‘Such a monumental time piece’

Willow Run museum’s B-17 flies into Manistee for rare visit

The “Yankee Lady” is considered the prize aircraft at the Yankee Air Museum

Randy Hotton breaks into a Cheshire Cat smile when he tells you he’s “pushin’ 70 years old.”

And he laughs aloud — no, he giggles like a youngster pushin’ 10 years old — when he tells you how lucky he is to be associated with the Yankee Air Force — the flying aircraft that make up the legendary Ypsilanti-based museum.

The executive director of the Yankee Air Force, Inc., and co-pilot on the B-17 Yankee Lady, was part of a 10-person team who visited Manistee for three days over the National Forest Festival weekend.

The crew of the “Yankee Lady” that visited Manistee during the Forest Festival, front row seated, left to right, co-pilot Randy Hotton, crew chief Norm Ellickson and pilot Gene Wederkemper; back row, left to right, Adam Treman, Ray Christiansen, Dave Treman, Karen Ellickon, Ellie Banyai, Dave Lowry and Dave Wright.

“The B-17 is such a monumental time piece,” the 68-year-old aviator said. “It keeps me pretty busy and I say, ‘Oh God, I need a break, I’ve been going every day.”

Then, clapping his hands together and laughing aloud, he begins to talk like a child who just got the gift he always wanted.

“But then I sit in that airplane and I touch the starter button and I go, ‘gosh, I am a lucky man, I can’t wait to go.”

Last weekend’s return of the Yankee Lady to Manistee marked the third time in six years the famed Flying Fortress teased the skies over the Victorian Port City. Hundreds of area residents and visitors trekked to the airport to get a close-up look at the historic aircraft, and some even slapped down the necessary fee to take a flight aboard it.

“We traveled up from Muskegon for the festival, but also to see this airplane,” said Sonny Cargello. “We walked and crawled through it. We got lots of pictures. It’s something I’ll never forget. It’s a great piece of history.”

ONLY NINE STILL FLYING

Of the more than 12,700 B-17 “Flying Fortresses” that were built just before and during World War II, only nine are still flying in America, today. Even fewer are of the same type and model as the “Yankee Lady,” a B-17G known historically for its massive number of defensive weapons —13 in all — including its signature chin turret.

In 2007, the “Yankee Lady” touched down in Manistee to help Blacker Airport celebrate the dedication of its new terminal building.

Then, in 2009, that fantastic bomber returned to Manistee during the city’s annual Forest Festival. In fact, it did a number of fly-overs during the festival’s grand parade.

It returned again last weekend and became a major draw for the 2011 National Forest Festival.

Crew chief Norm Ellickson talked about “how humbling” it had been for him to watch members of the Greatest Generation — veterans of World War II — walk up to the bomber and touch it.

“I’ve seen ‘em come up and touch the airplane and walk away, crying,” Ellickson said. “I’ve had ‘em just stand and look at it, but not want to talk about (their war experiences). I’ve had ‘em open up and talk about their experiences, after 60 years, and their wives will say that’s the first time they ever heard them talk about it. So you get all kinds of mixed emotions.”

The “Yankee Lady,” Ellickson said, was the 13th to the last one ever built, exactly two weeks before the war ended.

“So, it never saw combat,” he said. “What saved a bunch of ‘em after the war — because most of them went right from the factors to the smelters — was that they were used for fire fighting out west. They put big chemical tanks, in their bellies.”

It took years for volunteers and other workers at the Yankee Air Museum to restore the “Yankee Lady” to the flying condition that it is, today.

“We bought it in 1985 for $125,000, and (through 2007) we’ve probably put $500,000 into it,” he said. “It was pretty beat up when we got it. We worked on it nine years, restoring it — it’s probably 98 or 99 percent authentic. We fly it almost every weekend in air shows, that’s how we pay for it’s upkeep.”

Crew chief Norm Ellickson sits patiently on the wing of the B-17 as he fuels the aircraft for take off.

Unquestionably, the “Yankee Lady” is considered the prize aircraft at the Yankee Air Museum. But the museum, founded nearly 30 years ago, is not without other vintage, historic WWII aircraft.

The museum also has a B-25D “Mitchell” bomber, nicknamed the “Yankee Warrior.” The “Mitchell” flew into the history books in 1942 when a small group of them took flight from the decks of U.S. carriers, to drop bombs on the Japanese homeland.

While few historians believe those bombs caused any significant damage, their very attack did signal the Japanese government and military that the U.S. would carry the war to them. In short, the “Mitchells” were telling the Japanese war-makers that the end, for them, was in sight.

WILLOW RUN AIRPORT NOTCHES PLACE IN HISTORY

Willow Run Airport was built by the Ford Motor Company in 1941 to serve as an airfield for their B-24 bomber plant. This was the first aircraft manufacturing plant to use Ford’s automotive mass production techniques, a leading technological innovation of the time.

Ford Motor Company built 8,685 B-24s from 1942 until the end of World War II. At its peak, the Willow Run plant employed over 42,000 people and produced one B-24 every 59 minutes. The last bomber to roll off the assembly line was named the “Henry Ford.” When the war was over the airport became the hub for passenger flights and air freight in the Detroit Metropolitan area.

In 1981, a group of enthusiastic people, adopting the name “Yankee Air Force,” shared the desire to preserve the facts and glamour of southeastern Michigan’s aviation history. They began to lay plans to research, restore, and preserve the all but forgotten history of Willow Run Airport.

Their initial goal was to acquire one of the original U.S. Army Air Forces hangars and restore it to its original condition. With the help of Wayne County, the owners of the airport, this first goal was accomplished and the Yankee Air Museum was born. The Yankee Air Museum now has three divisions. They are Saginaw Valley and Wurtsmith Divisions in Michigan and the Northeast Division in New Jersey.

Their second goal, to obtain a B-24 built at Willow Run, has proven to be a much tougher project. In 1987, a PB4Y-2 Privateer, the Navy’s single-tailed version of the B-24, was donated to the Museum for static display. Since 1981, the Yankee Air Museum has acquired and returned to flying status five World War II aircraft.

The first plane was acquired in 1981, a Douglas C-47 World War II transport which was built in 1945. The “Yankee Doodle Dandy” is the Yankee Air Museum’s world class award-winning flagship.

The B-17G “Flying Fortress,” which was used in the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!” was purchased in 1986. The “Yankee Lady” underwent extensive restoration and was returned to flying status in 1995.

The B-25D “Mitchell,” a medium-duty bomber similar to the type used in Jimmy Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo, was acquired in 1987. The “Yankee Warrior” saw combat in World War II and is one of only two B-25Ds still flying today.

FIRE RAVAGES MUSEUM, HISTORIC AIRCRAFT SAVED

On Oct. 9, 2004, the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run Airport suffered a terrible fire that destroyed the historic hangar housing the museum. Through the heroic efforts of a few members, the beautifully restored B-17, C-47 and B-25 aircraft were moved out of the building before the fire reached them, thus saving the heart of the collection. In addition, all the historic aircraft on display outside of the main building were untouched by the fire.

The museum did, however, lose virtually all of the tooling, equipment and spare parts for all of the aircraft plus all of the office and display fixtures and equipment totaling well over $1 million in replacement value. While thousands of irreplaceable artifacts, photos and books were also lost in the fire, the volunteers at the museum are thankful that the aircraft collection remains largely intact. Only a small number of non-flyable aircraft that were in restoration inside the hanger were lost.

The Yankee Air Museum members, staff and volunteers have already begun the recovery and rebuilding process. The aircraft, which continued their flight schedules after the fire, have been moved into a hangar loaned by Willow Run Airport. The volunteers and staff have set up an office at the airport and are fielding calls and continuing operations. It is their intention, under the leadership of Dick Stewart, President of the Yankee Air Museum, to continue the great work that was begun in 1981 by a small group of visionaries who were dedicated to preserving this important piece of aviation and Southeastern Michigan history.

The Michigan Aerospace Foundation, the sister organization of the museum which was formed to plan and fund future expansion of the museum facilities, met with the architects and Willow Run Airport management just a few days after the fire. At that time the architects were given the go ahead to begin the planning process that will lead to the construction of a new hangar and museum.

AIR SHOW SET FOR JULY 23-24

The “Thunder Over Michigan” air show will be held at the Willow Run Airport Saturday and Sunday, July 23 and 24, and will feature dozens and dozens of historic and modern aircraft, including the B-17 Yankee Lady, B-25 Mitchell Yankee Warrior and the famed Navy Blue Angels demonstration team.

For more information on that air show, go to yankeeairmuseum.org.

B-17 Flying Fortress statistics and specifications

  • Role: Heavy bomber
  • National origin: United States
  • Manufacturer: Boeing
  • First flight: July 28, 1935
  • Introduction: April, 1938
  • Retired: 1968
  • Primary users: United States Army Air Forces; Royal Air Force
  • Produced: 1936-1945
  • Number built: 12,731
  • Unit cost: $238,329
  • Crew: 10 — pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier/nose gunner, flight engineer-top turret gunner, radio operator, waist gunners (2), ball turret gunner, tail gunner
  • Length: 74 feet 4 inches
  • Wingspan: 103 feet 9 inches
  • Height: 19 feet 1 inch
  • Wing area: 1,420 square feet
  • Empty weight: 36,135 pounds
  • Load weight: 54,000 pounds
  • Maximum takeoff weight: 65,500 pounds
  • Powerplant: 4, Wright “Cyclone” turbosupercharged radial engines, 1,200 horse power each
  • Maximum speed: 283 miles per hour
  • Cruise speed: 182 miles per hour
  • Range: 2,000 miles with 6,000-pound bombload
  • Service ceiling: 35,600 feet
  • Rate of climb: 900 feet per minute
  • Guns: 13, 50-caliber M2 Browning machine guns

See video from Dave Barber’s ride in the famed bomber:

Visit the photo gallery to see more photos from the Flying Lady’s flight from Manistee to Detroit.

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Posted by David L. Barber

David L. Barber is the retired editor of the Manistee News Advocate. He contributes columns weekly for the News Advocate. You can contact him at dlbarber1006@gmail.com.

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