Going Direct: Memphis Belle Rises … Again

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The first post restoration of the B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle yesterday is a great story. An historic airplane, Memphis Belle was famous during and after WWII. It was the first B-17 to complete 25 bombing missions in Europe and return with its crew intact, an achievement that was about both luck and skill. The captain of the bomber, Robert Morgan, named the plane after his wartime sweetheart. Margaret Polk inspired by a famous riverboat called Memphis Belle. The pinup art on the side of the plane came from an Esquire magazine pinup illustration unrelated to either the girlfriend or the riverboat.

Memphis Belle with Original Crew
The original crew with Memphis Belle.

With the completion of the 25th successful raid, the Eighth Air Force had the B-17 flown back to the States, where the bomber, captained again by Morgan, went on a U.S. tour selling war bonds.

It’s where the plane after the war ended that’s cause for concern, not now, really, as it couldn’t have landed in a better home than the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.

But up until 2005, when the museum acquired the plane its future was far from bright. It got saved from a government scrapyard in 1946 by the City of Memphis, which bought the namesake plane for $350 and put it on public display outside the armory and then, later, a different public display, all for more than 60 years in all. During that time it was stripped to the bone by vandals, thieves and souvenir hunters.

In 2004, the Air Force Museum, which since the 1970s was the owner of the plane but had it on loan to the City of Memphis, stepped in and brought it to Dayton for restoration.

That effort was incredibly expensive and took more than a decade to accomplish. Was it worth it? Hell yes! But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that there are many outfits that could have pulled off this restoration.

A few years ago when the Commemorative Air Force’s B-29 Fifi needed a new engine, it was a crisis of the first order for the CAF. To say that Wright R-3350 Duplex-Cyclone engines are expensive is a huge understatement. The repair to the CAF’s Superfortress powerplant cost in excess of $100,000, and that was with no cylinders damaged.

Then there’s the question of who does the work on the many hundreds of vintage warbirds in collections around the country. The CAF, which has active chapters in 26 states and a number of foreign countries, too, is greying, apparently at an even faster rate than aviation in general, and many chapters are losing members faster than they can replace them.

So that leads to the question, who is going to support the thousands of antique warbirds that live in museums and live-flying venues around the country and around the world? And support means resources, which means money, workers, facilities and materials. And for aircraft that actively fly, like the vast majority of CAF planes, those costs are not easy to meet and they are constantly on the rise as parts get harder to locate and aviation fuel gets more expensive.

Recruiting younger people to work on these planes---and to fly them, too—is the first step. Encouraging people to donate to the cause is critical, as well.

Efforts like the Museum of the Air Force to get Memphis Belle flying again helps a lot to put the focus on these flying masterpieces and priceless historical artifacts. Our job is to pitch in to help in any way we can, whether that means getting involved in the restoration and maintenance of these timeless birds or chipping in financially in any way you can.

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