As a World War II B-17 bomber pilot, Jack Gruber learned to take nothing for granted. Not as he piloted 31 combat missions over Germany...
PORTLAND — As a World War II B-17 bomber pilot, Jack Gruber learned to take nothing for granted. Not as he piloted 31 combat missions over Germany. Nor later when he learned that only three of the 18 pilots in his 1943 training class survived the war.
But as he sat near a Portland airport tarmac last week, one thing did surprise Gruber: the buzz around a yellow-tailed old war bird parked in front of him. It was a Boeing-designed B-17 “Flying Fortress,” one of only 13 still airworthy out of 12,726 built in Seattle and elsewhere.
People gawked. They took photos. And they eagerly climbed aboard for a short ride in what was once Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s personal transport.
“I can’t understand all these people wanting to see the old bird,” marveled Gruber, 89, a Yelm, Wash., native. “But I wouldn’t mind sitting in the seat and handling the controls. She was a tough airplane. I’ve seen ’em all shot to hell and their crew still bring ’em back.”
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When World War II ended in 1945, so did the era of the Flying Fortress. Where they’d once flown missions 1,000 planes strong over German industrial areas, the war’s end meant the scrap heap for most of them.
But now vintage aircraft such as this one are not just rare, they’re also rare business opportunities.
As World War II veterans pass into history — fewer than a quarter of the 16 million who served remain — interest has never been higher in “The Greatest Generation,” their equipment and their exploits.
How to see the “Fuddy Duddy”
The Fuddy Duddy is at the Museum of Flight, 9404 E. Marginal Way, Seattle, and open to the public tomorrow through Monday. Flights are $395 a person. Reservations are available by calling 800-359-6217. Ground tours are available after the flights and no reservations are required. The cost is $10 for families, $6 for adults and $5 for students (8-17). Accompanied children younger than 8 are free. For more information, call the museum’s tour line: 206-764-5720, Ext. 217 or go online to www.b17.org.
That’s been a boon for everyone from book publishers to moviemakers and, certainly, memorabilia collectors. According to eBay spokesman Dean Jutilla, some 38,200 World War II items were for sale on the site last week, “by far the largest set of listings” within the military memorabilia category. Among them 88 were items relating to the B-17, including an autographed center hub of a steering yoke that sold for $356.
Before this B-17, nicknamed the “Fuddy Duddy,” arrived in Seattle yesterday from Portland, some 207 passengers had reserved half-hour flights over Boeing Field. At $395 each, that’s $81,765. (The plane is named in honor of the real Fuddy Duddy that was lost over Germany.)
“We have 23 full fights scheduled for Seattle,” said tour coordinator Michael Digamgi. “And we have enough time there where we can do 30 flights.”
Each flight can take nine passengers, who will see through jet-travel eyes the no-frills, no-nonsense airplane that earned Gruber’s respect. They’ll sit in orange nylon seats along one wall, see the exposed aluminum-frame interior painted military khaki, hear the drone of the four 1,200 horsepower propeller-driven engines.
Once airborne, they can walk through the plane — being careful not to grab the exposed flight-control cables — and squeeze in the clear Plexiglas nose and imagine they’re watching for enemy aircraft. Meanwhile buildings below whiz by at 160 mph.
Although the 13, 50-caliber machine guns are replicas, still dangerous today are the bomb-bay doors. Passengers traverse them on a narrow catwalk, and if they drop something onto the bomb-bay doors and try to retrieve it, the doors will open midair.
Ground tours also will be available, making Seattle one of the more lucrative stops on the aircraft’s three-month, 28-city tour. The plane will be available for rides and open to the public from tomorrow through Monday.
The proceeds from this B-17’s tour are benefiting the plane’s owner, an aviation museum near Elmira, N.Y., and the tour operator, the Wisconsin-based Experimental Aircraft Association.
Because the plane is tied down adjacent to Seattle’s Museum of Flight, it, too, is hoping for economic benefit. Its year-old Personal Courage Wing displays two floors of military memorabilia, including 12 World War II fighters. Its gift shop carries numerous B-17 items; among them a 1/28 scale model of the Fuddy Duddy for $84. The real thing is valued at $3 million.
Visits by vintage aircraft result in “a really sizable attendance spike,” said Bill Hayes, the Museum of Flight’s sales director. “And for retail, World War II is really strong. The aircraft are very appealing.”
But as Mike Hall discovered, appealing doesn’t automatically pay the bills. Hall is executive director of the Wings of Eagles Discovery Center, which owns the Fuddy Duddy and nearly a dozen other rare World War II planes that have been mostly used as displays.
“You find a lot of organizations like ours that have business battle scars because they built a collection expecting people to show up, and somehow it didn’t happen and ends didn’t meet,” Hall said. Indeed, the nonprofit facility, originally called the National Warplane Museum, was “at the brink,” Hall said, after Sept. 11, 2001, brought tourism to a halt.
Taking Seattle’s flight museum as a model, Hall became more resourceful about marketing. “Our intent is to take old war birds and turn them into a viable collection; if you do all that you can build a business” without grants.
And so, as the United States honors the 60th anniversary of World War II’s end, one of its most iconic aircraft is in the air again, this time to earn enough to keep history alive. Hall declined to say in dollar terms how much the Fuddy Duddy is bringing in, just that “[we are] beyond our dreams in meeting our goal.”
Elizabeth Rhodes: email@example.com