The Past, Present, and Future of the Memphis Belle
Eight years ago, the Air Force moved “our” WORLD-FAMOUS plane to Dayton, Ohio. Why did that happen, and what have they done with it SINCE?
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One thing was settled: The Belle had to leave Mud Island. In 2002, the wings were removed and a flatbed truck hauled it to a climate-controlled hangar at the Naval Support Activity complex in Millington.
“But Millington was never intended to be the Belle’s permanent home,” says Andy Pouncey, another MBMA board member. “We originally reached out to Millington business leaders, but they didn’t show us they wanted to make anything of it.” The plan, then, was to restore the plane in the hangar at Millington, while the MBMA raised funds for a museum.
“At Millington, we had about 40 airframe and powerplant mechanics, all FAA-certified from FedEx, working on that plane,” says Friedman. “You couldn’t ask for a better crew. The Air Force Museum doesn’t even have that many people.”
In 2003, these volunteers began a full-scale restoration. “We took the aluminum off, stripped out corroded areas, and put in new metal,” says Friedman. “All along, we had done bits and pieces of restoration over the years, but this was much more involved.”
And all along, the Air Force was keeping a close eye on things. “They gave us very strict criteria to follow and, we thought, made unreasonable demands,” says Pouncey. “They wanted us to conduct a complete physical analysis, which we were already doing, but then they said they expected it to be moved into a museum that could attract at least 300,000 visitors a year. Well, the Air Force Museum only drew 1.2 million visitors, and they had 365 planes. We only had one.”
Even though the MBMA had actually broken ground for a museum site on Forest Hill-Irene Road, the fundraiser for the building was also running into problems. Enthusiasm for the old plane had dwindled, especially after it moved out of public view. So the MBMA reached a difficult decision.
“We came to realize that the city of Memphis wasn’t interested in it anymore,” says Friedman. “We had enthusiastic volunteers working on it, but the fruits of their labor would never be appreciated. So we finally called the museum and said, ‘Come get it.’”
An air show in Millington on October 5, 2005, gave visitors one last chance to see the Belle in Memphis. Two days later, the Air Force sent a truck to Memphis and picked up all the pieces.
They already had two other B-17s in their collection, and some two dozen B-17s in various states of repair are scattered around the globe, so why were they so determined to get their hands on “our” plane? “They wanted it because of its role in history,” says Friedman. “One of the former directors of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum once told me, there are five important planes in U.S. history, and one of them is the Memphis Belle.” She joins a select list that includes the Wright brothers’ Flyer, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, the B-29 Enola Gay (which dropped the first atomic bomb on Japan), and the Glamorous Glennis, the experimental plane flown by Chuck Yeager to break the sound barrier. “The Smithsonian already has all those other planes,” says Friedman, “but they don’t have the Belle.”
When the plane arrived in Dayton, museum officials told the press that the work done in Memphis wasn’t up to their standards. Nothing could be further from the truth, insists Friedman. “They quickly came to realize that all the work we did here wasn’t for nothing,” he says. “They just picked up where we left off. In fact, they are now coming to us with questions about the restoration process.”
Pouncey also points out that “the work of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association didn’t stop in 2005,” when the plane went to Dayton. MBMA members visit the plane on a regular basis, and Friedman is on the phone with the restorers “at least once a week.”
And in some ways, a special part of the plane has remained behind in Memphis. In 2005, Pouncey designed the Memphis Belle Memorial, part of Veterans Plaza in Overton Park. Featuring a bronze sculpture of Margaret Polk gazing skyward with a plaque of the plane, the monument tells the Memphis Belle story. “It’s just one way of reminding visitors of the plane’s historic connection to Memphis,” says Pouncey.
For the restoration, the biggest challenge has been finding authentic or period-correct parts. Over the years, souvenir hunters stripped the plane of anything they could grab. Even the instrument panels were missing. But as more people learned about the restoration efforts — first in Millington and now at Dayton — their guilty consciences have prompted them to return many parts. “One of my own patients showed up one day with the hydraulic pressure gauge,” says Friedman. “When he was a kid and the Belle was perched outside the National Guard Armory, he had taken it off the plane.”
Of course, there’s always eBay. Jerry Klein, another MBMA board member, says, “When we were in Dayton in July, the chief of restoration told us somebody on eBay had an original oxygen bottle from the Belle, and he managed to buy it.”
Other pieces have come from more unusual places. “You’ve got to go anywhere and everywhere and be willing to get dirty,” says Friedman. Years ago, a woman from Alabama called. Her husband, it seems, had passed away and had collected war-related stuff for years. Would anybody here want any of it? “We came away with loads of B-17 parts, some of them we used, some of them we traded for other parts,” says Friedman. “But beneath the house, we found parts and pieces of 14 to 18 World War II machine guns. We took them out to the Tennessee Air National Guard. They cleaned them up, and we put together 13 .50-caliber guns to go with the plane.”
The work in Dayton revealed one surprise. When the plane was stripped down to the bare aluminum, restorers discovered that hundreds of people had scribbled their names on the plane when it journeyed across the country on its “26th Mission.”
It’s now been eight years since the Memphis Belle went into a restoration hangar in Dayton. If anybody wonders what’s taking so long, Friedman explains the Air Force is doing a “plane of record” restoration. “They want it to be 25th-mission accurate. Not like it just came fresh out of the factory, but exactly as it was when it flew its last mission. So you have to do it right, even for parts the public won’t even see. It’s not a fake, and it’s not just a shell.”
The plane is tentatively scheduled to be moved to the museum floor by the end of 2014, where it will be the centerpiece of the exhibits, though fully restoring the interior will take at least another year. At first, visitors could see the work in progress just one day a month, but as more people hear about the plane, they can now view it once a week — every Friday. “It’s so popular that you now have to make reservations,” says Pouncey.
So, in the long run, are the members of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association pleased with how it turned out?
“You had a lot of detractors at first,” says Pouncey. “We had put a lot of ‘sweat equity’ into it. But you came to realize that this plane was bigger than yourself. It would have been selfish to keep it here. Memphis couldn’t really support it, so what we did was give it to a higher power that can take it to the level it deserves.”
For more information, visit the Memphis Belle Project, a website administered by Lausanne Collegiate School in partnership with the Memphis Belle Memorial Association: lausanneschool.com