A Marengo man has spent decades rebuilding a B-17 bomber in his barn

If, as they say, anything worth doing takes time, then what Mike Kellner is doing must really be worth it.

Nearly 40 years ago, Kellner bought a B-17 bomber. Actually, he purchased pieces of the plane. And he's been painstakingly putting it back together ever since.

"By the time I was 18, my dream was to fly one of these, and nobody would let me," said Kellner, who earned his pilot's license at 16 and grew up admiring the plane in the TV military drama "12 O'Clock High."

"So when I found this chopped-up one in Maine, I thought, 'Oh, we can put that back together.' I honestly didn't think it would take this long."

'They thought we were nuts'

When Kellner found his plane, dubbed the "Desert Rat," it was anything but a Flying Fortress.

  Mike Kellner said he wanted to rebuild a B-17 because no one would let him fly one. His journey to remake the Desert Rat began in 1984. Rick West/

The B-17E was in a long-closed, overgrown auto junkyard in Maine. He bought it for scrap metal prices in 1984 - just over $7,000.

Then it took him five or six years to get all the pieces to Illinois.

"It was a scrapped airplane," he said. "So it was all chopped into 8-foot pieces. At the time, they thought we were nuts."

He started with a complete - albeit cutup - airframe. It had no engines or props and a gutted interior.

Initially, he stored it at Galt Airport in Wonder Lake. But that got expensive. So in 1995, he moved from Crystal Lake to a property he bought in Marengo. He then built a pole barn where the plane is steadily progressing toward becoming airworthy.

Kellner works off blueprints and assembly drawings he's collected over the years.

"We've come a long way," he said. "But there's still a lot of detail yet to do with it."

The fuselage is pretty well completed, but work on the wings is delayed while structural support tubes are being machined in Germany.

  Mike Kellner has 10 engines for his B-17. The plane needs four, but he's making sure he has plenty of parts. This one came off a crashed B-17 in Alaska. Rick West/

He has acquired 10 engines for the spare parts required to make the four engines the plane needs.

Most of the internal structure of the plane is original, though some big, load-bearing pieces are new.

"We're still looking for some things. You'll never have it all," Kellner said. "We're still missing a couple of seats and a few turret parts."

Many of the parts are purchased, built or acquired by trading with other vintage warbird enthusiasts. There's not much left to salvage in the wild, Kellner said, aside from some underwater wrecks and a couple in New Guinea.

"It pretty much takes an act of Congress to get any further salvage done," he said.

Over the years, he's traveled coast to coast to salvage parts from wrecks, even going to Hawaii a couple of times to recover parts from a wreck out there.

'Saving a piece of history'

While the B-17 is remembered as the plane that bombed German cities to rubble in World War II, the "Desert Rat" never flew a combat mission.

Kellner's plane, serial number 41-2595, was built by Boeing in Seattle. It was delivered in 1942 and immediately used for training by the 97th Bomb Group at MacDill Field near Tampa, Florida.

By 1944 it had been stripped of its guns and converted into a transport plane. The plane's last operational flight was in December 1945 before it was authorized for salvage.

Of the nearly 13,000 that were built, Kellner said, only 47 B-17s remain - from museum quality down to what he found in a scrap yard.

None of them are currently flying, he said, though one is close. Several are considered airworthy but are undergoing restoration or repairs.

Several B-17s have been lost in the last dozen years, including the B-17 Texas Raiders, which collided midair with a fighter plane and crashed during the Wings Over Dallas air show in 2022, the Nine-O-Nine, which crashed in Connecticut in 2019, and the Liberty Belle, which was forced to land in an Oswego cornfield in 2011 after an in-air fire, which ultimately destroyed the plane.

"Originally, I did this for the veterans who flew these," Kellner said. "But now a lot of it is about saving a piece of history."

A full-time commitment

Kellner, who previously worked in construction, devotes about eight hours a day, six days a week, to the B-17 project, though he spends some of that time doing freelance jobs on plane parts for other people.

He said he's never tried to figure out how much time or money he's spent.

"Too much paperwork, and I'm not sure I want to know," he said. "I have a couple of briefcases full of receipts. But it doesn't bother me that I don't know."

He's financing the project on his own but is always hoping to attract sponsors or donations to help. He also accepts the help of volunteers.

  Volunteers who have put in considerable time helping Mike Kellner rebuild his B-17 have their names stenciled on the plane. Rick West/

Chris Gibson of Algonquin has been volunteering for the past decade. He comes out to Marengo six days a week to help.

"My dad was a tail gunner in a B-17, so I've always loved it," he said.

Gibson met Kellner many years before he had time to volunteer but always kept his card.

"Once my kids were out of the house and I had more time for myself," Gibson said, "I decided to come out here and take a look at what he had."

He started by coming out a couple of days a week but about five years ago he started helping full time.

"It's something that should be kept for future generations," Gibson said.

  Mike Kellner of Marengo has been rebuilding a B-17 in his barn for over 30 years. He bought the skeleton of it for the price of scrap metal in 1984. He hopes to have it up in the air in about five years. Rick West/

'A whole life of work'

Kellner says he hopes the plane will be airworthy in five years. But he initially thought it would take him 10 to 15 years to finish the restoration. He's 20 years beyond that.

"We keep saying we'd like to get it done in five years," he said. "But that will take more money than we currently have. It could be done in two or three years if we had adequate funds."

Once the work is done, the plane must pass inspections and get an airworthiness certificate.

When the plane goes up for the first time, Kellner won't be flying it.

"I hope to be on it," he said. "But I want the best flying it."

Kellner will find test pilots to take it up once it's cleared to fly. While he's a licensed pilot, he's not yet certified to fly the B-17. Acquiring and rebuilding the Desert Rat has opened some doors for him to fly other B-17s over the years. He has about a dozen hours of flight time so far.

  Mike Kellner of Marengo has been rebuilding a B-17 in his barn for over 30 years. He bought the skeleton of it for the price of scrap metal in 1984. He hopes to have it up in the air in about 5 years. Rick West/

Ultimately, he hopes to take the plane on an air show tour around the country as well as get a historic ride certificate to take people up for a fee to offset some of the costs.

How will the first flight be?

"It will probably be scary," he said with a bit of nervous laughter. "I mean, you've got a whole life of work. But everything's a risk."

Anyone interested in sponsoring the B-17 project or volunteering can reach Kellner via the plane's Facebook page (search B-17 Desert Rat restoration) or via email at

B-17: Marengo man says he won't be first to fly restored plane

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