An incredible journey…

Today, the bomber's nose is removed for restoration, but the landmark still makes a striking impression along highway 99 in Milwaukie, OR.
Today, the bomber's nose is removed for restoration, but the landmark still makes a striking impression along highway 99 in Milwaukie, OR.

The story of how the infamous B-17 Bomber ended up off the highway in Milwaukie, Oregon…(excerpts from

While Lacey’s retired war bird is a familiar landmark in Milwaukie, Oregon, few realize the incredible chain of events that actually landed it there. As a young flier and gasoline station owner, he had a vision of a novel combination of both. His subsequent quest for a retired war plane took him to the U.S. Air Force’s Altus Air Base in Oklahoma. The stranger from Oregon told them he wanted to buy the plane to be used as an advertising gimmick back home. Put it up over his gas station, he said. They questioned his sanity but sold it to him.

All of the planes had been in storage for two years. Art rounded up a crew of local farmhands to help him prepare the bird for flight. “We got it un-pickled and got the thing running.” Lacey remembered during a discussion at his home, located right behind the looming silver bird and gas station. Despite his inexperience behind the controls, Lacey was determined to fly the war plane. Base regulations, however, required a co-pilot on every flight. So one of his helpers snuck him an old mannequin. Lacey stuck it on the seat beside him, plopped a cap on its head and took off for a test run. “I was scared as hell”, he admits in retrospect, “and that’s no lie!” That practice flight was nearly Lacey’s last. It ended up in what Air Force officials have termed “a spectacular wheels-up crash landing.”

Considering Lacey’s entire bomber saga, it was just par for the course.

“I got her flying,” Lacey told the Review,” and then I couldn’t get its landing gear to go down.” He remembers talking to and even slapping the lifeless mannequin on the knee during those tense airborne moments. “I was talking to everything trying to get that gear down-I even had the ‘old man upstairs’ involved in that one.” The Milwaukian crash-landed the stubborn bird on its belly, crashing into a parked bomber in the process. He never even received so much as a scratch. “They wrote both those planes off as wind damage,” Lacey said of the aircraft he unintentionally destroyed.

Lacey said he lives by proverb. “You stick and stay and make it pay.” The same day of the crackup, he and the farmboys started depickling another plane-tail number 485790. It is roosted in the sky beside old Highway 99E today.

Two of Lacey’s friends, pilots from Portland, joined the determined man for what turned out to be its perilous flight to faraway Oregon.

“Before we left, I took my parachute and put it in a box and nailed it shut, I’d ride her all the way to the ground if something happened. I was broke, all my money was in that plane.” (He bought the bomber for $13,750.)

They refueled in Palm Springs and then headed for Klamath Falls “I followed the Sierra Nevada’s until we hit a blinding snowstorm”, he remembers, “the other guys were asleep. I kept dropping in altitude, trying to get below the storm. I was flying her by the seat of my pants.” He just missed crashing the plane broadside into a mountain, by inches.

He and his crew had no idea of where they were. During a break in the clouds, they finally spotted a tiny town.

“We buzzed that little town pretty closely,” Lacey shrugs. People are running out of their houses in nightgowns. They were afraid we were going to land on Main Street. But we were just trying to read the road signs.”

After some frightening sweeps, they spotted a building with Fall River Mills painted on its top. They located it on their map and found they were almost 100 miles off their course.

“We picked up a railroad track and I said, “Well, hell, lets follow it all the way to Klamath Falls under the storm-I’ll ride in the nose and if I see a tunnel coming up I’ll bang you on the toe!”

Somehow, flying level with the treetops, they made it to Klamath Falls where the weather had cleared, gassed up and took off again. Halfway to Bend, they encountered another bad snow storm. When we couldn’t pilot the shaking plane any higher over the storm, he dropped below it. “I took her all the way home at 800 feet,” he proudly claims.

Over Monmouth, Lacey made two swoops above a relative’s house to let his family know he and the B-17 were okay. They landed at Troutdale Airport.

The original nose art of the bomber.
The original nose art of the bomber.

Just getting the plane across town to Milwaukie almost proved to be a tougher chore than flying it cross-country.

“The flight went clear through the State Highway Department to then Governor Snell. I never did get a permit. I finally just loaded it up on our four trucks and moved it anyway.”

His only penalty for the illegal early Saturday morning haul (2:AM) was a $10 fine in Milwaukie for an over wide load. “It was an enormous load. We took up the whole road.” Lacey admitted. “We came upon a bus on Powell and he had to run up on the curb so we could get by.”

And so the story goes…Today. Art Lacey’s dream has come true. It stands as a symbol of the courage of the men and women who served so valiantly during WWII and as a salute to the era of the propeller driven airplanes.

Keep watch – next week, I will post my interview with author Sarah Sundin, who writes WWII fiction with an emphasis on B-17s! Do not miss it!

The cockpit, as displayed in the Wings of Freedom Interpretive center.
The cockpit, as displayed in the Wings of Freedom Interpretive center.

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Community Champion at Buffer ~ writer ~ reader ~ urban homesteader ~ former rodeo queen ~ @nmillerbooks