The historic Army Air Forces B-17F Flying Fortress bomber will be unveiled May 17, 2018, the 75th anniversary of the crew’s 25th mission over Europe, said museum curator Jeff Duford.
The plane embodies as much symbolism for the Air Force in its fight over the war torn skies of Europe as the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima for the Marine Corps or the USS Arizona battleship memorial at Pearl Harbor for the Navy, Duford said.
“The Memphis Belle is that for the U.S. Air Force, but also the country,” he said.
The Army Air Forces lost about 30,000 airmen in the aerial war against Nazi Germany, or about 70 percent of all losses Air Force airmen and their predecessors had in combat over a century, he said. In the midst of the heaviest combat against Germany, U.S. bomber crew airmen had a one in four chance of survival, Duford said.
American bomber crewmen “paid an enormous cost for victory,” he said.
The Memphis Belle will sit as the centerpiece of a large-scale exhibit on strategic bombing in the World War II gallery. Archival footage of the iconic plane’s missions retrieved from the National Archives, crew artifacts flown in combat and interactive screens will tell the tale of thousands of bombers and their crews in the bloody aerial battles, Duford said.
To make way for the Memphis Belle, a B-17 nicknamed “Shoo-Shoo Baby” will move out of the museum and eventually head to the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., said Air Force museum spokesman Rob Bardua.
Restoring a legend
Workers have labored to meticulously restore the Memphis Belle, scraping paint, bending metal and fabricating parts, since the Boeing built-bomber arrived in 2005.
“Everybody that works on it has a love affair with the thing,” said aircraft restorer Roger Brigner, 56, of Kettering. “How many people can say they work on something like this? You mention B-17 to anybody who knows airplanes, this pops in their head.”
The plane, still awaiting new paint, the attachment of propellers and its nose and tail, has about 14,000 hours of restoration work remaining, said Greg Hassler, the museum’s aircraft restoration supervisor. More than 100 people, mostly volunteers, have worked on the four-engine bomber since it arrived.
“There’s been a lot of hands that’s been involved in this project,” he said.
Many parts long since out of production have caused restorers to make new parts by hand, sometimes with only a fragment of an old part or without blueprints, restorers said.
“You can’t buy parts,” Brigner said. “You have to make your own.”
Dale Burnside, a retired General Motors engineer and former Air Force tanker pilot in the Vietnam war, has worked for more than a decade on the iconic plane in a volunteer crew of three. They’ve restored gun turrets and put windows back into the plane.
“I just admire guys that flew this thing so much,” said Burnside, 71, of Springboro. “Just understanding what they went through. It’s a piece of history.”
When the aircraft first arrived at the museum, archives show it was set for a five-year restoration and later the museum indicated it would be restored by 2014.
But work moving dozens of historic aircraft and exhibits into a massive new $40.8 million hangar that opened in June halted restoration for a time on the Memphis Belle, Hassler said Wednesday.
The 75th anniversary of the Memphis Belle crew’s last mission was a key milestone the museum wanted to tie to the plane’s restoration and reintroduction to the public, Duford said.
For years, the historic bomber sat outdoors in Tennessee where the plane corroded and made the restoration more difficult, officials said. “The most important thing we have to do for this and all aircraft is to restore it right,” Hassler said.
A wartime tour of America
The plane was made famous with the first crew to complete 25 combat missions over Europe and return to America.
Then-Lt. Robert Morgan, chief pilot, named the bomber after his girlfriend, Margaret Polk of Memphis, Tenn. The romance didn’t survive the war, but the plane and its 10-man crew became “rock stars” when they flew home to the United States in June 1943 for a three-month tour to sell war bonds and raise morale, a museum curator has said.
On a cross-country 33-city, factory and military airfield tour, one of those stops landed at Patterson Field in Dayton.
Memphis Belle crews flew through perilous, flak-filled skies dodging Nazi Germany fighters on missions over mostly France and Germany beginning in November 1942. The plane was based at the 324th Bomb Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group (Heavy) in Bassingborne, England. The crew marked its 25th wartime mission bombing a German Navy submarine pen at Lorient, France on May 17, 1943.
The plane’s exploits were recorded in a 1944 documentary with real-life combat footage and retold to a new generation in a 1990 Hollywood movie.
Crew members flew five missions on different bombers before they flew on the Memphis Belle, Duford said. But the plane itself also survived 25 combat missions over Europe during the war.
A limited number of visitors have had a chance to get a glimpse of the bomber in restoration hangar tours in a restricted-access area of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.