"If you had to pick an airplane that would attract the public attention, the B-17 is the one to pick," says the 61-year-old Drain, whose father was a radio operator on a Flying Fortress during the war. Drain now teaches a class on aviation occupations at a local vocational school and brings his students to help out with the project, which can be inspected by visitors any time the museum is open.
More than 12,700 B-17s were built for the war effort, most of them pressed into service for daylight precision bombing raids on industrial targets in occupied Europe from small bases in England between 1942 and 1945. It was harrowing duty that claimed the lives of two out of three young men — their average age was 20 — who served on the storied planes.
After the war, many B-17s were unceremoniously left to rust in scrap yards or pressed into other service. Around 40 are left around the world today, with fewer than a dozen in flying condition.
Coincidentally, history's most celebrated B-17 — Memphis Belle — is currently being restored about 40 miles away at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force near Dayton. The Belle got the royal treatment from the military brass in 1943 after becoming one of the first B-17s to survive the required 25 missions at a time when American bombers were suffering heavy losses. Museum spokesman Rob Bardua says public display of the plane is still years away, although behind-the-scenes tours allow visitors to see the restoration work.
The fact that the Memphis Belle and other B-17s at the much-larger Air Force museum will never leave the ground again motivates the Urbana museum crew even more in their quest to make the Champaign Lady a flying example.
"There was never a decision to make. When we started the project, it was to make it fly," says Dave Shiffer, whose ride aboard a touring B-17 with his father and brother in 2005 eventually led to the B-17 project and the founding of the nonprofit museum.