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Memphis Belle has extended stay in Rutherford; to the delight of historians

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The Movie Memphis Belle sits on the tarmac at the Rutherford County Airport. To honor the original plane's name, owners of this plane added the two words.

World War II history came alive recently to the delight of many as a Memphis Belle Boeing B-17 bomber landed at the Rutherford County Airport. The original Memphis Belle that flew in that war was one of the first United States Army Air Forces B-17 heavy bombers to complete 25 combat missions.

Flying in Wednesday morning Oct. 30 to refuel and visited with airport staff and friends, the stay was extended due to inclement weather. The plane and its two pilots were grounded until Friday morning.

"The crew decided to land due to inclement weather at the Monroe Executive Airport," said Devon Raisch, manager of the Rutherford County Airport.

"Little did we know for the next three days we would enjoy chatting with the crew about the aircraft and looking at a beautiful piece of history sitting here in Rutherford County.

"We are hoping that perhaps next year when they return for air shows in this area that they will stop in again and we can open the airport for a community day with this wonderful crew and amazing aircraft," Raisch said.

As the aircraft was flying over the area on Wednesday, local pilot and businessman Russell Hyde said he radioed the pilots flying the B-17 and asked if they'd buzz the airport.

"They told me they'd do better than that, they'd land," Hyde said.

County officials, airport staff and others interested in World War II history and flying came to the airport to see and tour the historical plane.

Area pilot George Ronan took a seat in the cockpit where pilot Kyle explained the instruments.

Although this particular B-17 bomber never flew in a war battle, it is the same plane used in the 1990 feature film, Memphis Belle. When there was an issue years ago over the trademark name of the original B-17 Memphis Belle that is housed at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio, the plane that landed in Rutherford County had to take on a new name, The Movie Memphis Belle, explained pilot Rob Gillman.

History says World War II Memphis Belle Captain Robert K. Morgan's crew flew 29 combat missions with the 324th Bomb Squadron, all but four in the Memphis Belle.

The aircraft was named after pilot Morgan's sweetheart, Margaret Polk, a resident of Memphis, Tennessee.

In his memoirs, Morgan claimed that during his publicity tour he flew the B-17 between the Buncombe County Courthouse and the City Hall of Asheville, his home town.

Rutherford County Manager Steve Garrison said there is a plaque between the buildings in Asheville that tell Morgan's story.

According to the account of the day, Morgan wrote that after leaving a local airport he decided to buzz the town, telling his copilot, Captain Verinis, "I think we'll just drive up over the city and give them a little goodbye salute." Morgan turned the bomber down Patton Avenue, a main thoroughfare, toward downtown Asheville. When he observed the courthouse and the city hall (two tall buildings that are only about 50 ft. apart) dead ahead, he lowered his left wing in a 60 degree bank and flew between the structures. He wrote that the city hall housed an AAF weather detachment whose commanding officer allegedly complained immediately to the Pentagon, but was advised by a duty officer that "Major Morgan...has been given permission to buzz by."

Pilot Gillam said one of his greatest honors was to have the opportunity to fly on occasion with Morgan. Veteran Morgan died in 2004.

Like The Movie Memphis Belle, a few other remaining planes are used today as promotional and educational tools for the B-17 bombers and the role they played in World War II.

When the plane left Rutherford County on Friday morning, climbing into a Carolina blue morning sky, she was flying to Stewart, Florida to participate in an air show. There children were given the opportunity to take rides and tour the piece of history that Rutherford County folks enjoyed last week.

It was a week to remember.

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