By LARRY STENCEL
I was privileged to be selected for a private guided tour of the National Museum of the United States Air Force restoration hangars in May 2017. The centerpiece of current work is the restoration of the famous B-17F, “Memphis Belle,” which is slated for permanent display on the 75th anniversary of its 25th mission over Europe on May 17, 2018.
The Memphis Belle, along with a second B-17 “D” model, Swoose — 38th of 42 “D” models and the oldest B-17 in existence; the only ‘shark fin’ model still intact — are considered to be the two most significant B-17s in existence. Swoose is scheduled for restoration after the Memphis Belle, according to museum officials.
Both airplanes were in seriously neglected condition after many years of improper outside storage and vandalism.
Because of their historical significance, both were recalled to the Air Force Museum for restoration to their former war-time condition.
The Memphis Belle arrived in 2005 from Memphis, Tennessee, while Swoose was transferred from the National Air & Space Museum in 2008 in a trade for a B-17G, “Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby,” currently on display at the Air Force Museum until Swoose is restored.
Although Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby is a pristine example of a “G” model and a favorite display, Swoose is considered more significant, according to museum officials.
The trade was a win-win for both museums. Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby will ultimately reside in the Smithsonian Udvar-Hazy facility.
Just a few miles north at the Champaign Aviation Museum at Grimes Field in Urbana, Ohio, still another B-17 is undergoing a long-term private restoration.
Memphis Belle flew its missions over Europe while Swoose — formerly named Ole Betsy — saw action in the southwest Pacific. She saw her last combat on Jan. 11, 1942, in Borneo.Later flown to RAAF Laverton in Australia for repairs, she received another “D” model’s tail and was then renamed Swoose. She served the remainder of the war as an executive transport for a general officer and once carried former President Lyndon Johnson, then a Congressman and Naval officer.
Memphis Belle, which flew its first combat mission on Nov. 7, 1942, was actually the second B-17 to survive flying its 25 missions. The B-17 “Hells Angels” actually achieved that milestone first, however, Memphis Belle was the first to achieve the milestone for both the intact crew and the aircraft. The aircraft and its crew achieved the milestone on slightly different dates.
It was selected to return to the U.S. on June 8, 1943, for a three-month war bond and morale boosting tour. Its commander, Major Robert Morgan, subsequently went on to fly the lead B-29 aircraft in the first raid on Tokyo in November 1944.
During World War II, two of three crewmen did not survive the war; survival rates were actually worse for Army Air Corps personnel than Marine Corps, overall. One of every 18 aircraft was lost to combat. As a result, crewmen who survived 25 missions were sent back to the States for other duties after their tours.
The Memphis Belle was the subject of two movies: In 1944, “Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” and in 1990, “Memphis Belle.”
From July 1935 to April 1945, 12,731 B-17s were produced by Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed-Vega. Few exist today and even fewer are in flying condition.
The two B-17s are not the only aircraft currently housed at the Air Force Museum’s restoration facility. Numerous other significant aircraft await their turn in the restoration pipeline. Most of the work on these aircraft is being performed by volunteers and with private funding.
It has been more than 30 years since I walked the displays at the USAF Museum. Most notably, a fourth hangar displaying presidential aircraft — which a visitor can actually walk through — and R&D aircraft, many of which I was associated with during my many years serving in the USAF at Edwards AFB and others, have been added.
I strongly recommend that anyone traveling near Dayton, Ohio, make time to visit this wonderful display of aircraft and other items of significance to the U.S. Army Air Corps and U.S. Air Force. Plan on a lot of walking and an entire day, as a minimum.
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.) Admission and parking are free.