The legendary bomber Memphis Belle visits Collegedale Airport.
Museums are usually on the ground. And indoors. And quiet. The Memphis Belle is none of those things. It flies, in the high fresh air and is definitely loud.
By Merriam-Webster’s definition, museums are institutions “devoted to the procurement, care, study, and display of objects of lasting interest or value.” Museums also house objects that are rare and/or unique. The Memphis Belle certainly fits those criteria.
During the years 1935-1945, 12,732 B-17s were built at a cost of more than a quarter-million dollars each. At the peak of production, 16 “Flying Fortresses” were produced each day. Of the original number, 4,735 were lost in battle. Today, fewer than 100 airframes still exist, and less than a dozen are airworthy. That certainly qualifies as rare and/or unique.
The plane visiting this week at the Collegedale Airport had a different life from that of the original Memphis Belle, now in storage near Dayton, Ohio, awaiting restoration. The original “Belle” was the first B-17 to complete all 25 scheduled bombing missions and bring every crewmember back with little more than a few scratches. The ship herself took many terrible beatings, including losing engines, but the ground crews kept patching her up and sending her out. Eventually she would fly more than 20,000 miles over France, Belgium and Germany, dropping in excess of 60 tons of ordinance, staying airborne more than 148 hours.
After WWII, she was sold to the City of Memphis for $350. For years she was on display at the National Guard Armory where time, weathering and vandals took their toll. In 2004, the Air Force reclaimed the old girl, now housed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
“Our” Memphis Belle was built too late in the war to see combat, but had a storied life as well. The “Movie” Memphis Belle served mostly in transport capacities until 1959, when she was mustered out of service and sold, eventually, to Fast Way Air of Long Beach, California, where she was re-fitted to fight not wars, but forest fires. From 1960 until 1978, she was a water tanker, carrying 18,000 gallons of water over wildfires in the western U.S.
Following her firefighting career, she was sold to the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation where she was returned to wartime fit. That’s when she entered show business. She was cast to play the original Memphis Belle in the 1990 movie of the same name.
Today, she is part of the Liberty Foundation’s efforts to “Salute the Troops” by visiting cities around the country, keeping the story of the B-17 alive as well as the stories of the “Greatest Generation” who used these machines to save the world, and of the men and women who built these planes.
To climb on board is to take a trip back more than 70 years, when crews of ten young men crammed into her fuselage along with 8,000 pounds of bombs. Many of the crew manned the 13.50-caliber machine guns mounted on all sides of the ship, giving it the nickname “Flying Fortress.”
Today, you can fly in this living museum and experience the thrill of glimpsing the past, hearing the sounds our fathers and grandfathers heard…smelling the greased metal and burning fuel…seeing the world through a glass turret, down the barrel of a Browning. This, friends, is like no other museum experience in the world.
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Come see the Memphis Belle this Sunday, Oct. 26, at the Collegedale Municipal Airport, 5100 Bess Moore Rd., from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call (918) 340-0243 to schedule your flight.