Quick test: Which B-17 was the first to complete 25 missions during World War II?
If you answered “Memphis Belle,” you would be incorrect. The first B-17 to hit the magic number was “Hell’s Angels,” a B-17F of the 358th Bomb Squadron, 303rd Bomb Group. The name of the airplane came from the Howard Hughes movie. “Hell’s Angels” completed 48 missions before returning to the United States for a war bond tour.
“Hell’s Angels” was a catalyst to the development of an important piece of aviation culture. During World War II, workers in factories signed milestone aircraft, such as 1,000th aircraft built, before they were delivered.
The members of the 358th decided to return the favor and signed the “Hell’s Angels” before it left for the states. The idea caught on and soon other squadrons signed their aircraft before they were sent home. The practice of signing planes that are being retired or changing missions continues today.
The “Memphis Belle” was the first B-17 to complete 25 missions then return home for a war bond tour. The “Memphis Belle” also was featured in a wartime documentary film, as well as a Hollywood movie in the 1990s. Both give the impression that the Belle was the first to hit the 25-mission mark.
The “Memphis Belle” spent most of the last century on exhibit in its namesake city. The Belle was recently moved to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton and is being prepared for permanent display.
The “Hell’s Angels” was scrapped in 1947.
Over the years its crew has had to put up with misinformation about their place in history. Not only were they the first crew to complete 25 missions, they also had to combat rumors after the war linking them to the motorcycle club of the same name when the story got started that the motorcycle club was made up of misfit former members of the 303rd Bomb Group.
According to the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club website, it wasn’t the B-17 but another military outfit that inspired their name and distinctive insignia: the Hell’s Angels squadron of the Flying Tigers, which flew in China during World War II. The motorcycle club was founded in Southern California in 1948.