. The left lower nose skin is a replacement for corroded skin done back in the 2009-2010 period. The lower surfaces bear the faded remnants of black paint.

Indeed, much of the airplane changed from its delivery at Boeing Field in April 1941 (one of only 42 B-17Ds built) until its retirement to Kingman Field in December 1945. To undo those modifications made through the years would have destroyed some basic history of this B-17. So, I for one, am content with the decision by the NMUSAF. Among other things, it will make the reassembly much easier to accomplish. Most of the components are on hand, and the documented transport interior will be restored or recreated as needed.

Another markings challenge for the NMUSAF staff will be the emblem on the aft fuselage which I think is original. Should it be restored or conserved the way it is? The crew and other signatures on the skin were added in 1946 when the plane went on display at Los Angeles. They too are historic. The early position of the main cabin door, the early waist gun position, and the remnants of the black undersurface paint applied in 1946 are evident.

The finish will return to the natural metal finish of 1945 prior to it going on display as a war memorial at Los Angeles in 1946. A major challenge of the NMUSAF team will be what to do with the distinctive markings on the airplane, many of which it wore in the last months of its service, some of which were added prior to it going on public display in 1946.


Especially notable among these are the flags and markings on the right side of the nose. When initial work was done on the B-17D by the NMUSAF back in 2009-2010 (before work was sidelined by the restoration of B-17F 41-24485 Memphis Belle, the mindset at that time was to restore the bomber and the nose skin was removed with the flags and markings intact. The nose was going to be reskinned and, in fact, the skin on the left side of the nose was replaced. However, with the change of direction to preserve instead of restore The Swoose, that removed skin with the flags and markings has been reattached back in position…not yet riveted but held in place by clecoes.

The notable history of this particular B-17 won’t be recounted in detail here. It is covered elsewhere, one good source being Final Cut: The Post-War B-17 Flying Fortress and Survivors. Suffice it to say that, briefly, it was on hand at Del Monte Field in the Philippines on the first day of the war, avoiding destruction by not being at Clark Field near Manila. It fought with the meager remainders of U.S. air power through the first month of the war, being badly damaged several times. Known then as Ole Betsy, the worn-out B-17 was withdrawn from service after January 11, 1942, barely five weeks into the Pacific war. It was rebuilt as a transport and served General Brett from then on until the war ended. In December 1945 it was sent to Kingman for scrapping, but was saved as it was claimed by the city of Los Angeles for use as a war memorial, helped along by its wartime pilot, Frank Kurtz, who pretty much arranged the whole thing. It was in excellent VIP transport condition at Kingman and was put back into flying condition. However, Kurtz and team did not want The Swoose displayed as a transport, so it was first flown to March Field near Riverside, California, and quickly repainted with olive drab upper surfaces and black (?) lower surfaces (perhaps no neutral gray paint available?) with early Air Corps insignia.


It was then delivered by Kurtz to the city of the Angels in early April 1946. It was nominally displayed in Los Angeles for three years and then, with a sense of relief, turned over to the National Air Museum. It was put back into flying condition, again by Kurtz, and flown first to what is now O’Hare Airport in Chicago and stored, and then on to Pyote, Texas, in 1950 and stored, and finally on to Andrews AFB in Maryland, in 1953. It was then disassembled and stored, once again, and not seen by the general public since. The NMUSAF got it in a trade with the NASM in 2008, and now, fifteen years later, it is receiving some much-deserved attention.

Three of the four engines lined up nicely on pallets awaiting attention. Note the cowl flaps…the B-17D was the first Fortress to be fitted with such things. Remnants of the camouflage paint adorn the cowlings.

The NMUSAF is expecting a seven-year restoration…er, preservation…project, so it might go on display circa 2031 at the museum. That seems a bit long given that most of the airframe components are on-hand and available. The transport interior will be challenging, no doubt, but it is presumed all the available wiring, cabling, and other systems will only be preserved and not replaced. The engines will require at least a cosmetic cleaning and completion for a static display. The narrow chord ‘broomstick’ propellers of the early B-17s will also be fitted.

Seven years is a bit down the road before it might be on display, and lots can change in seven years. Nonetheless, the NMUSAF now has a firm plan for B-17D 40-3097 and we all will watch with much anticipation as it comes back together.

I need to thank the gracious staff of the NMUSAF for arranging this visit to see the airplane. For more information on the project, visit this dedicated page at the NMUSAF website.

Very nice to see the distinctive shark fin tail and rudder fitted to the fuselage. The rudder has been freshly covered in new fabric and the vertical stabilizer polished out.

*And, I’ll recommend two other fine sources that address B-17D 40-3097 in some detail (besides Final Cut, of course): The first is the 1993 book The Swoose: Odyssey of a B-17 by Herbert S. Brownstein which is devoted to the history of this airplane. The second is Fortress Against the Sun: The B-17 Flying Fortress in the Pacific by Gene Eric Salecker. Both are excellent in telling the story of the airplane in the first case and the times in the second case.


 

Many thanks indeed to Scott A. Thompson for allowing us to reproduce this article describing The Swoose’s present condition… his book, Final Cut: The Post-War B-17 Flying Fortress and Survivors as well as other titles is the gold standard when it comes to the airframe history it describes!

2 Comments

  1. It must be restored to its ww2 battle markings as Ol Betty at the beginning of the war. There is no other option. What a wonderful aircraft.

  2. I am thrilled that they are leaving the plane alone. The idea of returning the plane to its bomber configuration would have reverted the aircraft to a reconstruction that ignored the very reason why the plane survived the war.

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