There is no such thing as a quick restoration project, especially if it’s “Memphis Belle,” probably the most famous B-17 of World War II.
The big bomber has been undergoing restoration at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Dayton, Ohio, since the fall of 2005, when it arrived at the museum in pieces on flatbed trucks.
“Memphis Belle,” flown by then-Captain Robert Morgan, was the second B-17 with a crew that survived fighters and flak to fly 25 missions over Europe — and the first to return to the United States after doing so. (The first B-17 to complete 25 missions was “Hell’s Angels,” but the aircraft and her crew did not return to the states immediately after mission 25.)
After arriving in the states, already famous from a wartime documentary film, “Belle” and her crew launched a war bonds tour. Their fame was revived in the 1990s by a Hollywood feature film made by Cathy Wyler, daughter of William Wyler who had shot the original documentary.
From 1946 until 1987 the B-17 was kept out in the open air. In 1987 the Memphis Belle Memorial Association moved the plane to a bandshell on Mud Island in Memphis, while launching a fundraising campaign to build a secure, climate-controlled museum for the famous bomber which, technically, still belonged to the USAF.
Over the years weather, souvenir hunters and even vandals took their toll on the plane. That disrespect to the greatly admired bomber was especially painful to Morgan, who rose to the rank of colonel in the Air Force and was still active on the air show and lecture circuit at the time of his death in May 2004. His last wish was that “Memphis Belle” be moved to the Air Force Museum. Shortly thereafter, she was.
While that wish was granted, it will be a while before “Belle” goes on display. Due to her historic significance, she will not fly again, but only be on static display.
“We are about a year and a half into the restoration, which will take a total of eight to 10 years to complete,” said the museum’s Sarah Swan. “So far, staff and volunteers have been working on the restoration of the aft fuselage, engine build-up, one main center wing section, the top turret and the ball turret.”
Part of the fun of such restoration projects is the surprises. When the paint was stripped off the fuselage, the restoration crew found names etched in the metal skin, placed there during the war bond tour.
Some of the parts used in the restoration of “Memphis Belle” are being donated, others are being bought or fabricated by museum staff.
Museum visitors can see how the restoration is going by participating in the weekly “Behind the Scenes” tours, which take place at 12:15 p.m. every Friday and give visitors a look into the restoration hangars. The tour is free, but advanced registration is required.
For more information: 937-255-3286 or NationalMuseum.af.mil