In 1947, Milwaukie, Oregon, gas station owner Art Lacey learned that decommissioned B-17 bombers, the iconic four-engine “Flying Fortresses” used by the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, were for sale — cheap, around $15,000 — at Altus Army Airfield in Oklahoma.
About 5,000 of the more than 12,000 B-17s built were lost during the war, and after the war, thousands of these airplanes were scrapped or sold.
“Altus had been a training base during the war but was closed down in April 1945 to become a boneyard for surplus military aircraft,” explains Matthew Burchette, senior curator at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. “There were nearly 2,500 planes at Altus, with many of the B-17s practically brand-new.”
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Although he was an experienced pilot, Lacey hadn’t flown a B-17, or any plane with more than one engine. But he needed to put some sort of roof, or canopy, over his gasoline pumps. And he thought that one of those surplus B-17s would not only serve that purpose but also draw customers to his service station along Route 99E near Portland.
A friend who’d heard Lacey talk about the fanciful idea bet him $5 that it wouldn’t happen. And, partly to win that bet, the story goes, Lacey borrowed $15,000 and set out for Oklahoma.
He bought one B-17 for about $13,000, but it turned out to have faulty landing gear — a detail Lacey learned when attempting to land during his test flight. He ended up crashing his newly bought plane into another B-17 that was up for adoption. An understanding base commander wrote those two planes off to “wind damage” and sold Lacey another B-17, in better shape and with very low mileage, for just $1,500.
Friends experienced in flying B-17s flew to Oklahoma to help Lacey get that plane home to Oregon. But once they landed, the challenge was getting the plane from Troutdale Airport, near Portland, about 20 miles down the road to Milwaukie. Lacey planned to move the disassembled plane down the highway on four flatbed trucks but was unable to get a permit. Undaunted, he went ahead anyway, moving the trucks in the dark of night with hired motorcycle escorts to lend (unofficial) credibility and, after it all, paying only a $10 fine.
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Dubbed “Lacey Lady,” the B-17 was reassembled to serve, as Lacey had imagined it, as the attention-getting canopy for his gas station. And into the late 1950s, motorists could climb up into the airplane for a look around while their automobiles got filled up and serviced. After that, they could have a meal at Lacey’s Bomber Restaurant.
Even after liability issues forced Lacey to discontinue self-guided tours of the B-17, the Milwaukie Gas Station Bomber continued as a popular roadside attraction. But over time, the unforgiving northwest weather, a tough economy and other issues began taking their toll on the airplane and the business.
The gas station closed in 1991. And in 1996, four years before he died at age 87, Art Lacey was on hand for the removal of the decaying nose section of the airplane — and for what his grandson, Jayson Scott, envisioned as the start of the restoration of Lacey Lady as an airworthy B-17.
“He told me he didn’t have the energy to help out with the full restoration project,” Scott told TPG, “but he knew and approved of what I had in mind.”
It took a while, but in 2014 the nonprofit B-17 Alliance was able to remove the rest of Lacey’s B-17 from its pedestal in Milwaukie and now houses the aircraft’s pieces in Hangar “C” at Oregon’s historic McNary Field/Salem Municipal Airport.
The bustling restoration facility on the edge of the airfield doubles as a museum. There, visitors can learn about the history of World War II, B-17s and Lacey Lady. And it’s where they can watch the group’s more than 120 volunteers lovingly bring sections of the iconic aircraft back to life.
Beyond its history as an iconic roadside attraction, this B-17 is significant because it has so few hours on its airframe and was built in California by Lockheed-Vega, a subcontractor for Boeing that produced just 2,250 G-model B-17s during the war, notes the Museum of Flight’s Burchette.
The Federal Aviation Administration considers 18 B-17s to be airworthy. But only three are flying at this time due to an airworthiness directive that went into effect in May, said Burchette. “As for aircraft that are no longer airworthy but simply on display, there are 39 B-17s scattered across the U.S., England, France and, oddly, Brazil,” he added. And some of those are made using parts cobbled together from multiple B-17 Flying Fortresses.
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New nose art for the Lacey Lady. HARRIET BASKAS/THE POINTS GUY
Because flying warbirds is “expensive and risky,” Burchette says he’d love to see the Lacey Lady restored so that it can receive “the respect it deserves on the ground,” but perhaps permanently grounded as the centerpiece of a larger museum.
But Jayson Scott and the B-17 Alliance are determined to get the Lacey Lady flying.
The group estimates that in addition to thousands of hours of volunteer time, it will take more than $6 million to get the airplane airworthy by, hopefully, 2037.
“Sometimes we start working on something and then run into a roadblock equipment-wise, FAA-wise or mechanical-wise, so it’s hard to give a percentage as to how far along we are on the restoration,” said Scott, “but there’s no turning around now.”