The Restoration of the B-17F Memphis Belle (Featuring Booth Felt Strips)

The Aviation Restoration of the Memphis Belle

Photo by Ken LaRock, courtesy of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

As industrial felt makers, the Booth Felt Co. Inc. frequently works with the aviation, aerospace, and automotive industries, along with many other segments of engineering, to deliver the right felt products to make their cutting-edge machines, engines, and innovations perform.

This has been our company’s heritage since 1905. And every now and then, we are reminded of one of the once cutting-edge machines from our past. Last year, that treasure from another era was the legendary B-17F Memphis Belle, which Booth Felt was called upon to play a small role in restoring to her full original glory.  

The B-17F Memphis Belle™ was the first U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber to complete 25 missions over Europe and return to the United States (no small feat during the war). In service between November 1942 and May 1943, it was truly an icon of the Air Force and a symbol of American pride and determination during the WWII years.

Though the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress sustained substantial damage on several combat missions, it made it safely back to America and embarked on a morale-boosting tour across the country to sell war bonds. It then came upon what would ultimately be its hardest times: As it sat unused, vandals looted most of the interior, including the pilot seats, controls, and the instrument panels.

An Ambitious Aviation Restoration Effort Begins

In 2005, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, in Dayton, Ohio, took possession of the Belle, with the goal of restoring her to her full original form. But reviving the Memphis Belle would prove no simple feat for the museum’s aviation restoration staff. In fact, it was about 13 years from the time it arrived in Dayton to the May 2018 debut of the finished aircraft.

What took so long? Well, in addition to stripping the paint, corrosion treatment, repairing the tail, and a meticulous repainting process that involved replicating the exact paint and typefaces of the plane’s decals, the staff had to track down missing parts and equipment. With fewer than 100 B-17s (of 13,700 originally built) still existing today, coming across spare structural parts wasn’t exactly an easy mission.

The restoration team had to fabricate many parts with molds, such as the plexiglass in the top turret. They rebuilt the engines using elements from the museum’s vast store of aircraft parts. They were on the hunt for all the original pieces, down to the smallest detail.  

Booth Felt to the Rescue!

Several of those missing original pieces were strips of F1 grade wool felt, often used in war-era fighter planes. The aviation restoration team had pulled a Booth Felt style number off the aircraft blueprint from the early 1940s, and one of the engineers reached out for any help in locating the materials.

Fortunately, and to our engineer friend’s great relief, Booth Felt is still producing the same high-quality felt products—with the same style numbers! This application called for a 3/32” thickness. Our team was able to skive the material to the exact thickness specification require and supply the museum with the felt strip replacements. We were proud to donate all materials and labor to the fantastic, patriotic restoration. (Read the fantastic account of the entire restoration project in Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine.)

The Boeing B-17F Memphis Belle cockpit undergoing restoration in 2018 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force’s restoration hangar. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)

Here’s part of a 2018 progress update from the engineer, which we hope he won’t mind that we’re sharing with our readers:

“I’m making progress on the Memphis Belle’s radio room floor. I’ve cut all five pieces and aligned holes for the screws that’ll hold them in place. Next step will be to remove all the pieces and glue rubber matting to the top sides and glue the felt strips that you provided in place.

B-17s were not designed for 69-year-old men to get into and out of easily.

The aircraft has been primed and we’re getting ready to apply the final coat. They’ve announced a May 19th roll-out date, the 75th anniversary of the aircraft’s last bombing mission.”

The restoration team wrapped up right on schedule, and on May 17, 2018, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force unveiled the fully restored B-17F with a three-day celebration. The Booth Felt crew eagerly read news and watched footage of the finished Memphis Belle in all her glory. We were happy to have played our small part in that amazing labor of love.

Have a restoration story involving Booth Felt to share with our readers? Drop us a note at sales@spectex.com. We love to hear about our customers’ endeavors big and small.

Categories: Customer Spotlight | General | Industrial Applications