Arts and Entertainment

The bomber that women built is coming



Ethel Schwartz never flew in any of the B-17 bombers she helped build during World War II as one of the infamous Rosie the Riveters.

But if she’s of a mind, the 86-year-old Des Moines woman can go aloft in one of the historical airplanes that will visit King County next week as part of a West Coast nostalgia and fund-raising tour.

Boeing Field Aug. 29-Sept. 2 is the second of 22 stops the plane –– nicknamed Aluminum Overcast –– will make. The last one will be in Albuquerque, N.M. in November.

The public can fly on the old bird for $395 a person. Ground tours cost $5 for adults, $4 for children 4 to 17 years old, or $10 for a family. Proceeds help pay for the plane’s upkeep by the national Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), which hangars it in Oshkosh, Wis.

Schwartz didn’t help build this one, but she remembers working on other B-17s with fellow Rosies at one of the Boeing plants in Seattle. Women weren’t on the battle lines of WWII, but they did their part by filling manufacturing jobs left by men who marched off to war. The women worked as riveters, electricians, welders and inspectors, building thousands of planes by the time the war ended in 1945.

Schwartz operated a crane that swung fuselage bulkheads from a balcony to the airplane assembly line.

“It was a job. I enjoyed it,” she said. “It was better than staying at home.”

She and her then-husband (they divorced before his death two years ago) tried to get hired together, but the $125 a month salary was the same as what he was making at a clothing factory, so he stayed there.

“I had to twist a supervisor’s arm to get hired. They wanted women whose husbands were away in the military,” Schwartz said.

Her starting salary was 62 and a half cents an hour. “Then the union got involved” and the Rosies began earning the same wage as men, she related.

Schwartz started working at Boeing when she was 25. She stayed for 35 years, working as an expediter in her later years.

“I was never laid off,” she said. “It was good work. I was able to raise a daughter on what I made, so I was loyal to my employer. It’s too bad that Boeing is breaking away now.”

While Schwartz never flew in a B-17, the New York native has taken trips on Boeing-built jetliners.

A turn on a B-17 is a totally different experience, said Tom Poberezny, president of EAA’s Aviation Foundation.

“This airplane represents those freedoms we cherish as a nation and the freedom of flight we enjoy as individuals,” he said.

Poberezny said the Aluminum Overcast, part of a class of planes that were called Flying Fortresses, has an interesting history. Delivered to the Army Air Corps on May 18, 1945, it arrived too late to see action in the war.

The plane’s first private owner bought it as military surplus for $750 in 1946. It was used for hauling cargo, aerial mapping and spraying insecticide and forests before being purchased in 1978 by a group of investors who wantedd to preserve the heritage of the B-17.

The plane, one of a handful still flying, has logged more than 1 million miles in the air.

Editor Pat Jenkins can be reached at 925-5565 and

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