The story of Sentimental Journey

The plane that started it all for Airbase Arizona

Sentimental Journey rolled off the Douglas assembly line in late 1944, and was accepted by the U.S. Army Air Force on March 13, 1945. Manufactured too late to see service in the European war, the aircraft was assigned to the Pacific theater for the duration of the war. In 1947, the aircraft was removed from storage in Japan and assigned to Clark Field in Manila as a photo mapping plane. For nearly three years she served in that capacity, flying to all corners of the Pacific configured as an RB-17G.

B-17 Sentimental Journey Arizona Wing CAF

Sentimental Journey was then transferred to Eglin Field, Florida, and was converted to a DB-17G for service as an air-sea rescue craft. During the 1950's, B-17 serial number 4483514 was converted once again to become a DB-17P, serving with the 3215th Drone Squadron at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida. During this time Sentimental Journey participated in “Operation Greenhouse,” the fourth postwar atmospheric nuclear weapon test series conducted by the United States during the spring of 1951. This test used unmanned, radio controlled B-17 drone aircraft to measure blast and thermal effects and to collect radioactive cloud samples. During the test, a drone aircraft would be launched by ground control. A mother ship, already airborne, would come from behind, take control of the drone and fly it to the target area. Sentimental Journey served as a mother ship for this nuclear testing. On January 27, 1959, final military orders were cut, transferring the airplane to military storage at Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. Within a few months, 83514 was acquired by the Aero Union Corporation of Chico, California, and became a civilian aircraft as N-9323Z, the registration which remains with her today. For the ensuing eighteen years, an aircraft that had been designed to survive no more than a hundred missions, flew literally thousands of forest fire sorties throughout the country.

B-17 used in fighting fires Arizona Wing CAF

On January 14, 1978, at a membership banquet for the newly formed Arizona Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, Colonel Mike Clarke announced the donation of the aircraft to the Arizona Wing of the CAF.

A contest initiated by local media to name the aircraft resulted in more than 800 entries, and the ultimate selection of the name Sentimental Journey. The decision was made to use the most famous pinup picture of World War II for the nose art. Permission was secured from widower Harry James to add Betty Grable in her most tantalizing pose to grace the newly acquired bomber.

B-17G Sentimental Journey entered service with the CAF in 1978. Arizona Wing members immediately undertook the chores of cleaning, polishing and repainting WW II markings and bringing the ship into excellent mechanical condition. They also initiated extensive crew training so that Sentimental Journey was prepared to fly with the CAF fleet.

But even the aircraft's excellent condition wasn't enough. Four operational turrets, operational bomb bay doors, navigator and radio operator stations, Norden bomb sight and machine guns were required to restore Sentimental Journey as an authentic Flying Fortress. Most people would have been content to continue the project bit by bit over several years but the Arizona Wing members were eager to complete the restoration of all military systems used on the B-17's during WW II. In December 1981, the Wing voluntarily grounded the airplane to undertake the restoration.

B-17 assigned to the Arizona Wing CAF

Early projects included restoration and repainting in combat color, installation of the chin and ball turrets and restoration of the navigator's station back to original condition. Members soon learned that restoring an airplane meant trips to junkyards, bargaining, trading or begging anyone who had a needed item, or contacting businesses that might be able to fabricate parts that could not be located. By the end of 1981, they were ready to put all the pieces together.

Under skilled hands, Sentimental Journey literally began to come apart. The grounding orders listed these areas of concentration: painting, re-skinning, wiring, radio room, bomb bay doors and top, ball and tail turrets.

The interior was stripped of all paint and grease. Paint stripper was sprayed throughout the interior and members armed with toothbrushes stepped in to clean the nooks and crannies. The aluminum skin was removed from around the nose, cockpit and back to the top of the bomb bay for new sheet metal. The entire aircraft was rewired and a new instrument panel constructed, complete with lettering and artwork. The radio room was outfitted with a new radio operator's table and radio racks.

Throughout the restoration, Boeing Aerospace in Seattle donated valuable assistance by providing pictures and engineering drawings. During a visit by Sentimental Journey to the Seattle plant in 1979, shop personnel installed a new nose turret, the first major piece of equipment of the restoration.

The most difficult task was locating a top turret. One was eventually found through Art and Birdine Lacey, who owned the “Bomber Gas Station” in Milwaukie, Oregon, where a B-17 had been sitting on top of their station for over 37 years. Harsh weather and vandals had done significant damage, but the top turret was still intact. A deal was struck between both parties, the Arizona Wing would provide much needed work for the “The Bomber,” and the Laceys would donate the top turret to Sentimental Journey.

First, the members had to prepare the parts they would need for the Lacey’s plane. A new glass nose and facsimile top turret were fabricated along with a fiberglass tail. In July 1981, a team arrived at Art Lacey's gas station, and in 48 hours had replaced every piece of glass in the plane and all three missing doors. A dummy fiberglass top and tail turret were installed, topping off the work with a pair of simulated .50 caliber machine guns for the chin and tail turrets. The crew reported that there were no words to describe the Lacey’s hospitality. By August 1982, the top turret, along with the “Cheyenne” tail turret, were installed on Sentimental Journey.

Over the next three years, restoration continued on Sentimental Journey. The work was performed outdoors since the wing still did not have a hangar. In 1985 ground was broken for the wing's permanent hangar facility. With the new facility, repairs to Sentimental Journey could now be performed inside. As the hangar and museum grew, so did the number of aircraft the wing was restoring.

Check out these 360° post restoration photographs of Sentimental Journey

Nose Section

The bombardier and navigator positions are in the nose section. From here, 4 of the 13 Browning .50 cal machine guns were used; two on the sides known as "cheek" guns, and the double barrel chin turret controlled remotely by the bombardier.

Flight Deck

The pilot and co-pilot were the only 2 members of the crew of 10 without guns. Obviously, they had other controls to keep them busy. The flight engineer, man #3 on the flight deck, had a 360° rotating top turret with double machine guns.

Radio Room

"Houston, we have a problem!" Okay, maybe that was never said, but plenty of communications back to base and with the other boys in the formation happened here in the radio room. Can you spot the .50 cal machine gun the radio man used?

Waist Gunners

Average life expectancy of the waist gunners was among the shortest of all the crew members - standing up, right in the middle of the aircraft makes you a big target. The ball turret was actually one of the safest places, and the only armored crew member position on the aircraft.

Tail Section

Panoramic views and lots of head room, sounds like a sweet deal, right? Not so fast - the addition of the tail gunner was needed to help defend against German pilots trying to sneak up from behind the bombers. B-17G models feature the famous "Cheyenne" turret system.

In subsequent years, Sentimental Journey has made her appearance at hundreds of air shows and exhibitions. By 1986, Sentimental Journey was making an average of 60 appearances annually throughout the United States and Canada. Disaster struck in 1988 when brake failure during a landing at the Burbank Airport in California extensively damaged the underside front section of the aircraft and took six months to repair.

With the end of the summer air show schedule, Sentimental Journey returns to Falcon Field in Mesa, Arizona, to undergo general repairs and restoration work. Many people don't realize that this is an ongoing project. An average of 80,000 people tour through Sentimental Journey during the summer months. The amount of work to be accomplished during the winter months can be staggering. Everything from engine changes to aircraft repainting has to be performed before the next air show season starts in early May. The Arizona Wing is proud of its work and effort to bring Sentimental Journey to you.

To learn more about the B-17G click here.