Of the more than 10,000 B-17 Flying Fortresses built during the World War II era, probably fewer than 10 of the iconic bombers are currently air-worthy. A Pioneer Electric Cooperative family, with the help of their community and a host of volunteers, hopes to add one more to the list.
The Shiffer family’s passion for aviation started decades ago. Jerry Shiffer and his sons, Eric and Dave, all private pilots, often supported local aviation projects. When a fully restored Flying Fortress, Liberty Belle, made a stop at Grimes Field Urbana Municipal Airport in July 2005, the Shiffers were among those who flew in the historic plane. They relished the experience.
It wasn’t long after the Liberty Belle left Grimes Field that Tom Reilly, who had led restoration efforts on the plane and brought it to Grimes Field, contacted the airport looking for someone to lead another B-17 restoration project. The Shiffer family jumped at the chance.
Unfortunately, Jerry would never see the project begin. On Nov. 29, 2005, the day the first B-17 parts were expected to arrive in Urbana, Jerry was flying solo to Montana for a ski trip when his plane crashed short of its destination. The family, including his wife, Leah; Dave and Eric; and their sister, Andrea, chose to push forward — not only in Jerry’s memory, but as a way to honor all those who fought to protect the United States. It was, perhaps, a bit more than they bargained for.
“Parts were sent on a flatbed truck,” says Dave Shiffer. “It literally looked like someone had taken an airplane and chopped it up into pieces and smashed it all together.”
The Shiffers knew they couldn’t do the work all by themselves. So, in January 2006, they placed an ad in the Urbana and Springfield newspapers requesting volunteers to help. On the day of the first volunteer meeting, 30 people showed — and interest has only continued to grow.
The family eventually decided to make the B-17 project, now known as Champaign Lady, part of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and the Champaign Aviation Museum was born in 2007. Located at Grimes Field, the museum showcases multiple World War II-era airplanes and paraphernalia.
“All money for the museum comes from donations, most often from visitors, volunteers, and businesses,” says Dave Shiffer, who currently serves as the museum’s executive director. “Those who donate might have a dad, grandfather, or great-uncle who fought in WWII, especially those with a connection to someone who flew in a Flying Fortress.”
Shiffer says the museum’s 110 volunteers are primarily from Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Kentucky — but some travel even farther.
“We’ve had someone come from England for two weeks during the summer for his vacation, and someone from California brought a camper and stayed for a few weeks to work on the B-17,” says Shiffer.
Although many of the museum’s dedicated volunteers have an aviation background or a connection to someone who fought in WWII, it’s certainly not a requirement.
“I thought it would be a neat project to help with,” says Ron Faulkner, another Pioneer Electric Cooperative member, who has been volunteering for six years. “I’ve never done anything with aviation, but it’s a fun project and I’m a people person, so I enjoy getting to know the other volunteers.”
For Duane Engel, a Pioneer member and board trustee, the project has ignited his interest in updating his pilot’s license. Engel, who has been an active volunteer for more than a year, has been amazed by the connections he’s made with the other volunteers.
“It’s like a big family — volunteers come from all over the place with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests,” Engel says. “I enjoy the people and the opportunity to rebuild history.”
In 2010, the Shiffers decided to make sure the museum would continue to grow and evolve, so the organization formed an independent board of directors. The eight directors come from all around Ohio.
Even with the shift to a board, though, Leah, Andrea, Eric, and Dave Shiffer remain involved, and as they hoped, the museum continues to expand. A capital campaign is underway to build a second hangar to provide additional space to contain all the WWII aircraft in one area. Nearly 10,000 individuals visit the museum annually.
Shiffer refers to the Champaign Lady project as a labor of love, estimating that the B-17 project has another four to five years of work before it will be completed.
“Not too many people get this close to these kinds of planes on a daily basis,” Dave Shiffer says. “I once had someone tell me, ‘You get to come out here and play with WWII airplanes — you’re living the dream.'”