A small army of volunteers have descended outside of Tulare on a mission to restore and bring a piece of history back to glory: “Preston’s Pride,” a World War II-era Boeing B-17 bomber that has sat along Highway 99 for decades.
Thundering four-engine heavy bombers, the B-17 aircraft was known as the fabled “Flying Fortress.” They quickly became an icon of World War II, gaining a steadfast reputation for their reliability, endurance and staggering offensive resilience in battle.
World War II General Carl Spaatz once said “Without the B-17 we may have lost the war.”
Volunteers from the organization B-17 Archeology came to Mefford Field from across the country, including North Carolina, South Carolina, Indiana, Oregon, Las Vegas and Southern California. They’re all B-17 buffs, dedicated to saving the old warbirds.
Finished on May 18, 1945, this particular plane at Mefford Field was built too late to see action during World War II, but it played an important role in post-war history. It served as a control plane for 12 other B-17s used as drones – remotely controlled by this “mother ship” during “Operation Crossroads,” a 1946 investigation into the effect of nuclear weapons on warships.
This fleet of B-17s tested fallout from nuclear explosions detonated above a target fleet of ships in the Marshall Islands that were to be scrapped.
This B-17 was retired until August of 1958 when Tulare resident General Maurice A. Preston, a former commander of the 379th Bomb Group and B-17 pilot, was able to acquire it and fly it into Tulare. Henceforth, it was named “Preston’s Pride.”
Preston’s Pride has become a landmark, sitting alongside Highway 99 at Mefford Field, as a memorial to the residents of Tulare County who served in World War II. But decades of exposure to the elements, not to mention three accidents involving vehicles veering off the highway, striking and damaging it, have taken a toll.
B-17 Archeology’s Greg Stathatos said that weather has oxidized the aluminum skin of the plane, along with rivets that have given way – resulting in rusting components, leaking windows, and paint that has long faded.
The plane’s condition was “less than satisfactory, actually very poor,” according to Stathatos. The volunteers, armed with generator-powered buffers and rubbing compound, have attacked the plane’s exterior panels with gusto, exposing the gleaming aluminum for the first time in 60 years .
Though Preston’s Pride will not be restored to flying condition, the group’s goal will be achieved in the next week, when final polishing will be done and glory will be restored to the old plane. The original paint scheme from its drone days will be redone, along with some structural repairs.
The cost to renovate the plane thus far has been around $90,000, and that’s expected to rise to around $120,000 by completion. Stathatos said all of those funds were raised from donations, including from sale of items like commemorative hats and shirts. He added that many businesses and World War II buffs have donated items, time and energy to bring the restoration to fruition.
This plane “will always be known as Preston’s Pride; it’s just going to be shiny and clean, and pay tribute to the atomic testing it took part in,” Stathatos said
Visitors are welcome to come by and see history being preserved in the work on “Preston’s Pride” from April 27-30 and May 9-11. A dedication and ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place at 10 a.m. May 12 with B-17 Archeology. Sponsors include AmVets, the Tulare Chamber of Commerce, Tulare Rotary Club and the Tulare Historical Museum.