The "Memphis Belle" may be aging, but she still attracts many gentlemen admirers.
A small crowd of Army Air Corps veterans who flew heavy bombers in World War II came to tour and admire a restored B-17 airplane at Felts Field, which is painted in the markings and colors of the famous Memphis Belle.The genuine Memphis Belle, a B-17F that fought and survived the most vicious air battles over Europe in 1943-44, is preserved as a memorial to her crew in Memphis, Tenn. Very few of the bombers exist, and fewer are flying.
The 45-year-old B-17G that was in Spokane for the recent Spokane Airfair '90, however, has portrayed that Boeing Flying Fortress in a Warner Brothers film by the same name that will be released this fall.
The interior of the Memphis Belle is spartan as is appropriate for a retired war bird, with chipped paint on the instrument panel and the plexiglass nose yellowed with age.
World War II-vintage radio equipment (not the original equipment) displays cracked dials, while a pin-up photo of Betty Grable on the radio compartment wall adds a bit of nostalgia. A group of World War II veterans and war bird buffs surrounded the plane, which is owned and flown by David C. Tallichet of Dallas.
Nearly everyone could tell stories about serving in the B-17.
"B-17s were a hell of a plane," said Kenny Parkin, a former ball turret gunner from Spokane. Bill Hayatt of Spokane flew 18 missions as a bombardier and 14 missions as a gunner on B-17s in the Italian theater before he was shot down and captured by the Germans in August 1944.
Hayatt recalled the reliability of the Flying Fortress and how crews preferred to fly in the B-17 instead of the B-24. This wasn't due to any aerodynamic advantages the "Flying Fort" had over the Liberator, he said, but because the German fighter pilots would usually fly past the B-17s just to attack B-24s.
"They were mad at the B-24s," said Hayatt. He believed this stemmed from an incident earlier in the war when a number of B-24s dropped their landing gear as if they were surrendering and then blasted the trusting German fighters with their machine guns when they flew close to their supposed prizes.
The B-17 crews also had some defensive tricks when fighter escorts were unavailable. German fighter pilots always assumed they were attacking B-17s with the standard .50-caliber machine guns. Hayatt said the American crews equipped Flying Forts in the most vulnerable "tail-end Charlie" position with 20mm cannon, which boasted a 2,000-yard range that was three times that of the heavy machine guns.
He said there a number of surprised fighter pilots who fell victim to the cannon-armed B-17s before the Germans realized their error and changed tactics. Although the B-24s are more famous for their raids against the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti (the main source of petroleum for Nazi forces), Hayatt said his B-17s struck that target seven times.
The B-17s encountered some of the first jet fighters used by the Germans, but Hayatt said it was impossible for bombers' gunners to manually track these speedy attackers. Tallichet, nevertheless, showed that his B-17G could fly well without jet technology.
While lacking the smooth, shrill grace of modern jet power, the plane's four Wright-Cyclone engines showed plenty of muscle as they roared and backfired to life in clouds of oily exhaust.
As Tallichet prepared to take off, he ran each engine up to a certain RPM, resulting in an adrenaline boost mixed with a bone-jangling cacophony for the occupants.
In the air, the plane felt solid but the guest passengers were bounced along in the cozy quarters and one television cameraman lost his footing and tumbled onto the floor. Toward the end of the flight Tallichet opened the bomb bay doors for a dizzy but exhilarating view of a world rushing by literally right below the rider's feet.
The Memphis Belle, however, is somewhat frail. "It takes a little luck to keep the engines going," said Tallichet in noting what was needed to keep a vintage war bird operational. Wright-Cyclone engines are becoming more scarce, and pilots need to baby their vintage planes to conserve these and other components.
Finances are another consideration, and Tallichet takes his Memphis Belle to air shows that pay for the old bomber's tremendous appetite for fuel to help defray costs.