The Champaign Aviation Museum of Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio’s restoration to flying condition of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress they’ve christened “Champaign Lady” has been an ongoing restoration project that began in 2005 when Tom Reilly (a name our our regular readers will be familiar with) made a visit to Grimes Airfield with the then-recently completed B-17 “Liberty Belle,” made a stop at Grimes Field. Crowds flocked to the airport, and the appearance brought in $18,000 to the plane’s owners, the Liberty Belle Foundation.
Based on the crowd size and donations received, Reilly sensed that the area could support for the restoration of a B-17 of their own and approached Carol Hall, the assistant manager of Grimes Field. As Hall recalls it: “He said, ‘I have a B-17 project that’s ready to start. Do you know anyone who might be interested (in financing it)?” Carol did indeed, a local businessman, philanthropist and aviation enthusiast, Jerry Shiffer, who had turned out and gone for a ride in “Liberty Belle” with his family. Within two weeks a deal was worked out, a hangar procured and the project began to take shape.
Shiffer died in a plane crash in November, 2005, just as parts of the plane began appearing onsite, however his family remained committed to seeing his vision through to completion. The project, now nearing a decade in length, passed a significant milestone recently, when the vertical stabilizer was fitted to the airframe. The B-17’s large tail bears the markings of the 401st Bomb Group, whose tail symbol consisted of a triangle with an “S”, chosen by the museum’s volunteers to honor the late Jerry Shiffer. In honor of the choosing of the 401st’s Livery, the 401st Bomb Group Association will visit “Champaign Lady” next month when it holds its national reunion at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in nearby Dayton, Ohio.
Over the course of the project, parts have been fabricated from scratch or located from scrapped and salvaged B-17s all across the country. One of the more notable parts finds was a complete and intact top turret dome, never installed on a plane, that was found under a porch of a home in the area. The turret dome was apparently taken home by an employee of Steel Products Company of Springfield, Ohio, a company that had a contract to build 350 turret domes. Whether it was a prototype, end of production piece or an article deemed scrap is unknown, but in any case, this employee saw fit to put the dome under his porch, and it remained there for over 65 years and through several homeowners, until being re-discovered in 2010 as a result of a renovation project. A bit of cleaning and polishing and “Champaign Lady” gained a new-condition top turret.
The Champaign Aviation also has a Douglas C-47 Skytrain under restoration as well as a Douglas A-26 Invader and an airworthy B-25 Mitchell named “Champaign Gal.”