The Memphis Belle, returned to life

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- It's one of the most famous airplanes in America's military history, a B-17 that became part of lore by being the first heavy bomber to complete 25 missions in Europe during World War II, and return home.

When the strategic bombing campaign against the Germans began in November 1942, it wasn't known if it would be successful. Many didn't make it through 25 missions -- the threshold for being able to go home -- but the Memphis Belle succeeded and instantly became a major public relations coup for the American military.

After returning to the United States, the Memphis Belle was sent on a national war bond tour, making dozens of stops around the country and driving up spirits everywhere it went.

After the war, the plane was relegated to a boneyard in Oklahoma before being rescued by the Mayor of Memphis. Then, the Air Force got a hold of the plane, and in 2005 brought it to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton and began a long-term restoration project, the goal of which is to return the plane to what it looked like when it was flying bombing missions in Europe.

Now, the plane is being meticulously worked on by the experts in the museum's restoration shop, and CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman stopped by to check out the work during Road Trip 2013. It is expected that sometime late next year or in early 2015, the plane will be moved inside the museum itself, where the general public will be able to see the final restoration process.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Memphis Belle in flight

In this Air Force photograph, dated June 9, 1943, the Memphis Belle is seen flying over England on its way back to the United States.

Photo by: U.S. Air Force

Unloading the Memphis Belle

After arriving at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, home of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force -- and its restoration program -- the Memphis Belle is carefully unloaded in the hangar where the restoration work is done.

Photo by: U.S. Air Force

Memphis Belle from behind

The Memphis Belle is seen from behind on July 10, 2013, in the restoration shop at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, outside Dayton, Ohio.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Memphis Belle from front

A look at the front (and the right wing) of the Memphis Belle inside the restoration shop.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Norden bombsight

This is a Norden bombsight, mounted in the nose of the Memphis Belle.

According to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, "The Norden bombsight functioned as a part of a whole system. As the bomber approached its target, the bombardier entered data about wind direction, airspeed and altitude into the bombsight's analog computer, which calculated wind drift and provided the correct aim point. An internal gyroscope provided the stability necessary for using the telescopic sight at high altitudes. When connected to the Sperry C-1 Autopilot, the Norden bombsight provided unprecedented accuracy."

Although not original to the plane, this Norden bombsight is representative of what the B-17 flew with in World War II.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Back from the 25th mission

In this 1943 Air Force photograph, the crew of the Memphis Belle returned to England after completing the plane's 25th mission -- the accomplishment that gained it lasting fame in the annals of U.S. military aircraft.

Photo by: U.S. Air Force

Nose art

In its days barnstorming around the U.S. on a war bond tour, the nose art of the Memphis Belle added the plane's navigators name, as well as eight swastikas representing the Nazi planes it was said to have shot down. But those elements -- unlike the single swastika under the window -- were added after the bomber left Europe.

As part of the restoration, the nose art will be returned to its state when it was flying bombing missions.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Memphis Belle crew

In this Air Force photo, the crew of the Memphis Belle pose alongside their famous plane. Though the photo shows nose art featuring a series of swastikas, the National Museum of the Air Force's restoration supervisor, Greg Hessler, said that that art was added only once the plane was in the U.S. and was on its war bond tour.

Photo by: U.S. Air Force

Right wing engines

The Memphis Belle flew with four engines, like these two mounted on the plane's right wing. These are not its original engines, but they are authentic.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET


These are the four propellers that will be mounted on the plane's four engines once the restoration project is done. They are authentic but not original to the plane.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET


Everywhere the Memphis Belle went on its war bond tour, people would scratch their names into the rear of its fuselage. Today, many of those etched names are still visible, but when the restoration is complete, and the plane is painted as it was when it was still flying bombing missions, the names will be painted over.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Lt. V. McMahon

One person to etch his name on the side of the Memphis Belle was Lt. V. McMahon, of New York.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Tail gunner position

This is the tail gunner's position, which was mounted at the very rear of the Memphis Belle. A gunner sat there with two .50-caliber machine guns.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Tail gunner position from behind

The tail gunner position is seen from behind.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Ball turret

This is a ball turret, which would have been mounted underneath a B-17 bomber like the Memphis Belle. A gunner jammed himself into the turret and fired two .50-caliber machine guns.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Ball turret drawing

This drawing depicts the gunner inside the ball turret. It's clear that this was not one of the most comfortable jobs in the Air Force.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Inside the ball turret

A look inside the ball turret.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Machine gun

A .50-caliber machine gun, like those used aboard the Memphis Belle.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Top turret

This is the top turret, which was mounted behind the plane's cockpit. A gunner sat in the top turret and fired two .50-caliber machine guns.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Bullet hole repaired

One of the Memphis Belle's bullet holes is covered up by a small piece of metal.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET


A look at the belly of the Memphis Belle. The restoration crew is working to make the plane look as authentic as possible, and the process is likely to end up taking eight years or so to complete.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Heat exchanger

Though no one will ever see this heat exchanger, because it will be closed up inside the Memphis Belle's wing, the restoration crews are bringing the plane's systems back to their original condition -- minus its ability to fly.

Photo by: Daniel Terdiman/CNET


Get live TV over the internet

Say goodbye to cable -- check out the top five live TV streaming services available now.

Hot Products