Before Art Lacey did it, no one had ever used a WWII bomber as a gas station canopy, but Lacey knew it would attract customers
For more than six decades, the B-17 Lacey Lady was an icon of Milwaukie, Oregon, just a few miles south of Portland. Not only did the airplane “fly” above McLoughlin Boulevard, it became an instantly recognizable part of the community.
Started with a bet
Art Lacey’s daughter, Punky Scott, knows the story of her father’s wild B-17 adventure well and sat down with KATU News to tell the famous tale. It all started at a party where her father, a local businessman, bragged that he was going to put a B-17 on top of his gas station.
“Dad was at his birthday party in 1947 and I think he’d probably had a few adult beverages,” Punky said with a laugh. “A friend told him he was out of his mind and could never pull it off. Dad bet him five dollars he could do it and immediately ran with the idea. He turned to another friend, who was also at the party, and asked if he could borrow some money. Happy to help, his friend asked how much. Without batting an eyelash, Dad told him he needed fifteen thousand dollars,” Punky recalled. (Editor’s note: $15,000 in 1947 would be the equivalent of more than $160,000 today.)
“Believe it or not, the guy actually had it on him,” Punky said. “If that sounds surprising, you have to realize what Portland was like back then. The whole area was wide open. There was gambling, prostitution, illegal booze . . . everything,” she said.
Plane located in Oklahoma
After Art got the money, he wasted no time getting the ball rolling on his big plan. “He met with the commander of the Air Force Base in Altus, Oklahoma,” Punky said. “Dad was a real outgoing, personable sort of guy, and he talked him into selling a surplus B-17. The commander told him to come out the next day with his co-pilot and the plane would be ready.”
It was a good plan, except for two problems. First, Art didn’t have a co-pilot. Second, and probably more important, he didn’t know how to fly a B-17. Nonetheless, he was determined to pull it off, so he borrowed a mannequin from a local seamstress and dressed it up to be his “co-pilot.” He then hopped in the plane and made some practice runs on the runway: yoke in one hand, flight manual in the other.
“Dad knew how to fly a single-engine aircraft and he really was a good pilot,” Punky said, “but he didn’t know how to fly the big ones.” He might have been able to fake it had it not been for a malfunction in the plane’s landing gear. “He flew it around a few times and finally just had to bring it in,” Punky recalled. “He was flying low and slow before he skidded and crashed into another B-17 that was parked on the runway.”
Art wasn’t hurt in the mishap but he did have to walk back to headquarters and admit that he really didn’t know how to fly a B-17. The commander took pity on him. He turned to his secretary and asked if she'd written up the bill of sale yet. Fortunately for Art, she hadn’t.
“Worst case of wind damage I've ever seen!” the commander exclaimed, tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Accident led to better deal
Art ended up buying the second B-17, which was actually a better deal. As it turned out, the first one had seen serious time during the war and it wasn’t in the best condition before the crash. The one he finally bought was in much better shape and had fewer than 50 hours of flight time. Art had already spent more than $13,000 on the crashed B-17 and he didn’t have much money left, so the commander sold him the second plane for $1,500. Art decided it probably wasn’t a good idea for him to fly it by himself, so he lined up some buddies to help him take it home.
“He called Mom and had her send over two of his friends,” said Punky. “One was the guy who had taught him to fly. The other had served as crew chief on a B-17 during the war. He also told her to send a case of whiskey with them.”
The whiskey, Punky explained, was to bribe the local fire department. “Dad didn’t have any money left for gas and he wanted to use their fire truck pumps to siphon fuel out of the two crashed B-17s. Oklahoma was a dry state at the time, so whiskey was a good enticement,” she said.
Thus outfitted, Art and his crew fueled up and took off the next morning for Palm Springs, California. He still didn’t have the money for gas when they arrived, so he wrote a bad check and covered it when he got home.
At this point you might be wondering what Art’s wife thought of all this. Punky said her mom was pretty cool about it.
“I think Mom was used to it by that time,” she said. “Dad was pretty crazy. For their whole married life, he was just one of those people who would do anything.”
“They got lost in a snowstorm on the way home,” Punky continued, adding that her dad almost hit a mountain during the flight and even had to fly low to the ground so they could get their bearings from street signs. They finally managed to land safely in Oregon at what is now Portland-Troutdale Airport.
“They got the plane to Troutdale, dismantled it, put it on trucks, and then went to get permits to bring it to Milwaukie. The authorities refused because the shipment was too high, too long, and everything was wrong,” Punky said. By that time, however, Art Lacey was so far in debt that there was no turning back.
“Dad hired a motorcycle escort, the same kind used for funerals,” Punky recalled. “The guys were dressed in black leather and started out in the middle of the night with two teenagers riding along. He told the teenagers that if the police showed up, they were to immediately “burn rubber” in the opposite direction so the police would chase them. He told the truck drivers to keep going no matter what happened; even agreeing to pay any tickets they might incur as a result.
Punky said her dad didn’t run into any issues with the police that night, but she does remember hearing about a tipsy driver who probably got the scare of his life.
“McLoughlin Boulevard was a two-lane highway at the time and there was some guy who had been drinking,” she said. “He saw this airplane coming at him in the middle of the night and thought he had driven onto a runway. He cranked the wheel of his car and drove off into the ditch as the Lacey Lady entourage sped by.”
The plane made it to Milwaukie but it didn’t take long for local officials to figure out what happened and come after Art for not having the requisite permits. A local newspaper article helped him out.
“The Oregon Journal wrote up an article to the effect of, 'Local government tries to keep bomber from final resting place,'” Punky said. “This was right after World War II, so patriotism was running pretty high. They ended up fining him $10 and the plane has been in the area ever since.”
The Foundation sincerely thanks the news department at Portland’s ABC affiliate, KATU television, for conducting this interview. The transcript has been edited for length and to facilitate reading. ©2010 Bomber Complex, Inc.