Historic ‘Memphis Belle’ leaves Salisbury behind for now

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 22, 2012

When the high winds abated on Saturday afternoon, Liberty Foundation Captain Ray Fowler taxied the big B-17 bomber away toward the runway at the Rowan County Airport. Four huge engines and powerful propellers pushed the plane south on the runway as it gathered speed. Cars and spectators had already lined the runway for a last fleeting glance of the famous plane and they were not disappointed this time as she lifted skyward.
The “Movie Memphis Belle” had spent three weeks on display at the airport while the plane had extensive interior work completed by Carolina Avionics and Interiors. Originally scheduled to depart at noon on Friday, the plane’s crew waited just one more night as the winds lessened.
Fowler flew in on his own small plane from Atlanta, before piloting the Memphis Belle to Canton, Ga., for maintenance work.
While the plane remained at the airport, staff welcomed visitors to view the exterior of the plane that starred in the movie of the same name. Veterans and families of veterans had many special stories to tell about the B-17, dubbed the “Flying Fortress,” and others like it.
“The Memphis Belle’s presence has allowed our community to experience a significant piece of history. Over the last several weeks, we have enjoyed sharing the aircraft with visitors and have been privileged to hear their stories. The airport is fortunate to have businesses with exceptional reputations that attract clients such as the Memphis Belle,” said airport Director Thad Howell.
The plane itself actually never went to war, but was manufactured late in World War ll, then saw service in fire control and troop transport. It was eventually purchased, outfitted and contracted to portray the original Memphis Belle in the movie of the same name. Currently the plane is leased to the Liberty Foundation and tours the United States to promote remembrance of the sacrifices given by our military veterans.
The original Memphis Belle is undergoing restoration at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, and will eventually be housed in the United States Air Force Museum.
Many of those veterans were on hand Friday and came back on Saturday for the departure. One of those was Tom Foreman of Oak Park Retirement Home. Foreman flew nine combat missions on a B-17, serving as a top turret gunner and an engineer. He was a member of the 96th Bomb Group and 413th Squadron.
As he walked around the plane, Foreman said, “This plane sure stirs memories, some good and bad. Once we had a live bomb stuck, and I had to go down in the bomb bay and try to kick it loose while I was standing on 8 inches of steel. I didn’t want to do it, but was ordered to. We usually tried to get rid of them over the English Channel before we landed, but this one might have hit a German chicken house when it finally fell.”
Foreman also laughed about his habit of lying on a parachute and hooked up to an oxygen bottle as he caught a nap on the return trips from their bombing runs.
Kathryn Jolly came to see the Memphis Belle depart the airport and brought her daughter Sarah Osteen and Kaleb Sinclair. Jolly had plans to spend the afternoon watching the movie with her daughter who had never seen it. Following that, she hoped to continue the history lesson by watching the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Jolly, whose son Michael Osteen is serving on an aircraft carrier in the Middle East, said, “This is a part of history and it is awesome for Rowan County to have it here. What a wonderful opportunity for the Rowan Airport and Carolina Avionics. They could have taken this plane anywhere.”
Howell added, “We hope to have the Memphis Belle back next summer when rides will be available. She certainly helped us raise awareness of the airport and gave us the opportunity to meet a lot of fine people.”

David Freeze flew on the Memphis Belle to Atlanta on Saturday afternoon and will continue his coverage in a future article.