Savannah – It was a dreary morning in Savannah, but it turned out for the good because it meant that the Commemorative Air Force’s B-17G 44-83872, “Texas Raiders,” couldn’t fly. That meant when I was able to get by Sheltair at the Savannah – Hilton Head International Airport late this morning it was on static display. Earlier in the week when I saw on social media that it would be in town through Thursday I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it by. Thankfully I did, the $10 donation to take a tour inside the aircraft was well worth it. If you ever have the opportunity to tour a well restored B-17, I strongly recommend that you take advantage of it!
This aircraft has a fascinating history, one that is somewhat similar to the “City of Savannah” at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum (which I recently posted about). 44-83872 was delivered too late to take part in combat operations and was turned over to the United States Navy in 1945, becoming PB-1 and then PB-1W, Bureau Number 77235. Part of the conversion to PB-1W involved the installation of long range fuel tanks, the sealing of the bomb bay, and the installation of a search radar under the bomb bay. As PB-1W 77235, 44-83872 was one of the first AWACS aircraft. After serving with VW-2 on the Atlantic Coast and VW-1 in Japan, the aircraft was retired from service in 1955. At this point, its history is similar to the Mighty Eighth’s “City of Savannah.” 44-83872 was sold to Aero Service Corporation, issued FAA registration N7227C, and used for cargo, aerial photography, and topographical purposes. It flew missions in this role in areas in North America, South America, and Europe. In 1967, it was acquired by the Commemorative Air Force.
44-83872 is not only well restored, it is restored to practically original, World War II era condition. In 1970, it was first painted in military colors and named “Texas Raiders” (no B-17 used that name in World War II). It has undergone two major restorations; the first from 1983 to 1986 returned it to B-17G condition, the second in 1993 involved repainting the aircraft and completion of the interior. The restoration process on an aircraft like this is ongoing; from talking to the crew members on site this morning, the ball turret needs some work to make it operational and the chin turret needs some work to complete it as well and work will be done later this year to have both completed for next year. Having no oxygen system and only a few modern avionics systems, it is only flies at 12,000 ft or below. That explains why the aircraft sometimes misses shows and displays, why it doesn’t fly on days like today, and why they might be delayed in leaving Savannah this week.
When you climb inside this aircraft, it is like taking a step back in time. With the exception of some extra seats added in the radio compartment, the aircraft is just like it would have been in service in World War II. For an aviation and history buff like me, it was an amazing experience. The aircraft looks so large from the outside, but when you climb inside there isn’t a lot of room. You feel how thin the aircraft’s skin is and realize just how exposed to enemy gunfire and flak the crews of these aircraft were and it gives you increased respect and admiration for what they did. The tour began just forward of the bomb bay; I climbed into the aircraft via the forward hatch and looked into the nose where the bombardier would have been located before twisting my way up into the cockpit (not an easy task for someone of my size!). The cockpit is practically all period except for some modern avionics on the ceiling of the cockpit between the pilot and co-pilot. I sucked it in and squeezed through the bomb bay (once again, not an easy task for someone my size) and moved back to the radio compartment. This was a familiar space since I’ve worked in and operated from the radio compartment of the “City of Savannah.” The only difference are two extra seats installed to accommodate passengers (one of the ways they fund keeping the aircraft flying is selling rides). Working my way around the ball turret, I got a good look at the top of it, the waist guns, and the aircraft’s reel antenna before climbing out the rear hatch.
I mentioned the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force’s B-17, “City of Savannah,” a few times above and there’s one more connection worth mentioning. While talking to the crew members this morning, they mentioned another reason for their Savannah visit: they’re picking up some parts they loaned to the museum a couple of years ago. Many of the parts for warbirds like this are no longer available, so the museum was scanning those parts to use for 3D printing of replica parts to be used in the restoration of the non-flying “City of Savannah.” That’s how many of these restorations get done; one restoration group has parts that another needs and vice-versa, so they trade parts to keep the aircraft restored – and in cases like this one, in flying condition.