Wearing blue coveralls and red bandanna, Kansas’ original Rosie the Riveter returned to the factory floor in Wichita on Wednesday for the first time in more than 70 years.
Connie Palacioz, 92, worked as a riveter for Boeing on the B-29 program from 1943 to 1945, right after high school. The 18-year-old riveted the nose sections of the bullet-shaped B-29 Superfortresses during World War II.
Decades later, Palacioz volunteered to help restore the B-29 called “Doc,” which had been built in Wichita in 1944. Doc spent 42 years in the Mojave Desert in California after flying in World War II. The restored Superfortress returned to the sky on July 17, 2016, after 300,000 hours of restoration.
It was a lot easier to put Doc together the first time than it was to rebuild it, Palacioz said.
“It was a mess, but we got it all done,” Palacioz said.
She was the only riveter from the 1944 construction who returned to help restore Doc.
“I’ve been blessed with good health; I’m glad I did,” said Palacioz, who lives in Newton. “I can do almost anything.”
Palacioz returned to the factory floor at what is now Spirit AeroSystems expecting nothing to be the same as it was 70 years ago. And she was right.
“It is very different,” she said. “I would like to come back and work.”
Now, more than 1,300 women work for Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, but it was not always like that.
“There was so much discrimination,” Palacioz said, referring both to her gender and her ethnicity. “I have an accent, and they’d frown when I told them I was a Mexican.”
She said she was pleased to see not just technological advances, but advances in accepting diversity.
Josh Wells, spokesman for Doc’s Friends, the group that restored Doc, said it was an honor to welcome Palacioz back to the original factory.
“She really paved the way for what we do in aviation,” Wells said. “For women and for minorities, she is what Rosie the Riveter was. She’s a hero. She is the spokesperson of why we’re doing what we’re doing with Doc’s Friends.”
To thank her for her work, Spirit AeroSystems gifted Palacioz with a modern riveter, much lighter than the riveters used in the 1940s. She said she will add it to her collection, right next to one of her originals.
“My biceps are OK,” she said as she posed in the traditional Rosie the Riveter pose. “I never had much muscle.”
Doc will be flying over the Riverfest, weather permitting, at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Cockpit tours of Doc will take place during the B-29 Doc Open House from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday in the northwest hangar of Air Capital Flight Line, at the old Boeing site, where a bulk of the restoration was completed. Palacioz, other volunteers and some war-time heroes will be there.
The open house is first-come, first-served. Tickets are $20 for those over 12 and $10 for ages 5-11, seniors over 65 and for those who served in the military. Children under 5 get in free. All proceeds will go toward building a hangar for Doc.
“It’s a big weekend for Doc,” Wells said.