Junkyard B-17 Taking Shape In Illinois Barn Restoration Shop


Nearly four decades ago, a young Mike Kellner, inspired by the television series 12 O’clock High, ponied up a bit more than seven grand to a Maine junkyard for a B-17E. Or, more accurately, the sawed-off pieces of one. “It was a scrapped airplane,” he told the local Chicago suburban Daily Herald newspaper. “So, it was all chopped into eight-foot pieces. At the time, they thought we were nuts.” It took Kellner the better part of six years to truck the bits and pieces home to Illinois, and in the almost 40 years since, he’s been putting those puzzle pieces back together—a little at a time.

B-17E Serial Number 41-2595 was built by Boeing in Seattle in 1941, likely before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The early variant of the famous “Flying Fortress” was delivered to the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1942. Ultimately nicknamed the “Desert Rat,” it was assigned for training with the 97th Bomb Group at MacDill Field near Tampa, Florida, and never flew a combat mission. The last operational flight of the Desert Rat (also known as “Tangerine”) was in December 1945. It was then authorized for salvage, ultimately ending up in pieces at the Maine auto salvage yard.

A private pilot and former construction worker, Kellner has been working on the B-17 eight hours a day, six days a week for the past several years. He told the Daily Herald he has been saving up money and horse-trading parts and expects the four-engine bomber to be airworthy in about five years—though he admits he’s been using the same five-year estimate for the past two decades. “We’re still looking for some things,” Kellner told the newspaper. “We’re still missing a couple of seats and a few turret parts.” He explained that most of the internal structure of the four-engine Flying Fortress is original, “though some big, load-bearing pieces are new.” He has accumulated ten of the 1,200-horsepower Wright R-1820-97 radial engines used on the B-17. No word yet on whether or not the current Airworthiness Directive on B-17 wing-spar assemblies will affect the Desert Rat’s restoration timeline.

Asked how much he’s spent on the project to date, Kellner told the newspaper, “Too much paperwork, and I’m not sure I want to know.” Though he plans to handle the bulk of financing the project on his own, he is willing to work with sponsors and does accept donations—either financial or in volunteer help, through his Facebook page.

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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  1. Great story … kudos to Mike. Hopefully, it’ll fly but — if not — that it goes to a good home.

  2. The original design of the B-17 (Boeing 299) had the Pratt & Whitney R-1690 engines. The B-17E had the Wright R-1820 Cyclone.

    If Mr. Kellner has ten R-1690 maybe he can trade for R-1820s.

    • Thank you for the correction. That was my error generated by too cursory a reading of a Wikipedia entry under deadline. In my defense, there WAS a nagging voice in the back of my head shouting that wartime B-17s had Wrights. I should have listened.

    • Update,

      Pick, pick, pick! The National WWII Museum web site shows a B-17E with the tail gun position.

      The B17-E used the Wright R-1820-65, maximum takeoff power 1,200 hp, maximum continuous 1,000 hp (from https://aircraft-database.com). The dash numbers can be confusing, changing for differences such as magneto brands and other accessories. Most of the time all I care about are the wonderful sounds of radials. My dad, a WWII B-29 flight engineer, did a great imitation of Wright R-3350 startup sounds.

      • My dad was a B-29 FE too. 73rd BW, 499th BG, 877th BS. What about your dad ? Would have loved to hear his rendition of a R-3350 !!

  3. I believe that the engine is quoted in error. The B-17 actually used four of the 1200 HP Wright designed R-1820 nine cylinder radials, most of which (for the B-17 program) were built by Studebaker in South Bend, IN. If he is going to use R-1690s, it’ll be seriously underpowered.

  4. As a retired A&P my question is will he be able to make it airworthy and accepted by the FAA to get it registered. Fortunately, I suppose, it never flew combat missions and the volume of paperwork must be humongous.

  5. Wow Mike!
    Well done and thanks for what you are doing.
    I own an old car (1956 FJ Holden) and if I add up what it’s cost me over the last 35 years of caring for it and maintaining it in near original condition it’s a scary number.
    So I can only guess what this has cost you both in time and money.
    All this preserves cultural history in a real and living way and we are all the richer for doing so. I have great respect for the Mike Kellners of the world who undertake these projects. We owe them a significant debt of gratitude.

  6. That is a seriously ambitious project! Congratulations to Mike Kellner for the time and effort so far, and best wishes and best of luck for the completion of the task.

  7. (from the archives):
    2595 (MSN 2406) Accepted by USAAF at Boeing Field, Seattle, WA 14Feb42.
    97th Bomb Group, MacDill Field, Tampa, FL 28Feb42.
    97th Bomb Group, Sarasota Field, FL 29Mar42.
    MacDill Field, Tampa, FL 19Apr42.
    Ogden Air Depot, Hill Field, Ogden, UT 7Jul42.
    Walla Walla Field, WA 23Jul42.
    Rapid City AAB, SD 1Oct42.
    383rd Bomb Group, Ainsworth Field, NB 19Feb43.
    Tinker Field, Oklahoma City, OK 25Feb43.
    Wright Field, Dayton, OH 23Mar43.
    Modified by Fairfield Air Service Command, Patterson Field, Dayton, OH to XC-108A
    experimental cargo aircraft completed in Mar44.
    Modifications centered on making the Fortress into a standard transport capable of
    carrying troops, large cargo, or injured personnel.
    Armor and armament was stripped; the interior arrangement was reworked,
    with the radio operator and navigator repositioned into the cockpit behind the pilots
    where the top turret had once been.
    The nose compartment was rebuilt to provide for cargo, litter, or troop transport,
    access being gained by either the crawl-way under the cockpit or a solid, hinged nose
    piece that replaced the Plexiglas assembly of the standard B-17E.
    The bomb bay doors were sealed and the bulkhead between the bomb bay and
    radio compartment was opened out. The bulkhead between the radio compartment and the
    waist area was removed. Provisions for litters, cargo, or troop-transport were installed
    in the former bomb bay and the rear fuselage. A large, upward-hinging cargo door was
    installed at the left waist position. This took 19,000 man hours.
    Ferried Dayton – Memphis – Miami, FL 11/13Mar44.
    Ferried overseas on the South Atlantic/Africa/India route departing Miami 16Mar44.
    Miami, FL; Puerto Rico. The no.3 engine caught fire over the British Guiana jungle,
    the fire extinguisher was not successful (the cause was an electrical fault) but the
    pilot nursed the plane into Belém.
    Val de Cães Field, Belém, Brazil; Wideawake Field, Ascension Island; Accra, Gold Coast to India.
    Air Transport Command, Chabua, India. Used for flying ammunition over the Hump,
    returning with injured troops. Returned to US via North Atlantic route 20/24Sep44.
    4006th Base Unit (Miami Technical Service Command), Miami, FL.
    1379th Base Unit (North Atlantic Division, Air Transport Command), Dow Field, Bangor, ME 18Oct44.
    Goose Bay, Labrador; used for daily flights to Greenland.
    Returned to US 27Dec45.
    147th Base Unit (Continental Air Force), Dow Field, Bangor, ME 3Feb46.
    Salvaged at Dow Field 26Feb46.
    Reclaim complete 24May46.
    Sold as scrap c.Dec45.
    Acquired by local vehicle scrap dealer, cut in sections, stored on local farm at La Grange, ME, 1945-1985.
    To Mike Kellner 1985 at Galt, IL 1985/92 then to a farm at Marengo, IL for restoration to bomber configuration.

  8. This is the kind of story that I want to see. And why are there no pictures of its current build status. Come on AVWEB get on the stick and do some followups.

      • Just a little more information in your article, perhaps conveyed by a single photo (as mentioned by vspeed96480 above) would have helped. For example, as an early production B-17, did the subject airplane have the later tail gunner position?

        Not all of us are wedded to Facebook.

  9. It’s good to know that there are people like Mike who are willing to devote much of their life to preserving these aircraft, and the important history they represent.

  10. That plain olive drab in the article picture. Nice… Just seems righter than the natural aluminum finish.