Plastics processors helping an old bomber take flight

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Jim Johnson David Shiffer, whose family owns plastic container maker Tech II Inc., is overseeing a years-long project to restore a B-17 bomber in Urbana, Ohio.

Urbana, Ohio — Here's a story that dates back more than a decade and has years to go before being finished.

A story that involves lots of metal, but plastics play a central role.

A story about how one family, and then hundreds of volunteers, have come together to support an effort to keep a part of American — and world — history alive.

Dave Shiffer is the kind of guy who will quickly brush aside any credit for the ongoing B-17 bomber restoration project taking place in Urbana. He makes it clear that this effort is beyond both him and his family.

But the truth is his family, which owns plastics processor Tech II Inc., has been central to the project from the beginning.

It was the Shiffer family that committed to buying B-17 parts in 2005 to serve as the basis for the project.

And Shiffer, today, serves as executive director of the Champaign Aviation Museum at Grimes Field Airport, where the project is housed.

That's where tens of thousands of hours have been logged by more than 300 volunteers over the years who are interested in seeing the plane dubbed the Champaign Lady someday take to the skies.

"It's such an iconic airplane, famous from World War II, that people want to volunteer to get them flying. We thought if we could get a few volunteers. That was the plan," Shiffer remembered.

Also known at the Flying Fortress, the B-17 helped defeat Germany by making daylight bombing runs from England. And one day, the plane will fly the skies of Urbana.

This story of how such a restoration project ended up in a tiny Ohio town, like all other stories, has a beginning. And it's tragic.

It was Shiffer's father who originally got the call about taking on the airplane project. Jerry Shiffer had enjoyed being able to ride in a restored B-17 that had flown into Urbana in 2005. Aviation is important to the family, and Jerry often ​ would use his own private plane to make customer calls for Tech II.

A crew member of that working B-17 later contacted Jerry Shiffer with a proposal. He had another B-17 project looking for a home.

"As a family, we decided to purchase the project and we thought this would be a good project communitywide," Dave Shiffer remembered.

"In 2005, the family, including my dad, committed to buying the project and getting it started. When pieces were just starting to arrive at the Grimes Field Airport, he was on a flight, he was the pilot, and crashed and died on the very day the first B-17 pieces were coming here," Shiffer said.

"We spent that night with no knowledge of his whereabouts. His airplane hadn't arrived at its destination," he said. "The next morning, they found the airplane crashed."

The death of Jerry Shiffer put the family at a crossroads, not only for the airplane project, but for the plastics business as well.

"At Tech II, my dad was the entrepreneur that started the darn thing. So we had two discussions: What do we do with the company and what do we do with the B-17 project," Shiffer said.

The answer, for both, was to keep going.

"We're starting this project basically from scratch. We got in some pieces that needed to be rebuilt from five different serial numbered airplanes. The project started in January 2006, so we've been going for over 10 years now. We will have it completed in the next six or seven years, hopefully. This is a flying project. We are building this to fly," Shiffer said.

Jim Johnson More than 300 volunteers have worked on the restoration of the Champaign Lady over the past decade or so, and there are years of effort that remain.

'Four piles of junk'

Volunteer Tom Printz remembered when the old parts first arrived years ago — "about four piles of junk," he said. "It's come a long way in the last 10 years. We've got a lot of dedicated guys coming here."

The Champaign Lady will be the 11th restored B-17 in the world to fly, Shiffer said.

But restoring the airplane is as painstaking as it sounds. Thanks to a copy of a set of original design drawings, volunteers are able to reconstruct the airplane, carefully making their own parts in the museum.

Dick Bidlack is one of the many volunteers who works on the plane.

"I've got airplanes in my blood. I'm a retired pilot, flew for 42 years," he said, first as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot and then as a general aviation pilot.

"Just being a part of this whole project, to me, as a person who made his living as a pilot, it's fun to be with the guys," he said. "I've been around airplanes all my life."

To understand the interest in the project is to understand this corner of southwest Ohio. Not far from Grimes Field is Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which employs thousands of Air Force and civilian workers. Interest in aviation, thanks to Dayton's rich history with Wilbur and Orville Wright, can be intense.

Schools have aviation-themed nicknames, and employees and retirees from the base are seemingly everywhere. Military aircraft, sometimes massive, are a common sight as they conduct training in the local skies. And the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is located at Wright-Patterson, home to maybe the most famous B-17, the Memphis Belle.

The Urbana B-17 is not owned by the Shiffer family, despite all the financial support it has given the project over the years.

"It's owned by the museum. It's owned by the community. This is a nonprofit museum. Where we've gotten to is really a huge success. It's because of the volunteers. It's because of the connection of the veterans that come. Just the emotion you see on their faces when they see basically a new B-17 sitting on the floor here," Shiffer said.

Shiffer's work as executive director is to see that life runs smoothly on the project and at the museum. He's not turning wrenches these days, but instead focuses on the administrative tasks needed to keep the project and the museum open.

That includes funding. "We're always looking for donations," he said. "My role is a support role. The volunteers are the ones who are doing a lot of the heavy lifting."

Shiffer splits most days between Tech II, where he oversees quality control, and the museum.

The mornings are spent with plastics, walking the plant floor at two locations near Springfield, Ohio, solving problems and keeping customers happy. Afternoons, typically, are at the museum located in Champaign County. His brother Eric Shiffer serves as president of Tech II.

Jim Johnson Mark Breon typically volunteers a couple of days a week to help rebuild the B-17 bomber, working on inner wing structures.

'Everyone said we were crazy'

"We asked experts, people who were in the business who had done restorations, and everyone said we were crazy. That's what we were up against," Dave Shiffer remembered.

"What we found was the impact that this airplane has on people is huge. The volunteers who came, the people who wanted to be involved and help in any way we could. The support, financially, from the community," he said.

Mark Breon is one of those volunteers.

"It's an amazing thing that there's something of this scope in Urbana. You would think this is big city stuff," he said. "It's not just a static display. It's going to fly."

High school students from a local aviation maintenance program also help as part of their education. And that element of the project is very important to the Shiffer family.

"One of the things that Dad was always a cheerleader for was training people. He loved teaching kids, young people, people starting out on their journey in their career, teaching them skills," Dave Shiffer said.

"He was just a cheerleader for getting young people knowledge about what's out there and then training. In the company, he was always trying to train people and having training classes for new hires."

Despite the family's close ties to aviation, Dave Shiffer really does not view the B-17 as a legacy for his family or his father. After all, the old parts were only starting to arrive when Jerry Shiffer passed away. The project has developed over time.

"I would think he would enjoy and be excited and certainly appreciate where we are today and obviously be involved," he said about his father and the airplane work. "Tech II is a legacy. When I think about Tech II, carrying on something that he loved and started, that's the connection."

Restoration experts estimated it would take about 80,000 man hours to rebuilt the B-17, but the project is already at about twice that amount and counting.

The museum features several other airplanes as well as donated flight-related memorabilia, including a fully restored B-25 bomber and a static C-47 that was last used as a cargo plane in Alaska.

"You just don't see this every day. It's something special," volunteer Bill Heater said.