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Taking wing
Danny and B17
Danny Harden stands in front of the B-17 he and others are working to restore to its former glory. - photo by Photo by Rick Lott

In 2008 a dream became reality for the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum in Pooler as word came from the National Air and Space Museum that it was donating a vintage B-17 bomber to the Mighty 8th. As work began to disassemble and transport the aircraft to Georgia, it was decided to name her the “City of Savannah,” after the 5,000th B-17 to process through Savannah during World War II.

Once the airplane was safely tucked inside the museum, the work began to bring her back to her original glory. And that’s where a small group of Effingham County men come in. Bill Burkel, Danny Harden Sr., Joe Pritchard and Jeff Hoopes have been spending much of their spare time doing the hard work of cleaning years of paint and grime from the aircraft.

Burkel was the first one to start on it, he said, getting called in early March last year.

“What we did for the first three or four months was strip off all the old sealant and stuff they put to protect it on there,” he said. “Then we started on stripping the paint from the underside of the wings and taking off all the different parts off the airplane that needed to come off so they could be cleaned.”

Harden said they had crews that worked on Wednesday, Wednesday night, Friday and Saturday. The volunteers usually work in shifts of six to eight people with a total volunteer crew of about 50. He said this particular plane was built at the tail end of the war in Europe and passed through several hands before finally ending up at the Smithsonian.

In its history, the plane flew photo mapping missions and then fire fighting missions. It originally had a 10-man crew.

Burkel estimated the work might take another couple of years.

“It’ll probably take longer than that because we have none of the turrets for it,” he said. “They’re available, but there’s not a lot of money to pay for it.”

He said that a tail turret was currently being built and would be for sale, if they could come up with the funds to purchase it. He said they’ve also located a belly turret that’s in pieces and have found a man who could assemble it – again, dependent on funds.

All the men said the toughest part of the job had been stripping off all the old paint and cleaning and repairing parts of the plane. They agreed that the underside of the wings had been particularly tough because they couldn’t figure out what kind of paint had been used. They said in some places the paint would “just come right off,” but in other areas, it had proven very stubborn.

Currently they are buffing the wings, polishing them to a bright silvery sheen.

The men agreed that although this was “normal aircraft work,” it has been very interesting for them to see one of these legendary aircraft up close.

“One thing that’s interesting on this one, we’ve had all kinds of experts come through here that either are involved with B-17s, flying them, and they say they have never seen as complete a placarded aircraft as this one,” Burkel said. “All of the little warning signs were still on this aircraft, and they’d never seen a lot of them.”

The group said that after polishing the wings, they’ll move back to the inside of the plane and do some pressure washing and cleaning to get all the loose paint and “crud” out. After that, they’ll start to repaint the aircraft and then put all the instruments and gear back in her. Burkel seemed amazed at the progress their volunteers are making.

“They say they’ve got all these groups that come through here that have seen her before,” he said, “and it just amazes them as to what it was and what it is now. So you can imagine what it’s going to be when it’s finished.”