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Tue, Jul 29, 2003

Boeing 307 Resurrected from Watery Grave

Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!" - John 11:43

By ANN Correspondent Kevin "Hognose" O'Brien

The Boeing 307 Stratoliner was the hit of the show at Airventure 2001, and it was never supposed to come to Oshkosh again. The historic pre-war pressurized airliner, the only one in the world, had just completed a painstaking six-year restoration to flying status. By Airventure 2002, though, its flying days were supposed to be over: it would be embalmed and ensconced in the National Air and Space Museum's beautiful new Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles, while curators there built an exhibit around it in anticipation of the Center's Centenary of Flight opening.

But as bittersweet as such a Lenin's tomb fate might be, for a while things looked a lot worse for the Boeing. After narrowly escaping the scrap-heap fate of its nine sister ships, the plane underwent a the costly restoration that climaxed with the June 23, 2001 rollout of the completed machine and its triumphal Airventure arrival, which saw it prominently displayed on AeroShell Square at show centre.

But on March 28, 2002, a routine test/training flight ended, not on the runway, but in the corrosive salt water of Elliot Bay. No one was hurt in the textbook ditching, and one of the crew was seen stepping off of the semi-submerged machine onto a rescue boat, briefcase in hand, dry and unruffled. But the insult of a ditching in front of all downtown Seattle (caused by fuel exhaustion: NTSB report here: ) was added to the injury of, first, the impact with the water, and secondly, the ravages of saltwater corrosion.

The once-pristine liner was hauled up on shore and frantically flushed out with fresh water, but the prognosis for any airplane immersed in salt water is not good. Kind of like Lazarus's, in fact. At first, the job looked impossible; the volunteers that initially rebuilt the plane, mostly Boeing retirees, were discouraged and dismayed. But there was enough desire to rebuild the plane, that Boeing OKd a survey. From that, a plan of attack shaped up.

"We can rebuild it -- we have the technology!"

Boeing cracked open a nearly bottomless checkbook. The volunteers were reinforced by Boeing employees. Engines and systems were removed and shipped to overhaul shops. Parts that were common to the B-17G were wheedled from reluctant warbird rebuilders. When an airframe part was too far gone with damage or corrosion, the volunteers did what they had done the first time: got the original drawing from the Boeing archives, and followed the 65-year-old callouts to make the part again.

And so, N19903 took shape, in the same building (historic Plant II), for the third time in its eventful life. Not many planes that the NTSB calls "substantially damaged" ever fly again, especially not unique, large transport aircraft that are old enough to be collecting Social Security. We can all be glad that the volunteers and Boeing employees took this time out of their busy lives and careers, and that Boeing was willing to support this rebuild, not once, but twice. (Boeing's support went far beyond financial, personnel and drawings... the machine was rebuilt in a Boeing plant with company-furnished materials and tools, and the company made too many other contributions to list. Heck, they could almost be forgiven for moving their headquarters to aviation-hating Chicago).

If it were not for Boeing, this plane might have met a fate like its sister, NX19904. Built for a planned around-the-world flight for Howard Hughes, it ultimately wound up selling as scrap for $62, and parts of its fuselage incorporated in a yacht named "Cosmic Muffin."

Why all this fuss about one airplane?

What's so special about the Clipper Flying Cloud (the name this very plane bore when it served with Pan Am.. and does again)? The 307 Stratoliner is important because it was the first pressurized airliner. With some parts very similar to those used in the Model 299 B-17, but a new, airtight fuselage, the Model 307 Stratoliner was the first airliner that could carry passengers in pressurized comfort, on top of many cloud layers. In fact, this very airplane made the first pressurized revenue flight (from Miami to Latin America for Pan Am, on July 4, 1940). It was a necessary way station on the evolutionary trail to today's fast, safe jetliners.

It also continued the Boeing "Lucky Seven" naming convention for airliners, which began with the revolutionary 247 of the 1930s.

Nowadays, pressurization is taken for granted. At the time the 307 first flew, pressurization was experimental... even in military aviation. The first operational military mission in a pressurized plane (the Ju86P recon plane) came after the first revenue flight of the 307. Boeing's learning curve with the 307 would help it design the pressurized B-29.

While it represented the cutting edge of the state of the art in 1938-40, now the 307 is a time capsule from another era. It speaks to us from Ernest Gann's heyday and Robert S. Buck's youth. The panels of "steam gages" and forest of engine controls are as nostalgic today as the engineer's, radio operator's, and navigator's stations, and the fittings of the passenger compartment date to an era when flying was glamourous and luxurious. One thing you won't see on modern planes: ash trays!

Actually, this resurrection should work out better for the volunteers than that of Lazarus; it was the resurrection of Lazarus, says the New Testament, that made the Powers that Be in ancient Judea decide upon the death of Jesus. The 307 team should be spared that level of ingratitude, although Boeing stockholders might get a little testy. A Boeing spokeswoman admitted to Sea-Tac's KOMO-TV, that Boeing really had no clue what the second rebuild was costing, only that it was "a lot more than expected." Somehow it's comforting to know that even Boeing can get sticker shock from an airplane repair bill. Somehow, it humanizes them.

You can see the 307 at Airventure 2003 from July 29-Aug 4. After that, if you want to see the world's only Boeing 307 Stratoliner, you'll have to go to the Udvar-Hazy Center, which opens in December. But if you can't make it to Oshkosh, you'll be able to see the 307, and all the AirVenture news, here at Aero-News.

Where else?

FMI: About the restorationAbout the restoration #2EXCELLENT Overview of the B-307's HistoryFirst Restoration PixAdditional Restoration DataFlyThe 307 on MS FlightSim


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