Rowan airport hosts WWII-era B-17 ‘Memphis Belle’ for restoration work

  • Posted: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 8:19 a.m.
    UPDATED: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 8:21 a.m.
Jon C. Lakey/Salisbury Post
Billy Wilson works to remove the seats from the cockpit. The cushions are one of the things being replaced on the B-17 Bomber undergoing an upgrade on the interior by Carolina Avionics based at Rowan Airport.
Jon C. Lakey/Salisbury Post Billy Wilson works to remove the seats from the cockpit. The cushions are one of the things being replaced on the B-17 Bomber undergoing an upgrade on the interior by Carolina Avionics based at Rowan Airport.

A World War II-era bomber banked over Salisbury and turned toward the Rowan County Airport early last week. The B-17 landed a few minutes later and taxied slowly into an area near the airport office.

A large group of spectators welcomed the majestic bird. For a little more than a month, area aviation enthusiasts had anticipated the arrival of one of the world’s most famous planes, the Memphis Belle.


The Belle will stay at the airport for at least two weeks for extensive restoration inside. All of the seats will be recovered by Carolina Avionics and Interiors.

The Liberty Foundation, the Tulsa, Okla.-based owner of the Memphis Belle, contacted Carolina Avionics to do the work. Business owner and manager Gary Jenkins has been in aviation for 41 years, including stints in the U.S. Army and the National Guard. He is a pilot and previously worked at U.S. Airways in avionics, normally defined as electronics in an aircraft.

Nearly 13,000 B-17’s, or “Flying Fortresses” as they were called, were manufactured by Boeing, Lockheed and others during World War II. Only 12 are currently airworthy.

“We are thrilled to have the Memphis Belle here,” Rowan Airport Director Thad Howell said. “Carolina Avionics and Interiors will do excellent work on it.”

Carolina Avionics started 11 years ago in a trailer and now uses three airport hangers, said Jenkins, who lives five minutes from Concord Regional Airport but bases his business in Rowan for its “family environment.”

“Our business has been good while working here on small planes, helicopters and jets,”he said. “We’ve done a few warbirds before, too.”

At present, Jenkins has four interior specialists and three avionics technicians. Carolina Avionics is a FAA 145 repair station, which requires work of a higher standard than other shops, he said.

Airport officials expected the arrival of the Memphis Belle sometime in November but were not sure of the actual date until plans were firmed up recently for it to be part of a military funeral.

Captain Charles Barrier of Concord piloted his own World War ll B-17, dubbed “Remember Me,” for 30 missions. Barrier flew his plane on bombing missions over railroads, factories, and other military targets before receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Barrier died recently, and his family inquired about a flyover, hoping for a B-17. The Concord airport director knew the Memphis Belle was soon to arrive in Salisbury and was able to get permission for the plane to arrive early, fly over the funeral, and wait in Concord till time for the short flight to Salisbury.

Two members of the Barrier family, son Dan and grandson James, flew with the crew to Salisbury.

“It could only have been better if my dad had been flying the plane,” Dan Barrier said.

The Memphis Belle currently in Salisbury and famous for the 1990 movie starring Matthew Modine and Harry Connick, Jr. is not the original Memphis Belle. The original plane gained notoriety as the first B-17 to complete 25 bombing missions with all of its crew intact.

After completing those missions, the plane returned to the U.S. and was flown around the country to promote war bonds. Early in the war, two out of every three B-17s were shot down, and crews with 30 consecutive missions were allowed to finish their military service back in the United States.

The original Memphis Belle was on display in Memphis, Tenn., for many years. The plane was exposed to the elements, causing deterioration, and was stripped of most of its removable parts by vandals. The Air Force now has the plane under restoration at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. It will eventually be displayed in the Air Force Museum in Dayton.

The movie version of the plane was built in 1945, near the end of the war. It never went to service as a bomber, but was used for cargo hauling, troop transport and fire control. Other B-17s continued service in Korea and early in the Vietnam War. After being privately restored, configured and painted to portray the original, this Memphis Belle has continued to tour in the same theme.

B-17 bombers had 13 50-caliber machine guns and 10 crew members. Assembly line production allowed them to be built in as little as an hour. They often carried as much as 6,000 pounds of bombs and required 200 gallons of fuel per hour to fly. Flight durations could be as long as 13 hours. A standard crew included the pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator, two waist gunners, top turret gunner, tail gunner, and belly turret gunner.

The Memphis Belle is currently on tour with the Liberty Foundation, a group of volunteer pilots, mechanics and support personnel who fly to honor current veterans, to educate current and future generations about the price of freedom, and to preserve the nation’s aviation heritage.

Howell, the airport director, said the plane will be at the Rowan Airport for at least another week while Jenkins and his group finish their work. The Memphis Belle will then leave for winter storage before touring again in 2013. The public is welcome to stop by to see the plane, but the interior will not be open.

Additional information is available on both Memphis Belles and the Liberty Foundation at www.libertyfoundation.com

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