By Stewart Bailey, Curator
July 28 marks the “birthday” of one of the most iconic aircraft in history, and one of the stars of the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum collection; the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. On that day, in 1936 the Boeing Model 299, the prototype of what was to become the B-17 first took to the air at Boeing Field in Washington with Boeing chief test pilot, Leslie Tower at the controls.
Out of the 12,731 B-17s built by Boeing, Lockheed-Vega, and Douglas, today only 58 aircraft remain in museums or private collections around the world. Of those, one of the most unique and mysterious belongs to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum. Although marked with the serial number 44-83785, there is some question as to whether that is its true serial or not, and many aviation historians believe the aircraft is really serial number 44-85531. Why the confusion? That’s what makes her story mysterious.
Evergreen’s B-17 was a G-model built by either Lockheed-Vega or Douglas in early 1945 and never made it into combat, but rather it served in various utility roles until the mid-1950s. At that point, her story gets interesting as she was selected for “secret duties” and removed from the Air Force’s inventory. One of a group of five black-painted Flying Fortresses used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), it operated out of Taiwan, where it was used to drop agents into China or support guerilla operations.
Because the serial numbers painted on the tails were changed regularly to confuse the casual observer, her real one has been lost to history. However, in September 1960, she gained the civilian registration number N809Z when she was sold to Atlantic-General Enterprises; a CIA front company. From there she went to work for Intermountain Airways in Marana, Arizona in 1962.
Intermountain (also with CIA ties) was well known for modifying aircraft for use in specialized operations and the B-17G was no different. Outfitted with a special rig on the nose called a Fulton Skyhook and a special hatch in the tail, the Fortress was actually able to pick up people from the ground without landing! The user on the ground would release a helium balloon trailing a long cable that was attached to a special harness he wore. The aircraft would then catch the line using long, whisker-like poles on the nose, and snatch the person off the ground where they would be winched up and into the plane. In 1962, the Skyhook equipped Fortress was called upon to fly a mission deep into the arctic to grab vital information out from under the noses of the Soviet Union.
After her work with the Fulton Skyhook, N809Z was converted into a flying tanker used by Intermountain Airways to fight forest fires in the western US. She was acquired by Evergreen Helicopters in 1975, and given a new registration; N207EV, which she wears to this day. After 10 years of fighting fires, work began in 1985 to restore the venerable Flying Fortress was back to the war-time configuration with all of the gun turrets and a working bomb bay. (The story is told that her rare nose turret was found as a decoration in a bar, but the owner was unwilling to sell it, so Evergreen bought the bar, removed the turret, and then re-sold the bar.) The proudly restored B-17 took to the air again in 1990 and flew in numerous air shows until 2001 when concerns about the wing spar attachment points grounded her.
Today, the Evergreen B-17G Flying Fortress shares a place of honor in the museum, wearing the markings of the 490th Bomb Group, operating out of Eye air base in England during World War II. As such, she is a fitting tribute to the men in women who built, maintained and flew the majestic Flying Fortress.