Famed World War II bomber reborn

Memphis Belle gets a much-deserved restoration

Created date

February 26th, 2013
The Memphis Belle and crew

American bomber crews had one of the most dangerous jobs of World War II. They had an estimated one in four chance of their next mission being their last, with some theaters presenting even deadlier odds of one in two. To earn a ticket home in the early years of the conflict, bomber crews had to complete 25 flights over heavily fortified German territory, through skies thick with shrapnel-filled flak bursts and the Luftwaffe s formidable fighter planes. Navigating this aerial gauntlet required a blend of skill and luck, and the ten-man crew of the U.S. Army Air Force s Memphis Belle was the first to do it. From November 1942 to May 1943, Lt. Robert Morgan and his men flew their B-17F Flying Fortress on bombing runs over Germany and occupied France, targeting factories, airfields, munitions depots anything that would further cripple the Nazis European conquests. After completing their final run, striking targets in Kiel, Germany, the Belle and her crew received orders for their last mission a war bonds tour in the States. For three months, the celebrity aviators flew around the country, shaking hands, posing for pictures, raising money, and boosting morale, all with the help of their famed flying fortress. When the tour was finished, the crew said their goodbyes to the plane that had carried them through the war, then went their separate ways.

Years of neglect

Though one might think that a hero s future was in store for theBelle, reality proved otherwise. Shortly after the war, the city of Memphis, Tenn., purchased the B-17 for $350, and there she would remain on display outside of a National Guard armory. In the skies over Europe, theBelleendured flak and tracer bullets. But for the next few decades, she battled the elements acid rain, corrosive bird droppings, and, saddest of all, vandalism. In the 1970s, the people of Memphis donated the plane to her original owner, the U.S. Air Force, which allowed them to keep the bomber provided that they endeavored to preserve her. They didn t. As a result, the Air Force took possession of the plane and, in 2005, delivered her to her new home, the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Ohio s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Thus began a massive restoration project to restore the tired and neglected war bird back to her fighting self. When we got [theMemphis Belle], the airplane had a lot of corrosion, especially on the interior structures of the wings, recalls Casey Simmons, a restoration specialist who has been working on the bomber since 2008. There was a great deal of grease and dirt in the aircraft, and a lot needed to be done to bring it back to life. Expected to take a total of roughly eight to ten years, the museum s effort to return the plane to her wartime condition involves a tremendous amount of research. Accuracy is always important to restoration, and that s especially the case when you re dealing with an aircraft this well known, explains Simmons. Throughout the project, we ve relied primarily on historic photographs and, sometimes, blueprints to make sure that we attend to every detail. And when working on a B-17 Flying Fortress, the details are numerous and minute.

Careful and caring restoration

Aside from the more obvious repairs to the aircraft s structural and cosmetic elements, there s also the task of repairing existing vintage components like radio and navigational equipment, bombsights, and flight instruments. For those parts that are missing, restoration workers either have to find replacements or build them from scratch. This airplane is a testament to the sacrifices that American flyers made during the Second World War, and that s something that is constantly on our minds as we work, Simmons says. We owe it to those men and to the plane itself to get the job done to the best of our ability. The process is tedious, painstaking, and for aviation and history buffs, totally worth it. They ll get their chance to have an up-close look at the restoredMemphis Bellein 2014, when she goes on permanent display along with the rest of the museum s World War II collection. In the meantime, Simmons and his colleagues will continue to whittle away at the long list of details, each of them bringing theBelle one step closer to rebirth. michael.williams@erickson.com