New flight controls added to famous B-17F Memphis Belle

The Memphis Belle has gotten a makeover for its debut this spring as the newest debutante at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force.

The iconic Army Air Forces B-17F bomber has a new olive drab green and gray paint scheme to resemble what it looked like in World War II, and restorers on Thursday installed flight controls on the left wing and horizontal tail of the Boeing-built airplane inside a museum restoration hangar.

The four-engine bomber is set to be rolled out to the public in the museum’s World War II gallery on May 17, the 75th anniversary of the famed crew’s 25th combat mission.

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The restoration of the symbol of U.S. bomber crews during the global conflict war is the “most watched and scrutinized” of any curator Jeff Duford has seen among dozens at the museum. The B-17 was trucked in to Wright-Patterson from Tennessee in pieces in October 2005.

“This is a national treasure,” he said Thursday. “We need to get it right.”

Based in Bassingbourn air base in England during the war, Memphis Belle was the first B-17 bomber of the Eighth Air Force to return to the United States after flying 25 combat missions over the war ravaged skies of Europe. The four-engine plane that fought against Nazi Germany was immortalized in two films and a nationwide war bonds tour that included a stop in Dayton in July 1943.

Then-Lt. Robert Morgan, chief pilot, named the bomber after his girlfriend, Margaret Polk of Memphis, Tenn.

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Researchers poured over hundreds of photographs and hours of film of the aircraft, and mixed nine different paint pigments and 25 paint samples, to get just the right shade on the exact spot as it appeared on the plane after it completed it’s final wartime mission, officials said.

“That’s the Air Force record copy of a B-17 so you have to make it look as authentic as possible,” said museum director John “Jack” Hudson.

Next week, restorers will paint the nose art on the bomber, showing a brunette woman on one side and a blonde woman on the other, with one wearing a blue suit and the other a red one, just as it appeared in wartime Europe, Duford said.

The new paint job added bold yellow squadron numbers on the plane’s fuselage, “DF” and the letter “A.” Next, swastikas symbolizing wartime missions against Nazi targets and the names of crew members will be added. Restorers will reinstall pieces of the nose and .50-caliber machine guns, also, officials said.

“There’s the public perception of how it looked and then there’s the the reality of how it actually did,” he said.

PHOTOS: Restoring the Memphis Belle

Casey Simmons, 37, an aircraft restoration specialist, has worked on the plane since he started at the museum in 2007. Next week, he’ll paint the blonde on the nose art.

“When I first got here it was just bare metal so it’s the most transformation you could ever imagine,” he said.

The push for authenticity and detail has reached into the old bomber. Parts that were on the aircraft during the war were often restored or rebuilt from blueprints or photos. In one example, Simmons said a cabin heater was rebuilt even though the public will never see it.

“We had to completely fabricate that from scratch and it is fully functional but it will never be seen,” he said. “… If you knew that something is supposed to be there … it’s going to be there in the airplane.”

The Belle will be the centerpiece of an Air Force museum exhibit on strategic bombing during the war, which officials expect will draw thousands of people, some traveling from overseas, for the plane’s debut weekend, May 17-19. Inquiries about the plane have arrived from around the globe.

“There’s a lot of interest about the Memphis Belle, especially Europe,” said museum spokesman Rob Bardua.

Bomber crews took heavy losses. Thousands of aircraft were downed and 27,000 U.S. airmen died in the skies in combat, Duford said. At one point during the war, the odds of finishing a tour of duty were about one in four, he said.

“I think that’s truly the most important part of the Memphis Belle,” he said. “We don’t forget what they did and they destroyed an evil, evil regime and in many cases they paid for victory with their lives.”

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