Michigan Flight Museum Sells Centerpiece B-17 ‘Yankee Lady’

Proceeds from the sale of the World War II bomber will be invested into support of the aviation museum.

B-17 ‘Yankee Lady’ [Credit: Robert C. Gerard-Night]

Yankee Lady, the Boeing B-17G often referred to as the star of the Michigan Flight Museum, is going to a new home. 

Since the 1980s, the grand lady of the air has been a centerpiece of the museum that was formerly known at the Yankee Air Museum located in Belleville, Michigan, at Willow Run Airport (KYIP).

The museum's name change and the sale of the aircraft are not related, according to president and CEO Kevin Walsh.

"The new name was rebranding and we thought ‘flight’ [was] more enticing than ‘air’ to the general public," Walsh said.

Walsh declined to identify Yankee Lady's new owner or its selling price but did say the decision  was made in the best interest of both the aircraft and museum. 

Over the past 40 years, the museum had come to rely on the ride revenue generated by the airplane, creating an "almost unhealthy relationship," Walsh said. "Instead, the money from the sale will be invested, and the museum will be supported by those investments."

Walsh also addressed the sale in a letter to the aviation community.

"After evaluating the future of the aircraft and its role in our organization, the board of directors unanimously has determined the museum is no longer the best option for continuing as its caretaker,” he said in the letter. “Furthermore, it was determined by the board of directors that now is the time to entrust this beautiful aircraft’s future to another caretaker."

[Credit: Eric Dumigan]

The museum's flight adventure program features the B-17, the North American B-25D Rosie's Reply, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain Hairless Joe, and a Bell UH-1 Iroquois "Huey" helicopter. Maintenance on these vintage aircraft can be time-consuming and expensive, and keeping them on the ground interrupts the museum’s revenue stream.

"Simply put, interruptions in its revenue stream due to the aircraft’s inability to participate in our flight program have become hardships for the museum,” Walsh said in the letter. “In other words, we don’t feel the museum can ensure her flying future to the extent we feel is appropriate for an historical artifact of her importance and rarity.

"This was a difficult and emotional decision for all concerned, but it was deemed appropriate to ensure the future well-being of the aircraft and museum. The Yankee Lady (44-85829) is headed to a new home and new owner who has the resources to ensure her preservation and flyability for decades to come."

Walsh assured museum patrons that the flight program will continue. In addition to the museum's B-25, C-47, and Huey, in 2025 the museum will be adding a Ford TriMotor nicknamed Tin Goose, which has been undergoing restoration since 2020.

Walsh has been with the museum for about 27 years. He began as a volunteer and is a self-described warbird enthusiast. He noted both he and the museum board are keenly aware of how few airworthy B-17s are left in the world and how the ones remaining need to be cared for.

When there is an accident involving a B-17, the cry goes up to ground them, and the response to keep them flying is equally loud. In the past 10 years, there have been three dramatic and, sadly, deadly events involving B-17s.

In 2014, the B-17 Liberty Belle (44-85734/44-85813) was lost due to an in-flight engine fire. There was no loss of life due to the skill of the crew as it performed an off-airport landing in a cornfield. The aircraft might have been saved had the firetrucks been able to reach it, but the ground was too soft for the heavy trucks to navigate.

In 2019, the Collings Foundation’s B-17 Nine-Oh-Nine (42-31909) crashed on landing, killing both pilots and five passengers. Six passengers and one person on the ground were injured when the aircraft, suffering a loss of power in both engines, landed hard then slid up over a deicing tank and burst into flames. 

In the final accident report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cited the pilot's failure to "properly manage the airplane's configuration and airspeed following a loss of engine power." The NTSB also cited “the pilot/maintenance director’s inadequate maintenance while the airplane was on tour, which resulted in the partial loss of power to the Nos. 3 and 4 engines; the Collings Foundation’s ineffective safety management system (SMS), which failed to identify and mitigate safety risks; and the Federal Aviation Administration’s inadequate oversight of the Collings Foundation’s SMS.”

In November 2022, Texas Raiders (44-83872) was lost in a midair collision with a Bell P-63 Kingcobra during the Wings Over Dallas Airshow. According to widely published video, the P-63 comes from behind the B-17 as if to overtake it, but as the smaller airplane's belly was facing the B-17, it was physically impossible for the pilot to see the larger airplane. The P-63 collided with the B-17, slicing it in half just behind the wing. Six men—five on board the B-17, the other in the P-63, were killed. The accident is still under investigation.

Walsh noted that although none of these events are related, they are triggering to many people and drive home the point of how rare these aircraft—which once numbered more than 12,000—are now that only a handful remain airworthy.

"There are just five that could fire up the engines and taxi down to the end of the runway for takeoff," he said. "They are Yankee Lady, Ye Olde Pub (44-8453), belonging to Erickson Aircraft, Sentimental Journey (44-85314), belonging to the Commemorative Air Force, the movie [version of the] Memphis Belle (44-83546) in Southern California, and Sally B (44-85784) over in Europe."

The Experimental Aircraft Association's B-17 Aluminum Overcast (44-85740) and the Mid America Flight Museum's Thunderbird (44-83718) have been down for maintenance for several months for issues related to a spar inspection.

Yankee Lady will be leaving Michigan in a few weeks to head to its new home. In the meantime, the Michigan Flight Museum is preparing for the annual Thunder Over Michigan airshow. This year the event is scheduled for July 20-21, the weekend before EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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