IWM Duxford is conserving Boeing B-17G ‘Mary Alice’ for future generations. Steve Beebee got a progress report
The atmosphere in Duxford’s Hangar 5: Conservation in Action is never less than brisk and business-like as a variety of exhibits await their turn to go through the conservation process. At the time of FlyPast’s visit in October, partially re-assembled de Havilland Vampire T.11 WZ590 was cordoned off and about to be resprayed. Most eyes, however, were focused on the much larger operation occupying the opposite two-thirds of the hangar. Here, staff and volunteers are carrying out anti-corrosion work on Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress 44-83735, with a view to returning the bomber to static display within Duxford’s American Air Museum by next May. For decades the aircraft has been painted to represent B-17G 42-31983 Mary Alice, flown in 1944 by Lt Dan Knight of the 615th Bomb Squadron, 401st Bombardment Group, based at Deenethorpe, Northants.
The emphasis of the operation is very much on care, preservation and safeguarding rather than restoration, as Conservation Manager Chris Knapp explains: “This is a museum exhibit, not a flying aeroplane. Restoration would involve a total rebuild and a return to almost as-new condition whereas conservation is done to preserve an object for as long as possible with the minimum intervention.”
Mary Alice was prioritised for work when extensive surface corrosion was identified. Having spent some years outside before being placed into the American Air Museum, the machine was starting to look jaded. On Thursday, May 19, in a six-hour operation, the disassembled bomber was moved to Hangar 5. “It took us three hours to get the fuselage out of the doors,” recalls Chris. “It was too risky to rush it, so we took our time. We had a hiccup when the temporary, dummy undercarriage we’d built for the aircraft let us down, but fortunately it resulted in very little damage. There was a very small amount of damage to a fairing and to an aerial mount, but thankfully nothing we couldn’t address.”
Care and attention
On arrival in Conservation in Action, the fuselage was stripped of paint, something that was actually achieved far more quickly than anticipated. About a month of work time was saved, which proved fortunate as the removal of the two central wing sections from the American Air Museum turned out to be especially challenging. “They’re larger and heavier than they look and they fought us all the way,” says Chris. “Working in a confined space within a public area meant that everything took longer than anticipated. My priority was to ensure that nobody got hurt, so we didn’t take any chances. “We had to take the flap shrouds off because we had limited height, and of course we also only had limited width – the width of the door frame. The guys got the central wing sections up onto the leading edges but the trouble is that with the undercarriage legs still in there, the centre of gravity is a nightmare to contend with. You’ve only got to move each section a little bit and the centre of gravity shifts dramatically.” With the help of a specially constructed frame, and local crane specialists Welch’s Crane Hire, the sections eventually made a successful exit. Although the crane didn’t take any weight, it was there as a safety measure. “When we had the problem with the fuselage, they had a crane operator here within 15 minutes to advise me, and the machinery required within 30 minutes. They know what they’re doing with jobs like this, and I have no qualms about using external expertise and skills when required.”
Four full-time Conservation staff are working on the project, along with 50 to 60 volunteers. The latter may be available for anything from half a day on a Sunday, to four days a week in the case of one hardy soul. Planning the use of volunteer labour is difficult but the skill set and manpower such a vast workforce can provide is priceless.
One of Chris’s jobs is to protect them from diversions, as the museum intends to stick to its 16-month schedule rigorously. Everything from visiting film crews to interested members of the public have the potential to delay work. “Visitors are naturally curious about what we’re doing, and really we’re here for the public, so if they want to talk to the guys, they’re nearly always happy to respond. Thankfully no one seems to be objecting to what we’re doing, although we’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve been asked if it’s going to fly again!”
At present, the work remains on schedule. A short delay before the aircraft goes into the spray area has been agreed to allow the Vampire to be finished. Although the B-17 is the higher priority project, other matters can be addressed while the jet is being repainted.
Inside and out
“Following the paint strip, we’ve concentrated on chemically treating the corrosion,” says Chris. “It may not look much different but what you’re seeing is shadow rather than corrosion. In some areas, though not too many, we’ve had to physically remove corrosion and de-rivet the fairing at the top of the fuselage to carry out similar work – and that’s going back on now.”
The team is also putting the airframe through an alochroming process – a procedure to treat bare metal before paint is applied – and it is now almost ready to go into the spray area for primer. “The inside is fine – it will be given a good clean, but thankfully there’s no real corrosion issues to contend with. She never actually saw combat, but has had several very different uses over the years, so while very little is left inside that is original, our next goal has been authenticity, and we’ve tried to keep her as authentic as possible. She’s very well fitted out. “We’ve already stripped the wingtips and the fin and the tailplane. The latter has suffered from corrosion which we’ve had to deal with, but we were lucky with the fin. We also discovered that there were a few bits missing from the undercarriage.”
The latter has been stripped down and cleaned up, ensuring that it operates easily. Sourcing spare parts for such aircraft can be a lottery, but surprises are often around the corner. “When we were first putting the American Air Museum together, I phoned Tom Reilly in Kissimmee, Florida, to ask whether he could source any Plexiglass for a tail gun position on a B-25. I thought it would be a tricky process, but to my surprise he said ‘Yes, I’ve got some on the shelf, how many do you want?’
“It’s surprising what’s out there. Sometimes you get lucky and quite often it simply depends on who answers the phone. Usually I find that most people are sympathetic and helpful.”
The delay in repainting is partly welcome as it gives the team time to prepare the second central wing section. Potentially, both wing sections and the fuselage will be ready to go in at the same time. The aim is to get all three main sections painted by Christmas. “Our 16-month time frame includes two months to disassemble it and get it out, two months to put it back together and get it back in, with a 12 month period in the middle to do everything else. “The fuselage and central wing sections have got to be ready to go back into the American Air Museum in April or May 2012.
Those are the bits that will need specialist equipment to move. With smaller components it doesn’t matter quite so much if we fall behind, but the big stuff needs to be done by April.”
FlyPast readers will doubtless be intrigued to discover the colour scheme for the B-17. At the time of writing this had still to be agreed, but Chris did reveal that the main sections will be olive drab and grey. A return to an ‘aluminium-style finish’ on an aeroplane that has been painted many times would have been especially challenging.
The final markings need not be applied until nearer to the finishing date, but the museum is looking for something that is both relevant and has a good story behind it. It’s not just about the machine, but about everything else that Duxford does as a museum – display, interpretation and education. Above all, Chris and his team will be keeping intervention to a minimum, addressing only the work that is required for the conservation of the exhibit. Their role is to preserve history, not to tamper with it, as Chris explains: “If we’ve got runs in the paint, or scratches or graffiti left by the crews, we leave it, because that’s what it would have been like. “Look at it this way: a sponge soaks up water, but the more you handle that sponge the more water it will lose. Similarly, an object will soak up history, but the more you handle that object the more history it will lose.”
In the next ‘From The Workshop’ we look at two Hawker Hurricanes that are rapidly taking shape in a private workshop in Hampshire. One is destined to be painted in distinctive World War Two-era Finnish markings, swastikas included. See ‘FlyPast’ magazine, January 2012 issue on sale from December 1, for the full story.