Famed B-17 Memphis Belle gets careful restoration

DAYTON, Ohio — Stripped of paint and shorn of a nose section and internal components, the Memphis Belle these days looks less like the battered World War II bomber that spent nearly six decades displayed in its namesake city and more like a plane still lurching down the assembly line.

In a cavernous hangar at the National Museum of the Air Force here, the fabled B-17F Flying Fortress shares floor space with a Titan IV rocket, C-82 and C-119 cargo planes and other machines undergoing painstaking restoration work carried out by a skilled but overstretched group of staff and volunteer technicians. The ball turret, flaps, tail-gun assembly, horizontal stabilizer and other parts lay elsewhere in Building 4-D, each the focus of highly detailed rehab efforts.

A decade has passed since the Belle arrived in Dayton, and it’ll be 2 1/2 more years, probably in May 2018, before the plane takes its spot in the formal exhibit area of the museum devoted to World War II aircraft. But if the pace of restoration seems slow, museum officials say, it’s because of the importance, if not reverence, they attach to the plane.

“It’s the most important restoration of our generation, hands down,” said museum curator Jeff Duford. “When you look at the icons, the truly important aircraft, most of them are already restored.”

To Duford, who had a model of the Memphis Belle hanging from the ceiling of his boyhood home in Michigan, the plane ranks among the five most important individual aircraft in American history. The other four are the Wright Flyer flown by the Wright brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; the Spirit of St. Louis, in which Charles Lindbergh made the first nonstop transatlantic flight; the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima; and the X-1 rocket plane in which Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier.

When the museum received the plane from Memphis, where it had been exposed to the elements for 59 years, there was “quite a bit of corrosion” on the airframe and some damaged or missing parts, said museum restoration supervisor Greg Hassler. But he credits a “dedicated effort” by the Memphis Belle Memorial Association with maintaining the plane as well as possible and minimizing damage while it was in Memphis.

“For an aircraft to have been outside its entire life, it wasn’t as bad as I anticipated,” Hassler said.

The Belle will never fly again, but the museum aims to have it restored as closely as possible to its condition in May 1943, when the bomber completed its final mission.

There’s no estimate available as to how much has been spent, or will be spent, carrying out that work. A part of the Air Force, the museum has an annual budget of $15 million and staff of 16, augmented by 40 volunteers. Many of the machinists are retirees, and they don’t have access to advanced computer numerical control equipment or 3-D printers. A lot of the drill presses, lathes and milling machines, in fact, date to the same era as the Belle.

“The people who work on this are absolutely world-class. They can do anything,” Duford said.

That skill level is appropriate for such an iconic and historic aircraft, he said.

Named for Memphian Margaret Polk, fiancee of pilot Robert Morgan, the Belle was one of the first — but, contrary to popular myth, not the actual first — B-17 to complete 25 missions over Nazi-occupied Europe. Flying in daylight without fighter cover, the lumbering bombers sustained such heavy losses in the early part of the war that the odds were against them surviving the required number of missions. Still, the strategic bombing campaign, which cost the lives of some 30,000 American airmen, inflicted serious damage on Germany’s industrial might, took a huge toll on its air force and exerted pressure on the Nazis until the Allies could launch a second front with the Normandy invasion.

The Belle’s fame grew partly because of the romance behind its name – hyped relentlessly by Army public relations staff – and partly because, as a few bombers neared the 25 mission threshold, it was chosen as the aircraft to be the focus of a color documentary to be filmed for wide release. Directed by William Wyler, “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” was released in 1944.

Following its final mission, the Belle returned to the U.S. and attracted huge crowds as it made a triumphal, morale-boosting tour across the nation to help sell war bonds.

After the war, however, the plane languished at an Oklahoma air base, ready to be scrapped, when the city of Memphis bought it from the government for $350 in 1946.

The Belle was flown back to what was then Municipal Airport, where it stayed until a new site at the armory was dedicated in 1950. There it stayed, ravaged by souvenir-hunters and vandals, until 1977, when it was sent back to the airport area to undergo repair and restoration work. By then, the plane hand been deeded to the Air Force museum, which loaned it to the newly chartered Memphis Belle Memorial Association.

In 1987, a canopied exhibit site funded through public donations was dedicated on Mud Island, where the plane remained until being moved to a former Navy facility in Millington in 2003. There, volunteer technicians and aircraft mechanics, many of whom worked at FedEx, did “really quality work” on the Belle, said Dr. Harry Friedman, board member and archivist with the MBMA.

Under pressure from the Air Force museum, the group sought to raise money to move the Belle to a permanent, climate-controlled site. But efforts to raise money for the project flagged.

This time, the MBMA, which had fought efforts by the Air Force museum to take the Belle to Dayton, was ready to surrender.

“Contrary to popular opinion, they did not just come and take it,” said Friedman. “We called them.”

Once at the museum, the stripping of paint from the Belle produced a surprise: thousands of names had been scratched into the fuselage — and still present in the aluminum skin — during the war-bond tour. “V. Papa, Lynn, MA 12-31-44” is just one example.

Delving through vintage photos, restorers are trying to reconstruct all the alterations and repairs made to the Belle. “There were all kinds of modifications done in England (where the bomber was based) that weren’t documented,” Hassler said.

Even though the Belle will never be airworthy again, museum officials want every detail to match the plane’s condition at the end of its service. That includes the painstaking hand-stitching of cotton onto the horizontal stabilizer and the reproduction of the specially designed metal fabric clips holding it to the frame.

“This is an incredibly slow process,” Hassler said.

When the Belle is formally put on display, the various plaques and signs telling its story will include the plane’s history in Memphis. The MBMA plans to help write that history, which dates back to the plane’s near demise in a postwar scrap yard.

“Memphis basically saved the airplane,” Friedman said.

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