Honoring the Memphis Belle and a plane Gus Grissom once flew

Robert Houk • Mar 26, 2017 at 12:00 AM

The Memphis Belle, the legendary B-17 “Flying Fortress” from World War II, now has a place of honor in the Tennessee Blue Book. The state General Assembly has named the Boeing four-engine bomber, which was one of the first from the Allies to be credited with completing  25 missions over Europe, as Tennessee’s official airplane.

The Memphis Belle was named for the hometown of the sweetheart of the plane’s pilot, Capt. Robert Morgan, who was a native of Asheville, N.C. Morgan died at his home in Asheville in 2004.

After completing their tour of duty, Morgan and his crew flew the Memphis Belle back to the United States to sell war bonds and drum up support for the war effort. When the war ended, the Memphis Belle — like so many other planes, tanks and battleships at the time — was slated to be salvaged. City leaders in Memphis, however, had other plans for the famous bomber. In early 1946, they traveled to Oklahoma and purchased the Memphis Belle for $350.

The plane was a part of civic pride in Memphis and was displayed at various sites around the city, including Mud Island, where it sat before finally being shipped to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, for restoration. That work has taken much time and money because the plane had fallen into great disrepair.

The saga of the Memphis Belle prompted me to recall a similar story involving a piece of aviation history in Johnson City. Many readers might remember the Lockheed T-33 two-seat jet that was loaned to the city by the Air Force for display in 1966. The aircraft, which was developed in 1948 to train pilots for the T-80 “Shooting Star” fighter plane during the Korean War, was first displayed at Kiwanis Park before vandalism and graffiti forced the city to relocate it to the Boys and Girls Club property on West Market Street. Following years of deterioration, the T-33 was moved across the street in 1995 to what was then the National Guard Armory where it remained until a city employee inquired about its whereabouts four years later.

When Ed Fennell, who was serving as the city’s personnel director at the time, learned of the T-33’s fate, he asked the city manager if he and other members of the Johnson City Radio Controllers (a radio-controlled airplane flying club) could restore the aircraft at no cost to the city. Fennell and his team relocated the plane to the city’s former Bowser Ridge Landfill property near Eastern Star Road.

The restored plane was finally dedicated at its new and secure location in 2000. Fennell said last week the T-33 now rests “on top of a landfill instead of being in one.”

He and his colleagues learned an interesting fact about the T-33 during the course of their restoration work: It served as a “chase” plane for NASA during the earky 1960s. One of its pilots was Virgil “Gus” Grissom, a Mercury and Apollo astronaut, who was the first American to fly into space twice.

Grissom died in 1967, along with astronauts Ed White and Roger Chaffee, in a fire during a launch rehearsal for the Apollo 1 mission.


Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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