BangShift Exclusive: An Incredible Inside Look At The Restoration Of A WWII B-17 – The Desert Rat Labor Of Love

BangShift Exclusive: An Incredible Inside Look At The Restoration Of A WWII B-17 – The Desert Rat Labor Of Love

(Words and photos by Bob Chiluk) – So BangShift Chicago gets a hotline call wanting to know if we would like to see some old metal that’s being restored locally. Silence for a split nanosecond, we answer “when and where?”. We don’t ask what is it, where is it or what’s it all about. These are trivial questions and really wouldn’t matter to us to get the story anyway.

My informant gives me the coordinates to meet at and we head out on some back roads at the edge of town to meet some of his crew. While we wait for the rest of his gang he mentions “Oh by the way its a B-17.”  My flytrap of trivial information recalls that there were some 10,000 plus of these WW2 work horses put into service  doing the majority of the heavy lifting during the big one, but very few had to be still in existence (17 recorded). I’m thinking no way, this is a Goodfellas set up and if they ask me to ride in the front seat, I am in serious trouble!

 Mile Kellner meets us at a building he had purpose built for the restoration of the B-17 that he and a group of avid enthusiasts are restoring. The Flying Fortess B-17 known as the “Desert Rat” was commissioned in 1942 and served a faithful tour of duty hauling troops, equipment and supplies in the States, Greenland and Asia. After decommissioning it was bought up for scrap and languished for decades in a scrap yard in Maine to slowly decompose back to Mother Earth. How did he get it home? Only in the most BangShifty way possible. Look at this photo!
In the mid 80’s Mike hears of the old warbird dying a slow death back into nature, and promptly salvages the hulk and its history to be brought back to Chicago. Years go by in storage to accumulate information, parts and financing to properly restore the faithful servant. Mike and his volunteers work diligently and carefully to restore what parts they have and fabricate those that have be long gone while being sucked back into the earth.Original drawings and documentation have been secured in order to accurately duplicate reconstruction. The enormity of a project like this has got to keep going to preserve this rare piece of American history. Hats off to Mike and all who are involved on this project!.
(Editor’s Note: This is an amazing project and we’re honored that Mike let Bob sneak in and blast photos of the progress. The ongoing work is proof of how much people love these planes and how far some will go to preserve their history. The Desert Rat is an interesting case because while it started life as a full fledged B-17, it spent the second half of its time in service as a cargo plane, having the bomb doors and most of the armaments removed in order to allow it to haul as much as possible. We’re not sure if the plane will go back into its “early” form or the later form. The story of it surviving in the junkyard is amazing. The place it was sitting at had other planes at it and all of those were cut to pieces and scrapped. This plane was heading down that road and then the chopping stopped and it sat in the trees for decades. Mike Kellner has been on this project since the 1990s and it has a long way to go. We hope to be able to show you more progress as time goes on. For now, scroll down to see Bob’s spectacular photos of his gargantuan project!)
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21 thoughts on “BangShift Exclusive: An Incredible Inside Look At The Restoration Of A WWII B-17 – The Desert Rat Labor Of Love

  1. john

    I wonder if they were stopped while driving that pile of corrosion back to Illinois. “Honest Trooper Smidlapp, I weighs less than you think”.
    Great pics…good luck guys.

    1. Mike Kellner

      Yes we were stopped and told him we loaded it all by hand. He let us go. Probably wouldn’t happen today. Mike

  2. Scott Liggett

    I have a special affection for the B-17’s. My grandfather flew them out of Ridgewell England during WWII. He eventually became the squadron commander of the 381st. Gorgeous aircraft.

  3. Nick D.

    Amazing. A lot of people can’t finish restoring a car. Can you imagine the time, money and labor involved in restoring a WWII bomber, especially given the condition this one was in? Hats off to the dedication these guys are showing.

  4. Greg R.

    I love this kinda stuff, my grandfather was 303BG Hells Angels, he flew 25 Missions over Germany and love nothing more than telling stories of his time overseas with anyone who would listen. He got to go for a ride in one again just a few years before he passed. I have to stop and look every-time I see one of the beautiful death machines. There is supposed to one coming this next summer to the airport just down the road from me, gonna have to get a ride in it.


    Thats one hellofa undertaking…I’ve seen/worked on repairing a big aircraft from a realtively light crash….I can only imagine what is needed for this beast…

  6. Pete P.

    The Yankee Air Force and Museum at Willow Run in Ypsilanti, MI ( where Henry Ford built B24’s using an automotive style assembly line during the war) has a fully restored B17 (The Yankee Lady) and offers 30 minute rides. I got the chance last year as a birthday gift. What a magnificent flying machine. Don’t pass it up if you ever get the chance!

  7. derbydad276

    I am lucky enough to live near willow run airport the
    Home of The Yankee Lady and I get to watch it fly over my house on a regular basis
    and think about the sacrifice my grandfather’s generation gave to this country flying in these during the war

  8. crazy canuck

    Whats amazing is volunteers who put their time and skills into these aircraft . At the museum I’m a member of there are way to few 40 somethings willing to learn the skills from the older guys who actually worked on these planes.

  9. elkyguy

    ok,the next time some guy whines about how hard it is to restore his impala,bitch slap him,and show him this article!!

  10. Mark Walter

    Wow, simply amazing what these guys are doing. I was involved in a similar restoration during my days in aircraft maintenance at Dover. While I had moved on to flying airplanes before Shoo Shoo Baby’s restoration was finished, I was just as proud as everyone on the day they flew her to the US Air Force Museum in Dayton OH.

    1. Gary Smrtic

      I was over in Germany in the Air Force when they restored Shoo Shoo Baby. I couldn’t do anything to help, except send money, which I did, and still have the insignia patch they sent fo rmy contributions. I love the old warbirds. I’m doing some warbird work now…

  11. floating doc

    I met a man in Waynesville, NC back in 2006. He was wearing a WWII cap, so I asked him where he served. England. One word answer.

    I pressed on. “Army air corp?”


    “What did you do?” I finally got a full sentence out of him.

    “I was a B17 pilot.”

    Now I’m excited. “Wow! How many missions did you fly?”

    My new friend finally cracked a grin. “Thirty seven. Never lost a man.”

    “Really? How many planes?”

    He went through three planes, including having one that had the tail shot nearly off but still made it back over the channel. He said that the tail fell off as he landed; the only thing holding it on was air pressure.

    I told him I had watched one doing touch-and-goes at the airport in Gainesville, FL when I was in school. I couldn’t afford to tour the plane or take a ride, but I had parked in the rental car parking lot and watched from the other end of the airport.

    He said that same plane had come through Asheville the year before, and he went out to see it. He was chatting with the pilot after all of the other visitors had left, and the pilot said to him, “Well, climb in.”

    He told me he replied that he had too much seat time in one to pay $50 for a ride, but the pilot insisted: “I’ve got to warm the engines up for an oil change, so climb in.” The pilot took him up to about a thousand feet (out of an airport surrounded by mountains), let go of the yoke and said, “Well, take her!”

    He said he responded, “Are you nuts? It’s been 60 years!”, but the pilot wouldn’t take the controls so he reached up…and instantly it all came back to him. He could do anything with the plane. He said it was like he’d flown one the day before.

    It was a wonderful experience to be there and share this man’s story. I hope the restoration of this B-17 is completed soon, while some the men who served in them are still around.

    1. geo815

      Wow! An amazing project and an amazing side-story to boot. Great to read on Thanksgiving Day. Thank you.

  12. Richard G king

    I trained on the B-17 in 1944 and we were loading at Topeka Ks to go over and the war in Germany ended, we were sent to Pyote Tx to train on the B-29 and completed training and went to topeka again where we were loading a brand new B-29 and they dropped the bomb. I am a history buff and have a large collection of these plane histories Work with The Commorative Air Force Good luck on this difficult project I was armor gunner onthe B-17 and CFC onthe B-29 RG King

  13. Bob Gardner

    It’s great to see another of these restoration projects going on. There is another B-17 being built in Urbana, OH. It is the “Champaign Lady” at Grimes Field. They have a website so a search will find all the details. I built big airplanes for a living and can appreciate what a project like this takes, especially on a budget and with only a handful of people.

  14. elkhide

    I worked on the “Piccadilly Lilly” in the early ’70’s, the 12 O’Clock High movie and TV series B-17 of fame in exchange for tagging along on check rides. One hell of an aircraft. Built like a tank, literally. It was built to take huge amounts of damage and still stay airborne. It flew like driving a trash truck with manual steering but very stable and it gave you a good feeling. Gobbled down fuel and oil like no tomorrow but there’s nothing like the rumble of a radial engine times four. If you ever have the chance to ride in one, especially in the co-pilot seat DO IT!! A ride in a P-51 is the only thing that comes close.

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