Flak-Bait lived up to its name during the war. It sustained hits on almost every mission, once having its hydraulics shot out, and twice losing its electrical system to German 88mm guns. On two other sorties, it returned home on only a single engine.
By war’s end, the bomber endured more than 1,000 strikes. Not a single panel on it had gone unscathed.
After the war, it was disassembled and shipped in crates to the National Air and Space Museum’s storage facility in Washington D.C. It remained in storage for decades, its name and history largely forgotten to current generations of bomber aircrew. Eventually the nose section of “Flak Bait” was displayed in the National Air and Space Museum’s Building on the Mall in Washington, DC, and was placed at the entrance to Gallery 205, the World War II Hall, when that opened in 1976.
Preservation of the original Flak-Bait started a few years ago at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.
As told by Alan F. Crouchman in his book Flak-Bait The Only American Aircraft to Survive 200 Bombing Missions during the Second World War, the story of the restoration process is deserving of its own detailed account; suffice to say that this will result in the most original restoration ever accomplished. No components, no matter how small, are being replaced unless it is absolutely necessary. Some of the interior padding and insulation have rotted away, and these will need replacing, but all the original metal fixings will be incorporated.
The restoration team, under the curator of American military aviation, Jeremy Kinney, consists of team leader Pat Robinson, along with museum specialist Chris Moore and conservators Lauren Horelick and Malcolm Collum, all of whom are working at conserving this unique airframe in as near an original condition as is possible, the latter two concentrating on the paintwork and researching ways to stabilize it from further deterioration, borrowing processes normally seen in the restoration of valuable pieces of art.
Even the original fabric from the control surfaces is being preserved. The structures are being covered in Ceconite, and then the original is meticulously overlaid onto this, with any resultant gaps being carefully blended in.
During the restoration process, a number of interesting discoveries have been made on the airframe. On the internal bulkheads were pasted several paper clock faces; these are believed to have been used so that crew members could call out the relevant positions of approaching enemy aircraft.
When the rear fuselage flooring was removed, among the residue of mud and dirt there were many spent wooden matches and cigarette butts (smoking having been allowed on USAAF aircraft at the pilot’s s discretion), no doubt offering some slight relief from the stress of flying combat missions. Also in this area were four spent 0.50 shell casings, of 1942 manufacture, that had probably been fired from the waist position at some point in time. In the area along the seam between the bomb bay doors, among the dirt and grime that had accumulated there, they found examples of Wrigley’s gum wrappers, remnants of chaff shavings, and bomb tags.
When the wooden flooring under the radio operators seat was lifted, a previously undiscovered piece of German flak was found to be buried within it. Although it will not be visible once the aircraft is on display, it has been decided to leave the piece in situ to preserve the total accuracy of the airframe—a tangible reminder of the very many flak hits that she took (as told above some sources say that she took as many as 1,000 hits by flak fragments or eta damage) in the course of her remarkable combat career.
When the nose section was placed on display in the Mall, the upper and lower surfaces were painted in olive drab and gray to clean up the appearance of the aircraft. The upper surface paint has been carefully removed, revealing the original weathered appearance, but the gray lower surfaces have not been attended to at the time of writing and may present more of a challenge in ensuring that the original bomb symbols are not compromised in any way.
The restoration and preservation work is expected to last until late 2025 or early 2026; to many this may seem an inordinate amount of time, but this process is not simply a case of bolting her back together, but of inspecting every component and analyzing the flaking and chipped paintwork and finding a way of stabilizing it for the future, and ensuring that any corrosion that is found is treated, thereby ensuring her preservation for future generations to admire and enjoy and to find ways to ensure that any remedial work retains a battle-weary and aged appearance, so as to blend in with the rest of the airframe.
Flak-Bait The Only American Aircraft to Survive 200 Bombing Missions during the Second World War is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
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