Air Force Museum Unveils Restored Memphis Belle

 - June 8, 2018, 6:09 AM
The National Museum of the United States Air Force unveiled the newly restored Boeing B-17F Memphis Belle in mid-May. (Photo: Ken LaRock)

Following a 13-year restoration effort, the National Museum of the United States Air Force (NMUSAF) in Dayton, Ohio, publicly unveiled the newly restored Boeing B-17F Memphis Belle on May 17, 2018, exactly 75 years after its crew completed its historic 25th bombing mission over Nazi-controlled Europe in 1943. The subject of a World War II bond tour and several full-length feature films, the Belle became an American icon as the first B-17 Flying Fortress to achieve the 25 combat mission mark over occupied Europe and return to the United States without a crewmember killed.

The three-day NMUSAF event featured guest speakers, book signings, WWII-era aircraft and vehicles and reenactors who camped on the museum grounds. While inclement weather forced visiting aircraft to depart early on the first day of the event, B-17s Aluminum Overcast from the Experimental Aircraft Association, Yankee Lady from the Yankee Air Museum, and “The Movie” Memphis Belle from the National Warplane Museum (named for its starring role in the 1990 film Memphis Belle) were stationed at nearby airfields and performed occasional fly-bys during breaks in the weather.

The reenactors conducted a series of briefings in the Nissen Hut on the museum grounds, including recreating the operations briefing and post-mission debrief of the Memphis Belle’s 25th mission. While most were years older than the young WWII pilots and crew they portrayed, the oldest gentleman attending one of the Belle ops briefings was Col. Howard Hunt (U.S. Air Force, Ret.), who at age 96 is the last living pilot of the Memphis Belle. Hunt flew the Belle in December 1943 during the aircraft’s war bond tour and journeyed from his home in Alaska to Ohio for the unveiling.

“It was a very stable airplane,” said Hunt about the Belle. “It was a little beat up when I flew it because it had completed its war service. But it flew real nice and landed easy.”

Hunt served as a ferry pilot during World War II, flying “almost everything in the [USAAF] inventory.”

“Once you trimmed up a B-17, it almost flew itself,” Hunt said. “The B-17 was a dream to fly compared to some of the other airplanes. The B-24 was a boxcar; not very stable and you always had to wrestle it…The B-25 was very noisy because it didn’t have a collector around the engine. You fly that for eight hours and you couldn’t shut down the engine [noise] ringing in your head.”

Restoration Efforts

After the Belle’s war bond tour concluded, the aircraft was used for training at MacDill Army Air Field in Florida until the war ended, then was moved to Altus Army Air Field, Oklahoma for storage. The city of Memphis, Tennessee, acquired the Belle in 1946 and displayed it outdoors for more than 30 years. Graffiti, vandalism, and weather damage marred the aircraft, and an initial restoration effort by the Memphis Belle Memorial Association (MBMA) commenced in 1977. The MBMA displayed the Belle outdoors under a canopy until 2002, then released the aircraft to the NMUSAF in 2005.

It took NMUSAF more than 13 years and 55,000 hours of labor to restore the Memphis Belle to operational condition. Former B-17 pilot and NMUSAF volunteer Lt. Col. Jack Hampshire (U.S. Air Force, Ret.) participated in the Belle’s restoration. 

“It was in pretty rough shape when we got it back,” said Hampshire. “Vandals had cut away the fabric on the elevators and the rudder, and they stole hydraulic and fuel lines…When they restore an aircraft here, they want it to look like it just came out of the factory. Although [the Belle] will never fly again, they could haul it out of here and put hydraulic fluid and batteries in it and it would fly.”

The Belle is no stranger to needing replacement parts. During its combat tour from November 1942 to May 1943, the Memphis Belle flew 148 hours over Europe in 25 daylight bombing raids, absorbed multiple hits from flak and fighters, and required five engine changes, a wing replacement, and tail replacement. Remarkably, despite heavy aircraft damage, no crewmembers died on the Belle and only one was injured enough to earn a Purple Heart. This feat of survival occurred at a time when the average lifespan of a U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) Eighth Air Force bomber was 18 missions, although Belle was not the only lucky Fortress. According to a U.S Air Force fact sheet published January 31, 2018, B-17F Hell’s Angels completed its 25th mission one week earlier than the Memphis Belle, but stayed in theater until 1944, surviving 48 missions without any injured crewmembers. It was scrapped in 1945.