Belle of the Bomber
Art Lacey's daughter and family have plans as big as their patriarch's warplane legacy
The Bomber, a World War II B-17G whose wings once sheltered what reputedly was the Portland area's busiest gas station, has been a landmark on Oregon Highway 99E in Milwaukie since 1947.
The gas station closed in 1986, but the B-17 remains, the marker for the Bomber Complex Inc., which includes Lacey's Bomber Restaurant and a thriving catering business, as well as a lock shop, an espresso stand and an apartment complex. A garden center currently operates beneath the airplane.
The nose section of the bomber, gleaming and fully restored, occupies a place of pride in the Wings of Freedom Showcase, also part of the complex. Exhibits at the small but well-furnished museum focus not only on the bomber but also on the men and women who served in World War II.
Art Lacey, who died in late 2000, bought the bomber in 1947 from an airplane boneyard in Oklahoma. He flew it to Portland, convinced that the plane, with its 103-foot wingspan, would make an excellent gas station canopy.
Lacey's only child, daughter Ardine 'Punky' Scott, says her father was a promoter and entrepreneur who viewed the warplane as an advertising device, rather than the artifact it has become.
More than 12,000 B-17s ÑÊdubbed Flying Fortresses ÑÊwere built for the war effort. When Lacey bought the bomber, it was just one of thousands of out-of-service warplanes destined for the cutting torch.
Now, however, the Lacey Lady is a precious relic. There are fewer than 50 intact B-17s worldwide. Only about a dozen still are flyable, including one owned by the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville.
Scott and her family hope one day to see their B-17 fully restored, the centerpiece of a business development that takes advantage of the 3-acre Bomber Complex next to Southeast McLoughlin Boulevard. 'Obviously, we don't use the land to the best advantage,' she says.
'We would like to see the airplane (renovation) completed; we would like to see it in a building on the property where we could work on it,' she says. A couple of sets of plans for such a building ÑÊincorporating other businesses ÑÊhave been drawn up.
'Dollars are it, of course, and you have to be able to pay for that,' Scott says. 'I'm not willing to get myself so buried in debt that I would lose the property and the airplane.'
Donations and sponsorships helped to pay for the $360,000 restoration of the nose section. Restoration of the entire plane, Scott says, will be extremely expensive.
Scott's son Jayson urged that the restoration be done to combat the damage done to the venerable airplane by 50 years of exposure to weather and pollution.
Feats of a legendary family
The family has resisted any moves that would take the bomber's future from their control. 'Maybe that's being selfish, but this is our heritage,' Punky Scott says.
The walls of the restaurant are crowded with airplane pictures, photos, framed newspaper clippings and other memorabilia from the Bomber, one of the oldest family-owned businesses in Milwaukie.
Including the catering business, 37 people work at the Bomber Complex, a drop from the days when the gas station was open and 52 people worked for Lacey.
'We were in the gas business big-time,' Scott says. In the 1970s, the Bomber had 48 pumps and 80,000 gallons of in-ground storage and sold 6 million gallons of gas a year.
'My dad was a true independent dealer,' she says. ' He bought gas on the spot market, had his own gas tanker.'
Lacey sold gas at a discount and served ice cream floats to his customers while they waited in line ÑÊa line that often stretched for a couple of blocks.
Eventually, changing environmental laws, tough competition from the big oil companies and declining revenues caused Lacey to shut the station.
'It just broke his heart,' Scott says. 'He was never a quitter.'
Airplanes, she says, were her father's passion, and he owned several over the years, including a P-51 Mustang fighter. Family members speculate that it was that plane he flew under the Oregon City bridge in the early '50s, a stunt never officially tied to Lacey but legendary within the family.
'Every day was an adventure,' Scott says, reminiscing about her father.