URBANA, Ohio (WDTN) – A trip to the Champaign Aviation Museum will give you a hands-on history lesson. Volunteers there have been rebuilding a B-17 aircraft to flying condition for more than a decade.
More than 16,000 strategic heavy bombers were produced during the WWII era. Known widely as the ‘Flying Fortress’ for their ability to withstand heavy damage in battle, some credit the aircraft for winning the war.
Arthur Kemp, 94, flew 35 missions as a B-17 tail gunner during the last years of WWII, often coming under fire himself while gunning down enemy planes.
“Those 20 mm (German guns) were right under me about 18 inches to hit ball turret,” Kemp said. “One of them did hit the tail and put a hole… in it. I didn’t know that until we landed. Then I really got scared.”
Kemp frequently visits the Champaign Aviation Museum, regaling volunteers and visitors with his military service. The retire staff sergeant’s WWII uniform and personal effects are on display there and he enjoys checking in on the B-17 restoration.
The project planning stages started in late 2005 and since 2006, about 100 volunteers have been giving their time to rebuilding the legendary aircraft, affectionately called the ‘Champaign Lady.’
Some of the parts are salvaged from old B-17 aircraft, but many of them are being newly fabricated according to Boeing’s original blueprints.
Frank Alfter, a retired service member who spent years in aircraft maintenance, has been volunteering almost as long as the project has been active. His father also served as a tail gunner during WWII and was taken prisoner after crash landing in France.
Alfter said he appreciates the homage to veterans like his father, but also recognizes the aircraft’s future significance.
“If you expose a young boy or young girl to this kind of thing, that’s what going to stick in the mind. So you want to give them a positive experience,” Alfter said.
Kemp shared Alfter’s view on preservation and engaging young people with history.
“We’ve got to get more young people interested in it and tell them the truth, what really happened,” said Kemp.
The public can visit the museum and see the B-17 Tuesday through Saturday between 10am and 4pm.
The Champaign Aviation Museum is a non-profit relying on support from the donations, and is currently hoping to raise enough funds to build the B-17 its own separate hangar.
You can learn more about the project and support the museum by clicking here.