“I never had a doubt that the panel belonged on this airplane and we had no intention of keeping that panel at our museum,” said Henry Skipper, president and CEO of the Mighty Eighth museum. “An historic artifact like that and a great airplane like that belong together.”
The restoration of the Memphis Belle started in 2005 at Wright-Patterson with nearly 60 Air Force museum staff members and volunteers meticulously working by hand to rebuild the plane.
The Memphis Belle gained fame when the Army Air Forces bomber crew flew on a nationwide war bond tour in 1943 to mark the Boeing-built four-engine plane’s survival of 25 combat missions over Europe without losing a single crewman. The bomber’s iconic status flew to loftier heights in a 1944 wartime documentary and a 1990 Hollywood production named after the plane.
“It is a symbol of something that is larger than the engines and metal that make up the aircraft, and it’s important as a symbol that is much larger than the individuals who served in the aircraft during World War II,” said Jeff Duford, an Air Force museum curator and project manager of the restoration.
“ … It was a symbol of the promise of eventual victory to the American public,” he said, “… and remains an ever-lasting symbol of those thousands of airmen who served in Europe and the Mediterranean and the 30,000 who did not come back.”
The control panel that was in front of Memphis Belle pilot Robert Morgan’s seat has had a circuitous history since the famed plane returned from combat to the United States.
Somehow, Skipper recalled, the left-side control panel mysteriously vanished when the Belle was in Memphis decades ago. “It was there one day, and gone the next,” he said.
The panel was presented to former Boeing Co. leader Clairmont L. Egtvedt, known as the “father” of the B-17 Flying Fortress, when he retired from the aerospace giant in 1966, Skipper said. Egtvedt later gave the historic artifact to a friend, Lowell J. Williamson, who was a B-17 gunner and POW in World War II and vowed to donate the artifact to a museum.
The panel with a U.S. Army Air Corps metal data plate and oil pressure gauges was embedded in a cocktail table when the Mighty Eighth museum received the artifact in 2009.
“Can you imagine the control panel of the Memphis Belle in a cocktail table with glasses of whiskey sitting on top of it?” Skipper asked Friday, standing in front of the historic plane. “That’s exactly what happened.”
In 2013, the Mighty Eighth museum loaned the instrument panel to the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, the hometown of Morgan, Skipper said.
It was on display in North Carolina until recently, when the Mighty Eighth museum gave it to the Air Force museum at Wright-Patterson.
“I’ll tell you, it’s a miracle, frankly, that that panel is here today because if it had fallen into the wrong hands it would never have been here and no one would have been able to find it,” Skipper said.
Much work remains on the restoration. The tip of the nose and bomb bay doors have yet to be reattached and four hulking propellers wrapped in see-through plastic wait to be mounted to the engines.
Originally, the Air Force museum expected to roll the plane into the World War II gallery in 2014, but that would have meant continuing to work on the interior while on display, Duford said. Now, the museum aims to roll the plane into the World War II gallery in May 2018, the 75th anniversary of the completion of the bomber’s final mission over Europe.
“I can say unequivocally that the restoration of the Memphis Belle is the most important aircraft restoration of our generation, period,” Duford said.