Restoration: The Memphis Belle
For this famous B-17, surviving 25 missions in World War II was the easy part.
- By Mark Bernstein
- Air & Space magazine, November 2008
(Page 2 of 2)
For some pieces, replacements are being fabricated. Molds have been made for the plexiglass in the top turret, and for an aft fuselage ring frame. The engines that came with the Memphis Belle’s other parts were not original to a B-17, so they’ll be replaced with rebuilds assembled from the museum’s substantial accumulation of aircraft parts.
The original cloth-coated wire is no longer made in the United States, so the restorers are buying it new in Great Britain. Though the wires will be out of sight, the restorers are intent on making the aircraft as authentic as possible.
As for the body, all the paint is being stripped. Paint, Deere says, “hides a lot of corrosion. We want to get it stripped down so we can undertake the structural repairs first.” The work is slow, in part because no chemical strippers are being used on the interior. “Manufacturers claim their chemicals are not corrosive,” says Deere. “Maybe it’s not corrosive now, but what about in five or ten years?” Working with the restorers, private-sector chemists modified an existing product into a sand-like dry stripper that addressed Deere’s concerns. The entire aircraft should be stripped by year’s end.
Besides revealing underlying corrosion, stripping brought to daylight more than 1,000 names inscribed in the aircraft’s tail and fuselage by the public during the bond drive. The names have been photographed; they will disappear again when the aircraft is repainted.
The aircraft arrived with several large patches on its tail. They were quick-and-easy fixes made with flat sheet metal; the original tail, however, had a compound contour. Those are much harder to fabricate.
Staff efforts are supported by volunteers. The head restorer of the tail gun is John Vance, whose father was a B-17 tail gunner. Volunteers Chuck Flaum and Steve Markman built 10 replicas of the wooden carriers that held the oxygen bottles crew members carried while moving inside the unpressurized craft. They found the original blueprints on microfiche at the National Archives.
Some parts just can’t be replicated. Deere would particularly like the instrument panel with the manufacturer’s data plate, which is specific to the Memphis Belle. “Somebody’s got it,” he says. “We’d like it back—no questions asked.”