When he was a boy, Casey Simmons spent a lot of time building model airplanes. His favorite was the Memphis Belle, one of the first B-17 heavy bombers to complete 25 combat missions during World War II without losing a single member of its crew.
The plane, immortalized by Hollywood, would become what some consider the most famous Flying Fortress in history.
And while Simmons — a Wright State University alumnus — built many model Memphis Belles as a kid, little did he realize he would someday help restore the real thing. But he spent the past 11 years doing just that.
The fully restored Memphis Belle was unveiled May 16 at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton and has since dazzled thousands of visitors, who throng to the olive-skinned warbird and take in the machine guns poking out of its turrets and the leggy belles painted on its nose.
Simmons vividly remembers the day he first laid eyes on the airplane, when he was a volunteer at the museum.
“I went over to the restoration hangar to see what it was all about and there was the Memphis Belle, sitting in the hangar all by itself,” he recalled. “It kind of hits you. Like, ‘Wow, this is really it.’ And you don’t even think that I could be working on it one day because why would that ever happen?”
Not only did it happen, but it happened in a big way. Simmons has done restoration work in virtually every nook and cranny of the aircraft. He has crawled into the wings. He has lain inside the engine fuselages. He has replaced rivets. And he even painted one of the two Memphis belles on the nose.
“I can see many places on the aircraft where I clearly know that I did that,” he said. “It is kind of like your baby because you spent so much time on it. When you bring it over here for display and you kind of let go of it and it’s not yours anymore — it’s a little hard.”
Simmons grew up in Dayton. His father worked as a mechanical engineer and his brother was also a mechanical engineer and a Wright State graduate.
After Simmons graduated from Colonel White High School in 1998, he came to Wright State on an academic scholarship and majored in anthropology.
“It seemed like a really good fit for me because I was really into archaeology, which is one of the focuses in anthropology,” he said.
Simmons, whose wife currently works at Wright State as the assistant director of academic advising, credits the university with giving him the fundamentals and teaching him that success is built on hard work.
“It’s a set of skills I learned that still sticks with me today,” he said.
After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in 2003, Simmons worked as a supervisor for Wright State’s archaeology field school. He then got a job as a ranger at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park. While Simmons was working at the park, he began volunteering at the Air Force museum in 2007.
“The museum was a place that I came growing up all the time,” he said. “It was something that I really loved and I wanted to be part of that. So I got the opportunity to volunteer in restoration.”
He started out sewing upholstery. Then there was painting and sheet-metal work. Later he was hired on as a student so he could go to school and become licensed as an aircraft mechanic. In 2008, he became a full-time permanent staffer and currently works as a restoration specialist.
Simmons spends most of his time in the museum’s restoration hangar. On his desk, which sits out on the floor, is an autographed picture of Robert Morgan, the Memphis Belle pilot whom Simmons met when Morgan came to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for an air show when Simmons was 12.
The hangar has its own metal shop, wood shop and machine shop. On a table next to Simmons’ desk is a row of blue, plastic-malleted hammers that he uses along with sandbags to shape sheet metal. There are also tiny loaves of steel wool and a pallet of dried puddles of paint that had been blended to create authentic colors.
In addition to restoring airplanes, Simmons must help move them to the museum and sometimes hang them from the ceiling with cables, which he admits can be a little “nerve-wracking.”
Attached to the restoration building is a storage hangar, a cavernous barn-like structure that occasionally becomes the home for wayward birds, who wheel in the air and perch on the ceiling struts. The hangar is perfumed with the oil of the many airplanes it stores, waiting their turn to be restored.
On this day, Simmons is lifting up the cowling of a German Messerschmitt to install clamps on the engine’s fluid line. Then he shows off a Soviet-built MiG-25, one of the fastest military aircraft to ever enter service. The plane was found buried in the sand near Baghdad following the Persian Gulf War.
Simmons’ next restoration project is an Avro 504, a World War I biplane that arrived at the museum in 2003.
“The fabric on it is all splitting apart,” he said. “The work is never going to run out. There are always new things coming in.”
But Simmons’ restoration career has been defined by the Memphis Belle.
The airplane, which was trucked from Memphis, Tennessee, to Dayton in 2005 and was in restoration for more than 12 years, was hardly ready for the big dance when it arrived. The plane was still in pieces when Simmons first saw it. The wings were in sections, as was the fuselage.
“It didn’t look like a B-17 unless you really knew what you were looking at,” Simmons said.
Simmons said the toughest part of restoring the Belle was “getting it just exactly right.”
“You have to drill out all the rivets, make your new skin, make all the holes match, put little clamps all into place where the rivets go,” he said. “Then you start riveting, just exactly how they would have done it then.”
The Belle, which appears as it did shortly after its final mission, was painted with an original World War II style of paint and the exact color, which took mixing and blending different colors 25 times to achieve. In addition, the plane’s tail had been shot up during one of its bombing runs and the new shade of green on the tail didn’t match that of the rest of the plane. So the restorationists had to replicate the mismatch.
If something didn’t look quite right, Simmons would dig into the archives and review some of the historic photographs.
Simmons also painted one of the two Memphis belles, modeled after Morgan’s sweetheart Margaret Polk, on the nose of the plane.
Simmons said it was a challenge because the historic photographs of the nose art were grainy and blurry or taken in the shadows or at an angle.
“Her hair is completely different than what people think it is,” he said. “You think she has that classic 1940s part in the back of her hair, but it’s more like a ponytail. So it’s just getting that detail.”
And the nose art had to be painted in one take or the whole section of the plane would have had to have been repainted. “It was really hard because you can’t mess up,” he said.
About a dozen staff members and as many as 40 volunteers helped restore the plane, putting in 55,000 hours of work.
“Even though it was 11 years — and that’s a long time — look at the results. It’s amazing what can happen,” said Simmons. “It doesn’t even look like the same airplane.”
Simmons also sewed a replica uniform for the mascot of the Memphis Belle.
After the Belle completed its 25th mission, it returned to the United States and went on a national tour to raise money for war bonds to finance military operations. The co-pilot bought a Scottish terrier he named Stuka, after a German dive bomber. The dog became the Belle’s mascot and would appear in public in a tiny military uniform with staff sergeant stripes.
For the Belle’s unveiling at the Air Force museum, a Scottish terrier was brought in to portray the mascot. Simmons got his hands on an original service uniform and produced a replica for the terrier.
“We got measurements on the dog, went back with a pattern and came back and made the final thing,” said Simmons. “He was a big hit with a lot of people. He even got to ride in one of the B-17s that were here.”
Simmons said the Memphis Belle is special because it means so much to so many people and symbolizes U.S. success in World War II. The 1990 movie “Memphis Belle” starring Matthew Modine and Harry Connick Jr. helped create additional public interest in the plane. Simmons estimates he has watched the film as many as 30 times.
During the unveiling at the museum, several descendants of the Memphis Belle crew thanked Simmons for his work.
“They were all so happy with how it looked, of how the whole thing went. They were very grateful for what we had done for the airplane,” he said. “It was neat to see a lot of them because you would see some of their sons and they looked very similar to the person you had been looking at in this picture for a long, long time.”
The restoration of the Belle has gotten national attention. Simmons has been interviewed by dozens of media outlets, including The Associated Press and the Smithsonian Channel.
On a recent weekday at the museum, visitors were clustering around the Memphis Belle, which is displayed in the museum’s World War II Gallery. Many of them were taking photos with their phones. One man was lying flat on his back to get an upward angle.
“It looks like it just came off the factory floor,” said Stanley Loeb, of Cincinnati. “If it took 11 years, it must have been somebody’s passion to spend that amount of time. They probably touched every inch of it. And it came out great.”
Robert Buls and his wife, Elizabeth, both Wright State graduates, came from their home in Memphis to see the airplane.
“It’s fabulous,” he said. “To get this close to the actual aircraft in detail is terrific.”
“We were sorry to see it go,” Elizabeth added, “but we’re loving how well they did the restoration.”
Simmons said restorationists work to save history and try to do as little as possible with aircraft to preserve their historical accuracy.
“You want to make the airplane look great, but you don’t want to change it so much that it’s something that it wasn’t,” he said. “You have to be very careful not to change history just to make it look better.”