Smithsonian Panel Backs Transfer of Famed B-17 Bomber

The Swoose, the oldest extant B-17D bomber, may be moved to the Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio.
The Swoose, the oldest extant B-17D bomber, may be moved to the Air Force museum in Dayton, Ohio. (National Air And Space Museum Photos)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007

After more than a half-century mothballed in a Maryland warehouse of the National Air and Space Museum, a storied World War II bomber will finally be moved.

Not to the queue of the restoration team, however, as some of the museum specialists would like. The B-17 combat bomber, nicknamed "the Swoose," will head instead to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio.

The debate over what to do with the Swoose has split restoration staff members and curators. Although both groups contend that the historic aircraft should be restored, they disagree over who should do the work and whether the Smithsonian Institution should lose one of its oldest airplanes.

The Swoose, a member of Boeing's Flying Fortress class, is the oldest extant B-17D. It was parked on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The Swoose made a reconnaissance flight that day and flew one of the United States' first bombing missions during the war in the Pacific. The plane engaged in the war's first U.S. night bombing attack on Davao Gulf a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. During the war, it eventually became a transport for a Air Force general.

The Air and Space Museum's collections committee, an advisory group on the acquisition and transfer of aircraft, voted 5 to 4 on Sept. 28 for deaccessioning the airplane. The panel forwarded its decision to Gen. John R. "Jack" Dailey, the museum director, and Donald S. Lopez Sr., the deputy director, who are retired pilots.

Dailey decided this week to stand by the committee's recommendations. Lopez also accepted the committee's decision. "There were good arguments on both sides," said Dailey, who had requested a collections review to alleviate a storage crunch. This is the first time the museum has had to decide what to unload. "There is a lot of emotion associated with this plane," Dailey says.

The decision now has to be approved by the Smithsonian's National Collections Program office. The Air Force Museum is not commenting on the exchange until the internal process at the Smithsonian has been completed.

For Dailey, the practical concern of having enough space to store and to restore aircraft was his primary concern. The planned construction of a conservation and display facility at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles Airport has been delayed until a portion of the needed $33.5 million can be raised. Even when it opens, space in the 147,000-square-foot building will be an issue, Dailey says.

"We still are going to have storage requirements. Hazy is not going to take everything we have in the collection," he said. The artifacts at the museum are encyclopedic, from the Wright Brothers to the space shuttle.

The director said he was surprised that the opening of Hazy in 2003 didn't solve the crowded conditions at the Paul E. Garber Preservation, Restoration and Storage facility in Suitland, where the Swoose is stored. "Forty-one percent of the planes at Hazy came from other places. We are not going to move artifacts from Garber to Hazy unless it is going to be displayed. Otherwise, it has to go from Garber to another museum," Dailey said.

The Swoose has never been in a plan to be displayed, he said.

The plane, covered in camouflage paint, is a large aircraft with a wingspan of almost 104 feet and, unloaded, weighs 30,000 pounds. The class of B-17s earned a place in the public imagination when it was used as a symbol of American military power in the Hollywood films "Twelve O'Clock High" and "Test Pilot."

"We had more than the usual interest from the staff as a whole, from the restoration staff as a whole," says Patricia Williams, an acquisition archivist and chairman of the air and space collections committee. "It is an iconic object for people on the staff. While people may have different ideas, most people want to do the best for the artifact and the museum."

"I sided with the people who feel it is historic and deserves preserving," said Edward McManus, the museum's chief of conservation. "I think the history is significant. It is one of the early models of the B-17. It probably flew the first combat mission in World War II. It served in a war-bond campaign. It is an interesting artifact." He would prefer the plane stay at the Smithsonian and be reassembled to a condition as close to authentic as possible.

"A lot of people like to look at a wreck and see an aircraft in poor condition. They feel they are seeing the real thing," McManus said.

F. Robert van der Linden, the chair of the museum's aeronautics division, voted to send the plane to Dayton. "The main thing is we are very fond of the aircraft. But it seemed like a good idea to transfer. The Air Force Museum will be able to restore it and put it on display. This is in the best interest of the aircraft and we have to put that interest above our own interests," he says.

In addition, the exchange might be a cost-saving move.

"The transfer of the Swoose to the Air Force Museum should save the Smithsonian a great deal of money, as restoration efforts can now be applied to other equally worthy aircraft. Of equal importance, it is our understanding that the Air Force Museum will transfer a fully restored combat-veteran B-17G to us, thereby enhancing our collection with a historic, battle-proven aircraft at no cost to the Smithsonian," van der Linden said.

The Air Force Museum is restoring the Memphis Belle, a fabled flier in World War II's European theater. That job, says van der Linden, will give it an edge when working on the Swoose. "They have the ability to restore it sooner than we do," he says.

Part of the affection for the Swoose comes from its lore. Its parts were cobbled together from other aircraft, and it received its name from Capt. Weldon Smith, who said the patchwork plane reminded him of a popular song about a swan and goose, or a Swoose. In 1942, it nearly crashed in Australia during a mission, when one of its passengers was Lt. Cmdr. Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1942, the plane broke at least two speed records flying around the Pacific Ocean with Capt. Frank Kurtz at the helm. Kurtz is credited with bringing the first American combat bomber back from the front, landing it at Hamilton Field, Calif. After various assignments, the plane became the carrier for Lt. Gen. George Brett, commander of Allied Air Forces in Australia.

The plane was decommissioned in 1945 and for a time was stored in Pyote, Tex., with the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The Enola Gay was restored over more than 10 years at Garber.

The Swoose flew one more time, in 1953. It was stored at Andrews Air Force Base, where it was vandalized before the Smithsonian disassembled the plane in 1961 and moved it to Garber.

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