Meeting Memphis Belle

vvlk2977.jpg

My first exposure to military aviation came when I was a teenager. I was digging through my brother’s bookcase when a book on the battle of Midway caught my eye. I figured I’d read a page or two but didn’t expect to like it. Several hours later I couldn’t put the book down. We can launch airplanes from ships? Hell yeah! I read as much as I could find about the Pacific battles during WWII. Sure, I knew about the European theater, but the Pacific campaigns captured all my attention.

img_4821.jpgThat changed in 1990 when a movie called Memphis Belle was released. Have you ever had a crush on a movie star? Well that’s kind-of how I felt about the Belle.  I was completely captivated by it, especially when I learned that it was based on a true story. Like any good aviation enthusiast, I wondered what had become of the plane. I was very pleased to discover that it was undergoing restoration nearby and I hoped that one day I’d have the chance to see it in person.

ERTY4430That opportunity came just a few weeks ago. On what was the 75th anniversary of its last mission, the Memphis Belle exhibit opened at the USAF Museum in Dayton. It’s hard to put into words how I felt when I saw the plane for the first time. I had read so much about the Belle and about what the bomber crews went through… So many incredible stories. So many sacrifices. And at long last there she was right in front of me!

The ribbon-cutting ceremony included the USAF Museum director as well as the Air Force Director of Staff. I was surprised, however, that a couple of kids also participated. One was a 13 year old boy from England who completed his first model of the Belle at age 7. Another was a boy who had won a contest for a poster he created. It’s amazing to think that this plane has already made such a big impact on two people who weren’t born until long after the completion of her military service.

While the Memphis Belle was definitely the star of the show, she is just one part of a much bigger exhibit that tells the story of the U.S. Army Air Forces Strategic Bombing missions in Europe.  I learned about the members of her crew, who actually flew their first five missions in different airplanes. Similarly, the crew’s 25th mission was actually the Belle’s 24th. The plane flew one more time with another crew before finishing her tour. I also learned about her iconic nose art and the process that the restoration team went through to determine the best way to display her.

After spending an hour or so exploring the exhibit, we turned our attention to some of the special activities being held that weekend. We started off with a visit to the WWII reenactment camp. Then we took a shuttle over to the runway behind the museum where four WWII planes were parked, including a P-51 and another B-17. Some other planes were scheduled to be there as well, including the movie version of Memphis Belle, but unfortunately the weather kept them away.

Of course, some of the best aviation moments are ones that aren’t planned and happen completely unexpectedly. In this particular case the unexpected came in the form of Air Force One.  Actually, since the President was not on board, it would be more appropriate to refer to it as the VC-25. It was practicing approaches into nearby Wright Patterson AFB. As a result it flew low over the Air Force Museum over and over and over again. Also practicing approaches at the same time was a C-17. We sat and watched them for an hour while we ate lunch. It. Was. AMAZING! I could have watched them all day.

If you weren’t able to attend the opening of the exhibit I have some good news for you – the Memphis Belle is on permanent display! If you are anywhere near the Dayton area, you MUST stop in. I promise you won’t regret it! And if you love B-17s as much as I do, check out the Plane Tales episode: The Luftwaffe Pilot and Ye Olde Pub. It’s the story of a badly damaged B-17 that completed its mission against incredible odds and the unlikely friendship that developed as a result.

Authors’s note: A big thanks to JET (a retired airline employee and current airport ambassador) and his friend Jim for attending the exhibit opening with me!

ULIJ6491

Did I mention that there was a C-17 and it was completely awesome?  Just checking…

All the Presidents’ Planes (and Potties)

img_7503As you probably know by now, I’m a big fan of aviation museums. One of my favorites is the USAF Museum near Dayton Ohio. I first made the journey a couple of years ago and as soon as I stepped inside I lost my mind over the sheer number of completely awesome airplanes. It was my first time seeing an A-10 up close. And the Blackbird. And the amazing Bird of Prey (yes, named after the Klingon ship from Star Trek). And… well, you get the idea. This time, however, it was the Presidential Airplanes exhibit that caught my attention.

img_6349When you think of Presidential Airplanes, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the current Air Force One – a Boeing 747. I’ve had the fortune of seeing it a couple of times recently. However, there have been a number of different planes used to transport the President over the years, and the USAF Museum has several of them including the Lockheed VC-121E, the Douglas VC-118 and the Douglas VC-54C. Perhaps the most well-known plane in the collection is the Boeing VC-137C that flew 8 Presidents – Kennedy through Clinton.

img_7437

OK, so not a Presidential Plane. But if I was the President it would be!

One of the best things about the Presidential Airplanes exhibit is being able to tour the inside of each plane. Some of the passageways are really narrow, but it’s worth fighting off claustrophobia for a chance to see how the Presidents used to travel. I found it quite interesting to compare cockpits and kitchens and seats and beds. Oh how things changed over the years! Take, for example, the Presidential Thrones. You know… potties. Toilets. Loos. Each one as unique as the plane it was on.

 

The Sacred Cow

img_7499

The very first aircraft built specifically for the purpose of transporting the President was the Douglas VC-54C Skymaster. It’s official name was “The Flying White House” but it was nicknamed the “Sacred Cow” (for obvious reasons). The accommodations were luxurious for its day. Actually, they’re still luxurious even by today’s standards. Sit on a couch instead of a tiny seat crammed next to a zillion other tiny seats? Yes please! I wish I could tell you about the Presidential Potty, but sadly it wasn’t on display. I did, however, get to see the elevator used to lift President Roosevelt into the plane in his wheelchair.

The Independence

img_7505

The second Presidential airplane was a Douglas VC-118 (a modified DC-6) called The Independence. I have to admit I was a bit amused to see an old-school pencil sharpener affixed to a wall just outside the cockpit. I guess the pilots and navigators needed lots of sharp pencils so they could write on the paper navigational charts in use back then. Or maybe President Truman just liked doing crossword puzzles.

img_7391

The Presidential Commode is a pretty fancy affair. It is connected to a private dressing room with comfy couches and plenty of space.

Columbine IIIimg_7500

President Eisenhower’s plane is a “Super Connie” that he named Columbine after the state flower of Colorado. The kitchen technology took a big leap forward with a very roomy and well equipped galley that includes not one, but TWO toasters. Because heaven forbid the President be without toast!

img_7369

As for the Presidential Bathroom, it is bigger and better equipped than the one I had in my first apartment! Even the bathroom for the President’s entourage was roomier than expected.

“Going” on a Boeing

img_7502

The Boeing VC-137C is largest and perhaps the most impressive plane in the Presidential collection. It carried 8 sitting Presidents and set the standard for Presidential livery in a lovely blue-and-white designed by Jacqueline Kennedy. One of the things that struck me about this Air Force One (other than the size) is the sheer number of telephones it has. There are phones everywhere!

img_7501

When it came time to view the Presidential Commode you can imagine my disappointment to discover that the bathroom doors were shut! Noooooo! Thankfully the USAF Museum website has a lovely 360 photo that will allow you to see the bathroom in all its golden glory.

Since I’ve already dragged this post into the toilet, it seems only fitting to close out with one last potty pic. Located near the Presidential Airplanes display is a C-141C which has a lavatory that is… well, let’s call it well-decorated.

img_7414