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How the WW2 bomber Memphis Belle got its wings back

For the first time in 14 years, one of the most iconic planes in American history has earned its wings.


Restorers have reattached the wings to the B-17F Memphis Belle, under restoration at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. Wednesday, the museum provided a behind-the-scenes look as aircraft workers reattached more pieces to the bomber's wings in preparation for a public unveiling next year.

(Photo: NASA)

"It's amazing," said Casey Simmons, a restorer who has labored on the project since 2008 . "I don't know if there's words that really say it because you're little and you build this kit as a little model (airplane) and now you're actually doing the real thing.

"My favorite part about working on it is just the fact that I get to work on it," added Casey, 36, of Dayton. "It's the Memphis Belle. It's one of the most famous planes. Everything about it, it doesn't seem like a job. It's what I'd be doing in my free time if I got to do whatever I wanted to do."

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The Army Air Forces plane is set to make its debut among fabled aircraft inside the World War II gallery at the museum on May 17, 2018, the date that marks the 75th anniversary of the 25th and final wartime mission of the storied bomber that battled Nazi Germany.

The final crew and the bomber gained fame on a nationwide wartime bond tour, which stopped in Dayton, and for a 1944 movie "Memphis Belle" that documented its combat exploits over Europe.

"The big significance of the Belle is it's an icon and it represents those heavy bomber crews that helped win the war against Germany," said Jeff Duford, a museum curator.

The Memphis Belle will sit as the centerpiece of a large-scale exhibit on strategic bombing. Archival footage of the historic plane's missions retrieved from the National Archives, crew artifacts flown in combat and interactive screens will tell the tale of thousands of bombers and their crews in the bloody aerial battles that killed more airman than any war American airmen have fought in.

Crews have roughly 13,000 hours of work left, said Greg Hassler, restoration supervisor. The museum was not able to provide a cost estimate or how many hours workers and volunteers labored so far to bring the Belle back to its former end of combat luster.

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Restorers have labored to meticulously off and on to scrape paint, bend metal and fabricate parts since the Boeing built-bomber arrived in 2005 hauled in on a truck from near Memphis, Tenn.

"You get lots of parts and boxes and things that aren't marked and it's trying to figure out where things go (you) look at the drawings and it's like a puzzle," Simmons said.

The plane will be repainted to reflect how it looked at the end of its combat bombing runs and before flying across the nation on the war bond tour, Duford said. The paint on the plane today is not the original markings, he said.

"The skin all over the the fuselage is engraved with the names when it went on its war bond tour so you want to try and keep all that as much as you can because if you replace that, that's history gone," Simmons said.

The reborn Belle will have a woman in a red dress on one side of the plane and in a blue dress on the other side of the nose to reflect the original look. A row of swastikas added for the war bond tour will be removed because they weren't on the bomber immediately after it finished its days in combat, Duford said

The wings were last attached in 2003, officials said.

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