The Memphis Belle — made famous in two Hollywood films — gained fame as the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the United States in 1943.
A ribbon-cutting Thursday morning made the opening of the exhibit official after the Belle was revealed in a private ceremony with about 1,000 people and family members of the late crew Wednesday night. And after a formation fly over of the museum Wednesday, four World War II-era planes — two B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, a P-51 Mustang fighter and a PT-19 trainer weer expected to land on the museum airstrip Thursday morning and remain on static display through the day.
P-51 Mustang Ain't Misbehavin' and B-17 Aluminum Overcast at The National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The Memphis Belle exhibit opened to the public on Thursday after a 13-year restoration. Staff and volunteers worked 55,000 hours to restore the iconic World War II bomber. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Thomas Harrington, 12, a fan of the Memphis Belle, traveled with his family from Northhampton, England to help cut the ribbon Thursday in front of the famous bomber. “It’s amazing how they have restored it in such good condition,” he said.
Linda Morgan, 72, of Crane Hill, Ala., and widow of Robert Morgan Sr., got a first look at the restored bomber in Wednesday night’s ceremony. The Belle, she said, “took her breath away.”
“I’ve seen pictures of that plane when it was in tatters and this, it looks better than when it came out of the factory,” she said in an interview with reporters.
The B-17 Memphis Belle was unveiled in a private ceremony Wednesday and opened to the public Thursday. MICHAEL BURIANEK / STAFF
Brian Pecon, president of the Memphis Belle Memorial Association, had waited decades for the moment. The Belle was brought to the museum in 2005 from Tennessee after a fund-raising attempt failed to meet its goal to fully restore and display the plane in Memphis.
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“When they dropped that curtain yesterday it was truly awe-inspiring,” Pecon said Thursday. “It didn’t bring tears, but was a great emotional release.”
Glenn Legnon, 72, trekked from Lebanon, Tennessee, to see the spectacle.
“I think it was a good decision (to move the plane to the museum) because the aircraft had deteriorated so much in Memphis,” he said. “It took them from 2005 until now to get it restored.”
Since 2005, aircraft restorers and volunteers have painstakingly researched and labored to restore the famed aircraft to its wartime look, said museum director John “Jack” Hudson.
Parts of the museum grounds look like a military encampment with more than 160 re-enacters and dozens of military and civilian vehicles as part of festivities through Saturday.
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