A behemoth of a vintage plane that hasn’t been manufactured new in nearly 70 years is being built one piece at time here — and when the volunteers can’t buy or barter for parts they need, they’re making them from scratch based on a collection of 28,000 original Boeing Co. blueprints fetched from microfiche at the Smithsonian Institution.
“Modesty aside — and I’ve been around airplanes as much as anybody here — I think we’re building a better airplane than Boeing did,” says volunteer Dick Bidlack, a 79-year-old Vietnam War fighter pilot who’s been involved with the Champaign Aviation Museum project since it started in 2005. “But we’re not trying to build 15 of them a day in a wartime scenario. We’re taking years, so we have a little more freedom.”
Although completion is still years away, the gleaming shell of the plane stretched out in the hangar these days is unmistakably a B-17, the rugged 74-foot-long, four-engine bomber called a “Flying Fortress” because it bristled with .50-caliber machine guns and could take an awful beating in combat.