By Adam Estes
Of all the aircraft of WWII, few have had quite the cultural impact as the B-17, known in history as the “Memphis Belle.” This veteran of the 91st Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, was the first to be flown across the country on a highly publicized war bond tour. It was the subject of the excellent William Wyler wartime documentary in 1944, The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Wartime Flying Fortress; and in the highly-fictionalized, yet still entertaining,1990 version of the film, Memphis Belle. While the original Memphis Belle would spend decades on display in Memphis, Tennessee, before ultimately being meticulously restored and displayed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, in Dayton, Ohio, another B-17 that bears the name and nose art of the Memphis Belle—the one that was used extensively in the 1990 film–is currently undergoing extensive maintenance at the Palm Springs Air Museum, where the desert environment of the Coachella Valley stands in sharp contrast to its old roost in upstate New York.
While much has already been said about the history of this aircraft, especially through Scott Thompson’s excellent book, “Final Cut: The Postwar B-17 Flying Fortress and Survivors,” this summarized version of the aircraft’s story has it built under license by Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, California in 1945. before serving as a VIP transport in the post-war USAF. It then spent about 20 years as a fire tanker, dousing wildfires across the western United States before being acquired by a WWII B-17 pilot turned restaurateur and aircraft owner/collector, David Tallichet. He built it to resemble an F-variant as part of the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation (MARC). 44-83546 was most famously used as one of five B-17’s in the 1990 film “Memphis Belle.” Since then, it has toured the country at numerous airshows, first out of the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale, New York, and then with the National Warplane Museum in Geneseo, New York. The aircraft also spent some time flying tours with The Liberty Foundation after the near total loss of the B-17G “Liberty Belle” (44-83690) before resuming operations at Geneseo.
The arrival of the Memphis Belle, featured in the movie of 1990, to Palm Springs was the result of negotiations between the Palm Springs Air Museum, the National Warplane Museum, and the Tallichet family/MARC. All parties agreed that this aircraft, having sat for two years, should be returned to warmer and less humid weather. The movie version of the Memphis Belle set off from Geneseo on November 12, 2021, to arrive in Palm Springs on the 13th. Its arrival was marked with a full escort of two P-51 Mustangs (named Bunny and Man O’ War, respectively) and a T-28 Trojan before taxiing to the museum for a welcoming ceremony. Since then, the aircraft, which is still officially owned by the Tallichet family through the MARC, has been going through a continuous and extensive overhaul. At times, this was interrupted when the hangar was needed for event space, but otherwise, the work has been steady.
According to Fred Bell, Vice Chairman of the Palm Springs Air Museum, the propellers have been completed and waiting to be reattached to the aircraft’s engines. In addition to an inspection of the wings, work continues on the carburetors, and the interior of the tail has been the subject of some recent metalwork. The museum expects to return the aircraft to the skies by January of the coming year. Bell also states that the aircraft will no longer offer rides to paying passengers but will be an active participant in museum events and in airshows alongside the museum’s warbirds, such as the P-51 Bunny and Man O’ War.
The Palm Springs Air Museum also has another former fire tanker B-17 in their hangars, the B-17G 44-85778, known as “Miss Angela.” Although the aircraft has not been flown in recent years, it has been kept in excellent condition in its own dedicated hangar and is open to docent-led interior tours from the cockpit to the waist section, with the tail and ball turrets open for viewing but not visitor entry. For further information and to donate, visit the Palm Springs Air Museum’s website that’s dedicated to the restoration and continual maintenance of the Memphis Belle that appeared in the 1990 movie.