A legendary airplane that helped America win World War II is being reborn at age 75. The B-17 bomber "Memphis Belle" flew 25 missions against Nazi Germany and then came home to help sell war bonds and raise spirits.
In recent years, the Belle has been undergoing a patient and precise restoration at the National Museum of the Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio. I went to see the work in progress and talk with some of the many technicians and volunteers.
The restoration hangar is a vast, bright workspace, where the four-engine Flying Fortress has been stripped down to its bare aluminum. After eight years work the plane is still to be painted.
This is the actual aircraft that I have watched in a documentary from 1944. William Wyler, the Academy Award winning director, went to an Army Air Force base in England, and he and his team could take their cameras on the bombing runs — riding with the pilots, the gunners, the bombardier, navigator.
The plane was built in the summer of 1942 by Boeing in Seattle, and flew from Bangor, Maine, by way of Scotland, then on to an Army Force Base in England. A 10-man crew was put together, the youngest was 19. Captain Robert Morgan, the pilot, named the plane after his girl friend.
They started flying missions in November 1942, dropping bombs on targets in France, Belgium and across into Germany: aircraft factories, munitions plants and submarine bases. Once, the Belle went out with 27 other planes, and six failed to return.
For the men flying mission from England, the Army Air Force had set a goal: "Fly 25 missions and we'll send you home." The Memphis Belle crew accomplished that and then flew back across the Atlantic to celebrate.
They landed at 31 American cities, cheered by big crowds at war bond rallies.
The plane went on display in Tennessee, honored and protected for many years, neglected for many others. And in 2005 it was sent by truckloads to the Air Force Museum outside Dayton.
Restoration has been underway, helped now by extra film from the Wyler wartime documentary. Lead Curator Jeff Duford is able to watch on his computer screen more than 11 hours of Technicolor outtakes. "I can't think of any other event or restoration where we have this much color footage," he says. "It was as if somebody knew that we would need this. And one of those cameramen, Harold Tannenbaum, was killed flying on a photo mission."
Steve Markman, a retired aerospace engineer, is one of many skilled volunteers donating their time and experience to help the museum's aircraft mechanics. On his bench one day, a Norden bombsight: "Top secret during World War II," he says. "It's got about 70 years worth of dust on it." He's using some alcohol and scrubbing pads and a toothbrush to very gently remove that grime.
The Memphis Belle, fully restored (although not for actual flight) is scheduled to go on display May 17, 2018. That date marks the planes 25th successful mission back in 1943.
But there's still lots of work left. The restoration team estimates they still have 12,000 hours of work ahead.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A legendary airplane that helped America win the Second World War is being reborn at age 75. The Memphis Belle is undergoing patient and precise restoration. NPR's Noah Adams went to take a look.
NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: I've come to see this airplane here at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, just outside Dayton, Ohio.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL)
ADAMS: We're inside the restoration hangar. It's a vast, bright workspace, and there's the Memphis Belle, a B-17F Flying Fortress, a four-engine bomber. The bear aluminum is gleaming. After eight years of work, the plane is still to be painted. This is the actual aircraft that I've watched in a documentary from 1944. William Wyler, the Academy-Award-winning director, went to an Army Air Force base in England, and he and his team could take their cameras on the bombing runs. Riding with the pilots, the gunners, the bombardier, navigator, they were inside a dangerous war.
(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)
ADAMS: The Memphis Belle was named for the pilot's girlfriend. Ten young men made up the crew. One was only 19. They started flying missions in November 1942, dropping bombs on targets in France, Belgium, across into Germany, hitting aircraft factories, submarine bases. Once the Belle went out with 27 other planes, and six of those failed to return.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MEMPHIS BELLE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Three planes, 9 o'clock - coming around. Keep your eye on them, boys.
ADAMS: When you watch this movie now, you can see the German fighter planes streaking right toward you.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MEMPHIS BELLE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is what a gunner sees - a speck in the sky. That's a fighter. And then a blink - that means he is firing at you - 2,300 rounds a minute.
ADAMS: For the B-17s flying from their base in England, the Army Air Force had set a goal. Men were told fly 25 missions, and we'll send you home. The Memphis Belle crew accomplished that and then flew back across the Atlantic to celebrate. They landed at 31 American cities for big, happy crowds. And, in a way, that spirit returns about a year from now when the restored plane is unveiled. It's estimated that 12,000 hours of work are still ahead.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL)
ADAMS: A special tool is available - extra film from the Wyler documentary - 11 hours of outtakes in Technicolor. Jeff Duford is the lead curator. He's been examining all of this frame by frame.
JEFF DUFORD: I can't think of any other event or restoration where we have this much color footage. It was as if somebody knew that we would need this. And one of those cameramen, Harold Tannenbaum, was killed flying on a photo mission.
(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN MILLER'S "IN THE MOOD")
DUFORD: Big band Glenn Miller music from the early 1940s - Steve Markman, one of the restoration volunteers, has it playing on his boom box while he works.
What do you have on your bench here?
STEVE MARKMAN: This is a Norden bombsight - top secret during World War II. It's got about 70 years' worth of dust on it. And I'm just using some alcohol and some scrubbing pads and a toothbrush to very gently remove that grime.
ADAMS: And we meet a former Air Force pilot who's now standing by his sewing table.
RICHARD ISSAAKS: Can I show you?
ISSAAKS: I've made all the cushions.
ADAMS: Bright yellow flotation cushions for the crew. This is Richard Issaaks. He was a B-52 pilot in Vietnam and then flew for American Airlines.
ISSAAKS: Since I'm over 65 now, I'm a retired-retired, so...
ADAMS: You get to come in here.
ISSAAKS: Yeah, and hang around with the boys.
ADAMS: The Memphis Belle goes on display, practically new, May 17, 2018, at the Air Force Museum near Dayton. Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.