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.
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.”
But Simmons’ restoration career has been defined by the Memphis Belle.
The airplane, which was trucked from Memphis, Tennessee, to Dayton in 2005, 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 on 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.
“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.”
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.”
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