A Mighty Crew Restores History
A Mighty Crew Restores History
Story by Jane Grismer | Photography by Leidi Lester
Inside the The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler sits the iconic Boeing B-17 WWII bomber named the “City of Savannah.” Of the 12,731 B-17s that were originally built, only 46 survive today and only five are still capable of flying. The story that follows is about a talented group of individuals—all volunteers—that came together and became a team. They had one goal: to restore this aircraft nicknamed “The Flying Fortress” back to its original 1944-45 combat configuration.
This is their story.
It was Jan. 15, 2009. That is when the B-17 bomber “City of Savannah” made its way south on Interstate 95 with an American flag draped over both sides of its fuselage.
The plane was en route from a warehouse behind the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, an annex to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum near Dulles Airport in Chantilly, Virginia.
“Two decades of storage had left the fuselage covered with an enormous amount of grit, and there were generous amounts of what looked like packing plastic clinging all over the aircraft,” said Jerry McLaughlin, the original project manager of the restoration and author of the book B-17 Flying Fortress Restoration detailing the project. “She was not a pretty sight!”
The bomber had been gifted to the museum by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and was immediately named “City of Savannah,” after a WWII B-17 with that name.
The gift was conditional. The agreement from the Smithsonian was that the aircraft must be stored inside the museum, used for educational purposes and that the aircraft would never fly.
A journey of nearly 65 years and 600 miles for this B-17 would end at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force in Pooler, Georgia.
“The emotional highlight of the day for me was my participation in the convoy escorting the B-17 to the museum,” said Jim Grismer, the project’s deputy project manager at the time.
“I don’t mind saying that it was an unforgettable hoot to actually ride down I-95, five abreast with other emergency vehicles as the convoy arrived in Pooler, exited the interstate and then arrived at the museum with everyone’s sirens and horns blaring.”
As the aircraft rolled into the museum’s entrance, it was met with applause, some tears and a lot of local media eager to capture the moment.
The “City of Savannah” was home.
That night, the news of the arrival of the historic aircraft was aired throughout the region. The next day, it was on the front page of the Savannah Morning News.
One by one, in the weeks that followed, volunteers showed up. Skilled volunteers with tools.
There were welders, mechanics, electricians, painters, and engineers. Some were retired, others were snowbirds, most were military veterans. Some worked for the Savannah-based 165th Georgia Air National Guard Wing or local businesses such as Gulfstream, LMI Aerospace and Flight Safety.
Every one of these volunteers had a story. A story that became part of a collective dream.
The dream of these volunteers was to honor the WWII veterans of the Eighth Air Force—some of whom were literally their fathers—by restoring the B-17 to its original pristine condition.
The restoration of the “City of Savannah,” a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress with a tail number of 44-83814, is a love story. It is a dedicated project brought to life by the volunteers who made it happen.
“In January of 2009, I opened the paper at work during my lunch hour and read the news of the plane’s arrival,” said Bill Leining, one of the original crew of volunteers.
“I stopped what I was doing and drove to the museum, which wasn’t too far from Flight Safety, and went to the front desk and asked how I could help,” he recalled.
Liening, who is now retired, was made the evening crew chief after his interview. His father served in the Eighth Air Force as a B-17 tail gunner and flew 35 missions.
“The airplane wasn’t in the best of shape but I couldn’t wait to get started.”
Dave Pinegar, also a member of the original crew, learned about the plane’s arrival on local station WTOC-TV that morning. He attended the arrival of the plane later that day.
“LMI is very big on community involvement,” Pinegar said. “I thought to myself that getting connected with the B-17 project would be an easy sell to both my plant manager and the corporate CEO, as it was a community volunteer project and aviation-oriented.”
Dave Talleur, a retired corporate pilot and aircraft maintenance supervisor, lived in sort-of-nearby Sunbury, Georgia. He also became a member of the original crew.
Although Talleur was highly skilled, he was also “the poster boy for extroverts” and came to be the person that conversed with the visitors while his comrades worked on the plane. His title became “the BS guy,” which he proudly wore on his nametag, until he was promoted to deputy project manager.
It’s said that a restoration project is never finished, but this one has come a long way from that cold day at the museum in January 2009.
From the arrival of the aircraft, which was too large to enter the museum, to a solid year of cleaning the plastic residue that was used to protect the exterior of the plane but adhered to it. Turrets were mounted, the electrical system was installed and the interior was rebuilt and painted.
Great partnerships were made. A connection with the Coastal Amateur Radio Society moved beyond the project team’s expectations when they restored the B-17’s radio room and transmitted to other sites from the airplane.
The project relied heavily on the good work and support of Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, Flight Safety International and LMI Aerospace, among others.
Those associated with the B-17 community from far and wide offered technical advice and their input after the “City of Savannah” made its home in Pooler—especially renowned B-17 experts Tommy Garcia and Dr. Harry Friedman.
The countless trips made by members of the restoration crew to obtain parts, create alliances and partner with other projects were memory-making.
Not to mention the nose art created by a WWII nose artist Skip Shelton in 2011 and the fine work of some of the best local metal workers in the industry.
On June 16, 2021, the final major chapter of the “City of Savannah” restoration took place when the upper turret of the B-17 operated under power—the last of the aircraft’s three power turrets to become operational. The bomber is the only B-17 in the world with three working power turrets that are demonstrated to the public.
“During this thorough restoration to restore the B-17, we had one goal —to make it the most accurate static display possible,” said Greg Kindred, the current project manager. “We had no idea that we would be establishing a lasting camaraderie of friendships and connections. The volunteers were and are truly the heart and soul of this project.”
During the 12 years the “City of Savannah” has been under restoration, more than 200 volunteers have officially served on the team. Nine volunteers hold the honor of serving for the entire restoration period.
“Encountering the stuff of history is very powerful for the museum visitor, and that is the case with the Mighty Eighth Museum’s B-17, ‘City of Savannah,’ ” said Scott Loehr, the museum's president and CEO.
“The aircraft and the stories associated with the iconic B-17 enable visitors to better understand and appreciate the Eighth Air Force and World War II history.”
This year, the total working volunteer hours has reached nearly 75,000. Many more hours were contributed off-site and were not recorded but were integral to the mission of the restoration.
Every hour volunteered was a statement of devotion to the mission by the restoration team members.
They overcame challenges to fulfill their dream to create a lasting symbol to honor their fathers and grandfathers and all of the veterans who served in the Mighty Eighth during WWII.
Since being restored, countless WWII Eighth Air Force veterans have come to the museum with their families and been provided the opportunity to visit inside the aircraft. These visits have been powerful, meaningful and emotional for the veterans and their families.
General Jimmy Doolittle, who was a Commander of the Eighth Air Force during WWII, said it best: “There is nothing stronger than the heart of a volunteer.” And those words are especially true when it comes to this mighty crew of B-17 restoration volunteers.
About The Museum
The National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force's mission is to preserve for all Americans the stories of courage, character and patriotism displayed by the men and women of the Eighth Air Force from World War II to the present. The museum is located in Pooler.
“B-17 Flying Fortress Restoration: The Story of
a WWII Bomber's Return to Glory in Honor of the Veterans of the Mighty Eighth
Air Force” by Jerome J. McLaughlin is available at Amazon.com and at the museum