The B-17 is one of the most iconic aircraft ever made. A surprising number survive today, but none are older than The Swoose. The Swoose is one of only 42 B-17Ds ever made, and was built before the US had even entered the war.
It set speed records, carried a future US president, and is likely the only B-17 to have served from before the US entered the Second World War to after it had ended.
The Swoose is not only unique for its age though – it is the only surviving B-17 with the early “shark fin” tail, which only around 130 were ever built with, out of a total production of nearly 13,000.
Why the B-17D is Special
The Swoose is special because it is a B-17D. The B-17D was the third production variant of the B-17, after the B and C models, but this was still very early in the B-17’s history. In fact, only 42 B-17Ds were built, along with another 80 B and C models.
These three early variants are very different to the later models most are familiar with. Most notably, they all came with a smaller tail, the so-called “shark fin”, which was part of the B-17’s original design.
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This was quickly removed from the design and was replaced by a larger tail fin, which reduced rudder stalling.
The B-17D was the last model to have the shark fin tail. All B-17s from the E onwards had the newer, larger tail.
In addition, the B-17D had a very different armament scheme. It did not have a tail gunner or a dorsal turret unlike later models, and even lacked the famous ball turret.
Instead, the lower rear portion of the aircraft was covered by .50 caliber machine guns in a semi-fixed “bathtub” on the bomber’s belly.
At the waist positions the B-17D had blisters, similar to those found on the PBY Catalina. In total it only had seven .50 caliber machine guns, compared to 13 in later models.
No other B-17Bs, Cs, or Ds survive today, making The Swoose the only B-17 to have these rarer features.
The Swoose’s History
The Swoose was built in April 1941 at Boeing’s plant in Seattle, and was 38th of a total B-17D production run of 42. It was such an early model that it was built eight months before the United States had even entered the war.
It was given the serial number 40-3097, and flew to Hickam Field on Hawaii just weeks after its construction.
In September 1941, The Swoose, along with nine other B-17s, began a huge ferry flight across the Pacific to the Philippines. This was in response to increasing Japanese military movements in the Pacific.
The Swoose was part of the first flight of B-17s to land on Australia. They arrived on the Philippines on September 12.
Two months later, on December 7, 1941, Japan attacked the US at Pearl harbour and pulled the nation into the war. Many B-17s were destroyed during the attacks – which occurred across the Pacific – but The Swoose, then known as “Ole Betsy”, survived.
The very next day The Swoose carried out a reconnaissance mission, which may be the the United States’ first combat mission of the war. A few days later, the aircraft participated in the first American night time bombing mission.
Near the end of 1941, The Swoose and other aircraft left the Philippines and transferred to Java in Indonesia. From here she carried out more bombing missions against the Japanese, who were making considerable ground in the region.
The Swoose’s last combat mission came on January 11, 1942, where she was tasked with hitting Japanese forces near Borneo. However, the flight of bombers were separated by a powerful storm, resulting in only three of the B-17s reaching the target.
On its return home The Swoose was attacked and damaged by three Japanese A6M Zeros, but the B-17’s crew claimed to have brought down two of them.
A few weeks later The Swoose was flown to Australia for a major overhaul, which would come to define this particular B-17 more than any of its combat missions.
During this overhaul, the aircraft’s tail was repaired using components from another B-17D. Some sources state that the entire tail section was replaced. Regardless, pilot Captain Weldon Smith from the 19th Bomb Group gave it the nickname “The Swoose”, after the song “Alexander the Swoose”, which is about a bird that is half swan, half goose, known as a “swoose”.
But despite these repairs The Swoose’s frontline days were coming to an end, with it being retired from combat duty in March 1942. It returned to the United States that year.
It was then used as a high-speed personal VIP transport for Lt. General George H. Brett, the air commander under Douglas MacArthur. During its time as a passenger transport the aircraft racked up some serious mileage, setting a few point-to-point speed records as it did so.
It carried some notable passengers too, including future US president Lt. Commander Lyndon B. Johnson.
In 1944 an inspection revealed that the three year old and well-used airframe was cracked and corroded. This would need extensive and costly repairs that weren’t worth it on the outdated aircraft.
However its pilot, Jack Crane, didn’t give up on The Swoose, managing to source replacement parts and get them shipped in. With this, the aircraft received a full overhaul that cost more than its value when new.
It remained in use until war’s end, making it one of the only (perhaps even the only) B-17 to have served continuously from Pearl Harbour to the end of the war. It was finally retired in December of 1945, and General Brett flew the old bomber himself to New Mexico, where it was to then be processed for scrapping.
And that should have been the end of The Swoose’s story; simply one B-17 among thousands, each with their own stories to tell, that were unceremoniously melted down for scrap.
But The Swoose got lucky and managed to avoid this fate, thanks to the efforts one of its former pilots, Frank Kurtz.
Rescue from the Scrapper
He convinced the City of Los Angeles to accept the aircraft as a war memorial, and flew it to the city’s airport in early 1946.
After a few years outside the aircraft still hadn’t received a permanent home, so the city donated it to the National Air Museum in Washington D.C.
The Swoose, with Kurtz at the controls, was then flown to a storage facility in Illinois. It was flown again in 1952 to yet another storage facility, this time in Texas.
Its final flight came in 1953, when it was flown to Andrews AFB for longer-term storage.
By this point its age and time outside had taken a toll on this old girl, and she limped into Andrews on only three engines. Sadly she would remain outside for the next six years until 1961, when she was transported by truck to a Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM) storage facility in Maryland.
Preservation and Restoration
By the time the aircraft came into the hands of the NASM it was in quite poor shape. It had been damaged by the elements, and some parts had been removed by souvenir hunters. But it was still a mostly complete, original aircraft.
It remained as it was until 2008, when it was moved to the National Museum of the United States Air Force (USAF Museum) in Drayton, Ohio.
When it received The Swoose, the USAF Museum faced a difficult decision on how best to care for it. Should it be returned to flight? Should it simply be preserved? Or should it be restored for static display?
And if it was to be restored, what period of The Swoose’s life would it represent? When it was built? During its time in Hawaii? Australia? Or as General Brett’s personal transport?
During its many overhauls, it gained a number modifications unique to this plane, and it also still has many of its original markings present.
As a result, the USAF Museum decided it was best to present The Swoose as it was when it was retired, allowing the aircraft to retain all of its character gained through the unique additions it received throughout its life.
If it was to portray an earlier time, they would have to remove these additional parts, discarding much of this aircraft’s story.
The museum aims to both restore and conserve The Swoose; keeping whatever original parts they can, and only restoring the parts that need repairs for “structural integrity and exhibit-worthiness”.
Today The Swoose is stored in parts at the USAF Museum.
While the results of its restoration are yet to be seen, we are just relieved that this story ends with the aircraft saved, and in the ownership of a museum that can properly care for it.