Friday, March 2, 2012

Sioux City Sue

Sioux City Sue as she sat in 1947 at the Sioux City Airport.
This is a cautionary tale, a story of what not to do, and the loss that results from not taking proper care of things.

Sioux City Sue was a Boeing-built B-17G, serial 42-102542. Nothing that I can find is known of its war-time career, but at some point it was converted to a TB-17G trainer, likely stationed at Sioux City, Iowa. During the war, Sioux City Army Air Base was one of the primary locations for B-17 heavy bomber basic flight qualification training, and it was here that then-Captain Jimmy Stewart and his crew trained.

After the war, on November 5, 1945, the aircraft was transferred to the Reconstruction Finance Corp., an independent government agency that disposed of surplus materials. Then, in 1946, it was sold to the American Legion and set up on display as a war memorial at the Sioux City Airport.

That's where our three photos were taken. The processing dates on the back of the photos indicate that they were taken in May, 1947. The photos were taken by one of the friends of the gals shown, and the photos were then placed in a photo album with captions indicating that the plane was visited by this group of teenagers on a school "ditch day". Sometime later, some probably well-meaning person decided to update the album in the currently popular scrapbooking style. The photographs were cut up using popular specialty scissors, the backs slathered with white glue, and the prints affixed to scrapbook paper. The images were then further damaged as the album was taken apart once again. I almost passed them up. As damaged as they are, though, they still show a remarkable B-17. And so, the first lesson of the day: friends don't let friends cut up vintage photos!

What happened to the photos kind of mirrors what happened to the aircraft. While in general, it's a good thing to have a war memorial, and at the time a B-17 must have seemed like a good thing to use for the memorial, what didn't seem to be considered was how to maintain that memorial. As can clearly be seen in the photos, the plane was open to the public, and in the six years that it sat there, it was pretty thoroughly trashed. It had only been in place for about a year when these photos were taken, and already damage is evident (note, for instance, the broken plexi in the upper turret). And this is the second lesson of our story: don't let vintage aircraft just sit and rot! (I write this with the B-17 in Tulare, California in mind...though fenced off from vandals, its condition continues to deteriorate.)

An article titled “Flying Fortresses at So. St. Paul” by Noel Allard in the February 2010 edition of On Final, the newsletter of EAA Chapter 25, Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, describes what happened subsequently. “Sioux City Sue...had been derelict at the Sioux City airport for many years, and was in very bad condition. So much so that a local junk dealer would only offer $300 for it."

At this point, a man named Jack Lysdale, the owner of Lysdale Flying Service and operator of South St. Paul’s Fleming field, enters the story. Lysdale was authorized by the government to purchase and refurbish surplus aircraft from the War Assets Administration. He had already refurbished two other B-17s. Allard's article continues: "The plane was owned by the local American Legion, which had purchased it after the war and Lysdale bought it [in 1952] from them with the intention of cannibalizing it for parts. To ferry it, Lysdale had to deal with missing and torn control surfaces, five years of bird nests in every cranny, and a smashed tail caused by its being moved several times on the airport, being pushed by a bulldozer! A daunting task, but Lysdale was up to it and it soon [in 1953] arrived at South St. Paul. The plane was rebuilt in 18 months and sold for over $100,000 in 1955 to Aero Service Corp. of Philadelphia."

Also taken the same day by the kids ditching school, was this Mid-Continent
Airlines DC-3 at the Sioux City Airport
Aero Service Corp. had been around since 1919, and specialized in providing aircraft all around the world for aerial photography and geo survey work. B-17s, with their long range, stable flight characteristics and high-altitude capabilities were an ideal platform for the type of cartographic aerial photography that Aero Service performed. Sue is known to have flown in Arabia and visited the RAF base in Idris, India in August 1958. And that's where the trail goes cold. Supposedly, Sue crashed sometime later in 1958, but I can find no details of where or why. Readers, of course, are invited to comment below with any information that you may have.

Update: It has come to the attention that now even the Iowa Air National Guard is looking for is detailed in this article.

[Big tip o' the hat to Noel Allard and On Final editor Pete Gavin for permission to quote from the newsletter!]


  1. A number of years ago I happened across an old Natl Geographic magazine. One of the articles in the magazine was about the Surplus planes of WW2 being in a bone yard someplace out west. The author was walking down the rows of planes describing the "nose art" and "names" painted on them. One of the names he mention was "Sioux City Sue". Could there have been more than one "Sioux City Sue", or could this be the one your article was about? I fail to remember the year or month of the Natl Geographic magazine, but it could be of help to you as to where her final resting place was. Hopefully you can find the Natl Geographic I am speaking of?

  2. Scott, thanks for the suggestion! I'll start hunting!

  3. I recently found an old slide of a fighter plane with Sue City Sue nose art. It is a cowgirl with a six shooter on a plane with only 2 engines. There are also pics of the airbase, bombs, etc. I believe the pics were taken overseas in the late 40's or early 1950's. There must have been two planes with that name.

    1. Ray, would love to see and feature that "other" Sue's picture, if you're interested in scanning it and emailing it to me...

    2. Okay. I don't have the attachment to use on my scanner. Once I figure out a way I'll send it along. It may take a while.