She has seen better days. In her prime, she had a charm and brilliance that made her the envy of all the other women and the apple of every Soldier’s eye. Her curves were eye-catching and she moved with perfect grace. A true Southern gal, she was not only beautiful, but also strong, deliberate and powerful.
Now, at 70 years-old, she doesn’t glow like she used to. She needs help to move around these days and the curves she once boasted don’t curve like they used to. She’s still beloved, but the Memphis Belle needs a facelift.
The Memphis Belle, a B-17 Flying Fortress, was the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the U.S., according to officials at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. Then-Lt. Robert Morgan was the pilot for the majority of the Memphis Belle’s missions and named her after his wartime girlfriend who was from Memphis.
These days, Belle, as restoration technicians affectionately call the bomber, sits in a hangar, completely stripped of paint except for a small patch that bears her name; a painted picture of a pin-up girl; tally marks from missions; and the model and serial number. Panels are missing, as are the rotors and tail. There are names scratched into the shiny metal of the plane’s body from visitors who left their marks.
Belle was on public display outdoors for more than 30 years and was the victim of weather beating and vandals. In 2005, she moved to her new permanent home, the Air Force museum, for restoration and to make it her permanent home.
For the past seven years, the bomber has been under the care of technicians from the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Restoration Division. The restoration technicians breathe life back into aging beauties like Belle, who have served their crews and country proudly.
The restoration hangar is filled with pieces of aviation history in various states of repair. Inside, aircraft from different eras sit under the hanging fluorescent lights, some under scaffolding and some under tarps, as they undergo the restoration process. The sounds of machines, hammers, drills and saws float through the air as a technician whistles while he works. These are the sights and sounds of revitalization in progress.
This undertaking is not just a paycheck for these technicians; it’s a labor of love.
Prior to working at the museum, Roger Brigner, a restoration technician, was an F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chief, who wanted to take planes from ground zero to display. That’s an opportunity the technicians have here with the Memphis Belle.
“I’m all about fabricating something out of nothing,” Brigner said. “Ever since I started driving, I started customizing stuff on cars and motorcycles. It’s all relevant here. It’s the ultimate.
“I couldn’t wait to get my hands on (the Memphis Belle) and start putting it back together again,” Brigner said. “The first thing you think is, ‘I can’t believe she’s sitting here in front of me.’ It was kind of sad to see her in that state. She was in pretty decent shape when she got here, but she had a lot of corrosion problems.”
“It’s sad that she hasn’t been taken care over the years,” said Chad VanHook, a restoration technician at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. “It’s unfortunate, but we can fix her and get her back to the way she was.”
Once Belle arrived at the museum, before any restorations began, technicians painstakingly documented every detail of the aircraft to make sure everything is historically accurate and correct, VanHook said. The next step was to take inventory of what parts were there, what was damaged and what was missing. Then the paint was stripped, parts were cleaned and the plane was evaluated for corrosion.
Any parts that are missing or cannot be repaired are fabricated by the technicians. Many World War I and World War II-era planes were constructed using wood and fabric and that’s just the way they do it, by hand, here at the museum.
“I love (hand making parts) because that’s how they were made back in the old days,” VanHook said. “A lot of the parts were handmade just by taking a flat piece of sheet metal and turning it into a part that will go on the aircraft.”
Brigner likened working in the restoration shop to taking a step back in time. Just like the Rosie the Riveters of World War II, the technicians rivet the planes in the same way. The same processes and the same tools are still used.
“I’m working on the Belle and I’m making new skins for her, and I see a repair that was made during the war,” he said. “I’m thinking that person was doing basically what I’m doing today, only they did it back then to keep the airplane flying. We do it to preserve it, but it’s the same kind of work. When I’m repairing something on the airplane and I climb inside it, and I think of the videos I’ve seen of it flying over Europe and (munitions) exploding all around it — holes in the airplane — this is the airplane and I can’t believe that it’s here.”
Although Belle’s crew is no longer living, their family members remain and the technicians feel responsible for restoring it for them and for the rest of the world.
“I don’t think any of the crew is still alive now, but their families are and they want to see it,” Brigner said. “Those guys who flew these things, this was a small time period in their life, but it was a big part of their lives.”
Belle still has a few more years before she’s ready to make her public debut, but until then, the restoration technicians will continue to give her the love and attention she needs. They know the end goal is to get her back on her “feet”, and one day she will leave them. But they can take pride in the fact they are helping to share her story with the world.
“One day she’ll be finished and we’ll have a dedication ceremony,” Brigner said. “We’ll tow her over (to the museum). They’ll be cameras and probably newspapers. Everyone will be here to see that. It’ll be a sad day to see her leave the shop, but there will be another (aircraft) right behind her, waiting its turn to get restored.”
Until that day, Brigner, VanHook and the other technicians at the museum, will keep pressing on to restore and preserve the history of the Memphis Belle and other aircraft like her.
“My personal goal is just to do the best for her that I can do,” VanHook said. “She deserves it.”