Restoration of famed WWII bomber Memphis Belle flies high

It defied the Nazis and became the first World War II bomber to complete 25 combat missions and return home. CNET Road Trip 2013 checked out how it's being restored to its original glory.

The Memphis Belle, seen flying back to the United States after completing its 25th World War II combat mission. The plane is being meticulously restored at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. U.S. Air Force

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Staring at the B-17, large parts of it nowhere to be seen, big holes in its belly, and little of its original paint, you would never know that this is one of the most famous planes in U.S. military history.

Once just another B-17 bomber among thousands sent to Europe to fight World War II, this is the Memphis Belle, the plane that helped convince dispirited Americans that it might be possible to defeat the Nazis by successfully flying 25 bombing missions and then return home to the U.S.

In doing so, the plane -- named after the Memphis, Tenn., girlfriend of its pilot, Lt. Robert Morgan -- became the first to achieve that milestone, something that until then had been thought unlikely as the Germans mercilessly beat back the Americans' efforts to displace them from territories the Nazis had occupied in the early years of the war.

With that achievement, the plane -- and its crew -- was brought back to the States and was sent on a public relations war bond tour around the U.S., building up Americans' enthusiasm for the war, in part due to the inspiration offered by its until then unlikely success. In the process, it became famous, the basis for a 1944 documentary film, and in 1990, a full-length feature.

But the plane's fate after its war bond tour wasn't as glamorous. For years, it was tucked away in an Oklahoma military boneyard, and then it was on display in Memphis. In 2005, however, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force took possession of the Memphis Belle and began what is so far an eight-year restoration process that is expected to bring the B-17 back to what it looked like when it was flying those 25 missions. As part of CNET Road Trip 2013, I stopped by the museum's restoration shop outside Dayton, Ohio, to see what it takes to bring such a famous airplane back to its original, pristine condition.

Restoration shop
The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force is gigantic. Featuring hundreds of aircraft and thousands of other artifacts, the museum fills three huge hangars -- and soon, a fourth. Not far away, on the grounds of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, is the restoration shop, which is run by Greg Hassler. It falls upon him and his team to fix up any and all planes in the inventory, from a Spad-13 to a B2 bomber, and even a Russian MiG once owned by Saddam Hussein, and bring them to a sparkling condition that often belies long years of decrepitude.

A MiG once owned by Saddam Hussein, currently awaiting attention at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force's restoration shop. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

In 2005, the Memphis Belle joined the fleet. It took six truckloads to bring the full airplane to the base. Fortunately for Hassler's team, having to split the wings into two pieces in order to get them across the road into the base allowed them to open up the aircraft, a crucial step in attacking the years of corrosion that had built up and to do many structural repairs.

First, though, Hassler and his team stripped the coating off, exposing much of the corrosion and damage. They realized that they had to hand-reform some of the structural members on the bottom center of the Memphis Belle's fuselage because the corrosion from years of trapped water was so bad.

Another job was cleaning up and remounting the plane's four engines, which are not original but are authentic, Hassler said.

Given the Memphis Belle's history, there were two ways the team could have gone: The plane's look as a working World War II bomber, or its look as a public relations machine during its war bond tour. They went with combat airplane, said Jeff Duford, the museum's curator, since that's what made it famous in the first place.

But the Memphis Belle presented a challenge, Duford said. It was modified in the theater, and there were no drawings that depicted the changes. That means a lot of unknowns, such as what kind of equipment it carried. And in cases where they don't know what was original, Hassler said, the restorers don't guess. "It's better to leave out than to guess," Hassler explained, adding that he and his team don't want to get it wrong.

"We can always add it later," Duford said.

There's also parts of the plane as it exists today that might be tempting to keep but have to go because they're not original. An example is some of the plane's nose art. Today, it features the plane's model, B-17F, painted on, as well as a series of swastikas representing Nazi planes the Memphis Belle shot down.

Originally, the "B-17F" designation was a decal, Hassler said. In order to make that right, the restoration shop will source up a decal from a specialty company that uses the same font Boeing used when making the plane. But the swastikas and the name of the navigator and bombardier -- all added during the war bond tour -- have to go. The painting of the pilot's girlfriend and a single swastika that was on the plane when it was in combat will stay.

Some of the Memphis Belle's nose art will stay, and some will have to go during the famous plane's restoration. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Duford said that there are a series of photographs that show the Memphis Belle after its 25th combat mission, as well as Boeing blueprints and photographs which are very helpful for restoring the plane properly.

It's not known exactly when the Memphis Belle's restoration will be finished, but it is likely that sometime late in 2014, or early in 2015, the plane will be brought into the main part of the museum so that the 1.3 million annual members of the visiting public can see how the team brings the plane back to life.

But there are things they won't see at that point, and likely will never see. Hassler said that he's working on replacing a heat exchanger inside the plane's wing, but once the wing is closed up, it will be invisible to the world. Like Steve Jobs, who worried about the design of what was inside Apple's computers, Hassler wants to know that the planes he restores are done right. "We try to get details down to the Nth degree for accuracy," he said. "Plus, it's just the right way to present the aircraft. We don't have just hollow shells."

 

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