The B-17 'Memphis Belle' Is Being Restored At The Air Force Museum At the Air Force museum in Dayton, technicians and volunteers are working to restore a unique piece of history. The B-17 bomber Memphis Belle is being carefully returned to its wartime appearance.
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At 75, A World War II Legend Gets A Full Makeover

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At 75, A World War II Legend Gets A Full Makeover

At 75, A World War II Legend Gets A Full Makeover

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A legendary airplane that helped America win the Second World War is being reborn at age 75. The Memphis Belle is undergoing patient and precise restoration. NPR's Noah Adams went to take a look.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: I've come to see this airplane here at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, just outside Dayton, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL)

ADAMS: We're inside the restoration hangar. It's a vast, bright workspace, and there's the Memphis Belle, a B-17F Flying Fortress, a four-engine bomber. The bear aluminum is gleaming. After eight years of work, the plane is still to be painted. This is the actual aircraft that I've watched in a documentary from 1944. William Wyler, the Academy-Award-winning director, went to an Army Air Force base in England, and he and his team could take their cameras on the bombing runs. Riding with the pilots, the gunners, the bombardier, navigator, they were inside a dangerous war.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORCHESTRAL MUSIC)

ADAMS: The Memphis Belle was named for the pilot's girlfriend. Ten young men made up the crew. One was only 19. They started flying missions in November 1942, dropping bombs on targets in France, Belgium, across into Germany, hitting aircraft factories, submarine bases. Once the Belle went out with 27 other planes, and six of those failed to return.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MEMPHIS BELLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Three planes, 9 o'clock - coming around. Keep your eye on them, boys.

ADAMS: When you watch this movie now, you can see the German fighter planes streaking right toward you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE MEMPHIS BELLE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: This is what a gunner sees - a speck in the sky. That's a fighter. And then a blink - that means he is firing at you - 2,300 rounds a minute.

ADAMS: For the B-17s flying from their base in England, the Army Air Force had set a goal. Men were told fly 25 missions, and we'll send you home. The Memphis Belle crew accomplished that and then flew back across the Atlantic to celebrate. They landed at 31 American cities for big, happy crowds. And, in a way, that spirit returns about a year from now when the restored plane is unveiled. It's estimated that 12,000 hours of work are still ahead.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL)

ADAMS: A special tool is available - extra film from the Wyler documentary - 11 hours of outtakes in Technicolor. Jeff Duford is the lead curator. He's been examining all of this frame by frame.

JEFF DUFORD: I can't think of any other event or restoration where we have this much color footage. It was as if somebody knew that we would need this. And one of those cameramen, Harold Tannenbaum, was killed flying on a photo mission.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN MILLER'S "IN THE MOOD")

DUFORD: Big band Glenn Miller music from the early 1940s - Steve Markman, one of the restoration volunteers, has it playing on his boom box while he works.

What do you have on your bench here?

STEVE MARKMAN: This is a Norden bombsight - top secret during World War II. It's got about 70 years' worth of dust on it. And I'm just using some alcohol and some scrubbing pads and a toothbrush to very gently remove that grime.

ADAMS: And we meet a former Air Force pilot who's now standing by his sewing table.

RICHARD ISSAAKS: Can I show you?

ADAMS: Yeah.

ISSAAKS: I've made all the cushions.

ADAMS: Bright yellow flotation cushions for the crew. This is Richard Issaaks. He was a B-52 pilot in Vietnam and then flew for American Airlines.

ISSAAKS: Since I'm over 65 now, I'm a retired-retired, so...

ADAMS: You get to come in here.

ISSAAKS: Yeah, and hang around with the boys.

ADAMS: The Memphis Belle goes on display, practically new, May 17, 2018, at the Air Force Museum near Dayton. Noah Adams, NPR News.

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