A dozen years, thousands of hours and exhaustive research are about to pay off as one of the most recognizable symbols of World War II will once again report for duty this spring. On Jan. 4, that national icon’s refurbished flight controls were installed.
The Memphis Belle, the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to return to the United States after beating the odds and completing 25 missions over Europe, will be placed on public display at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base May 17 – exactly 75 years after its crew finished their last mission in the war against Nazi Germany on May 17, 1943.
The USAAF chose the aircraft for a highly publicized war bond and morale-boosting tour from June-August 1943, and its crew was celebrated as national heroes.
The famed B-17F has been undergoing an exhaustive conservation and restoration process inside the museum’s restoration hanger in Area B since it arrived at the museum in October 2005. The effort has included corrosion treatment, the outfitting of missing equipment and accurate markings to bring the aircraft back to pristine condition.
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The Memphis Belle will be placed on permanent public display in the WWII Gallery. The new exhibit surrounding it will include interactive displays, rare archival film footage and many personal artifacts which have never been seen before by visitors.
Plans are under way for a three-day event, May 17-19, to include a WWII-era aircraft fly-in, WWII reenactors and vehicles, music from the era, related guest speakers for lectures, book signings and films. The Air Force Museum Theatre will show the two widely seen Hollywood movies (one in 1944 by William Wyler and another in 1990) featuring the Memphis Belle. Activities will be both inside and outside the museum.
Restoring a national symbol
Pilot Robert Morgan named the aircraft after his wartime girlfriend, Margaret Polk, of Memphis, Tenn. Morgan chose the artwork from a 1941 George Petty illustration in Esquire magazine.
The Memphis Belle’s comprehensive restoration process is fitting for the storied aircraft. The aircraft’s authentic, period-correct paint scheme took 25 tries to get the dark olive drab green exactly right, said museum curator Jeff Duford. Original manufacturing mistakes have been replicated, too.
While the majority of the plane is metal, the flight controls – ailerons, rudder and elevators – are fabric. Their installation means painting of the famous nose art can begin, with restoration specialists/exhibition artists Casey Simmons and Chad Vanhook chosen for the task. The installation of two 50-caliber machine guns also will be performed.
Simmons, a licensed aircraft mechanic, has been working on the Memphis Belle since he arrived in 2007. Back then, it was bare metal and in multiple pieces.
“It’s been a great experience. It is really rewarding,” Simmons said. “It’s the biggest transformation you could ever imagine. … It is a special aircraft with a unique history.”
Restoration specialist Chase Meredith said it has been challenging to work on an aircraft that hasn’t been in the Air Force inventory in decades. Restoration staff had to manufacture multiple parts when they weren’t available from other aircraft.
“You’re constantly making all of the support equipment needed to assemble and work on it,” he said.
“This is a national treasure, and we need to get it right. It is as simple as that,” Duford said. “I’m confident the markings and the structure are correct. We have completed thousands and thousands of hours of research, and the restoration staff is the most talented in the world. … We’re going to great lengths to get this aircraft accurate.”
Duford said the Memphis Belle represents the extraordinary sacrifices made by the heavy bomber crews.
“The idea that their odds of finishing a tour were about 25 percent is difficult for us to understand today. Those young men, however, knew how poor their odds were,” he said. “How does one get inside of this aircraft knowing that, ‘I’m probably not going to survive intact and I’m probably not going to come home,’ and I don’t have to do that one time, I have to do that two times, three times, 10 times, 25 times,’ and it was thousands of bomber crews who made this choice to do their duty, to fly these missions and risk their lives.
“The Memphis Belle represents those stories, and for our visitors coming to the museum later this year and for decades to come, the legacy and the sacrifice of these young men will be remembered long after we’re gone,” Duford said. “That’s truly the most important part of the Memphis Belle.”
For more information, photos and videos of the Memphis Belle, visit www.nationalmuseum.af.mil.