The National Museum of the United States Air Force reports one of history’s most famous aircraft will celebrate two anniversaries this weekend.
Seventy years ago, the Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress “Memphis Belle” was flying over the skies of Europe on bombing missions during World War II. On May 17, 1943, Capt. Robert K. Morgan flew the Memphis Belle against a target in Lorient, France, on his 25th officially credited mission (it was the Belle’s 24th combat mission). Two days later, on May 19, 1943, Lt. C. Anderson and his crew flew the Memphis Belle on its 25th officially credited mission to Keil, Germany, becoming the first B-17 United States Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 combat missions with her crew intact.
Her place in the history assured, the aircraft and her crew then returned to the United States to sell war bonds on a 31 city national tour, earning a her place in the American psyche. She was the subject of a 1944 documentary film, “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” and a 1990 Hollywood feature film, “Memphis Belle,” further cementing her status as an American cultural icon.
After the war, the Memphis Belle was saved from reclamation at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma where she had been consigned, bought by the city of Memphis for $350. She was flown back to Memphis in July 1946 and stored until the summer of 1949 when she was placed on display at the National Guard armory near the city’s fairgrounds. She sat outside into the 1980s slowly deteriorating due to exposure to the elements and vandalism. She was moved a couple of times and foundations for her protection were set up but in the end there was never the means to properly care for the craft and she was eventually handed over to the National Museum of the United States Air Force in 2005.
Upon the arrival of this icon, museum staff quickly got to work on a multi-year restoration project to bring the Memphis Belle back to her original pristine condition. Seven years into the project now, the plane has been available for public viewing during her restoration in the museum’s restoration facility where she is a featured attraction.
While originally scheduled for her official unveiling and taking her place of honor in the museum’s World War II Gallery in 2014, the effects of the federal government’s sequester have put her restoration on hold as well as forcing the museum to suspend tours of the now-silent restoration shop. So this weekend’s anniversaries will go by unheralded at the plane, but for now she is safe, indoors and not deteriorating any further and her restoration is merely delayed, rather than suspended.