In 1944, the United States was at war. The nation’s defense industries were ramping up, and, as usual, Texas was playing its part.
The Bell Aircraft Corporation (later part of the aerospace giant Lockheed) had just opened a facility near Big Spring, installing wartime production quotas from day one. The facility’s name, Hangar 25, was, of course, itself a relic: there had been a hangar on the site before, and the name had been kept.
Big Spring was the center of Bell’s aircraft production in Texas, and by the end of the war it had produced more than 60,000 military aircraft. The Bell plant employed more than 30,000 workers, most of them local. The workers earned decent wages, had decent benefits, and, for the first time in their lives, were free of the sometimes-violent competition of the city’s many migrant laborers.
The Bell plant was, in many ways, the embodiment of the promise of modern industrial society. But it didn’t last long.
In 1945, the war ended. The Bell plant shut down. Employees were sent home. Bell’s workforce was cut in half. What had seemed at the time like a golden era for Big Spring turned out to have only begun.
In 1952, the Bell plant reopened, this time making helicopters. Big Spring was building helicopters.
In 1955, the Bell plant closed again. By this time, the Bell plant had lost its aeronautical and military markets. Bell’s biggest customers were the armed forces, and the militaries of the world had changed dramatically. Helicopters were no longer necessary.
The museum’s main exhibit is a replica of a World War II Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. When its engines were working, the B-17 could hold 50,000 pounds of bombs and fly at 575 miles per hour, making it one of the fastest and heaviest aircraft of World War II.
The B-17 was faster and more heavily armed than the B-24 Liberator, the bomber in which the famous Doolittle Raid took place. That raid launched 16 B-25 Mitchell medium bombers from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier. They flew 3,300 miles, dropped their bombs and flew over Tokyo before landing in China. The raid accomplished its objective of demonstrating that the Japanese had large cities and that American bombers could strike them.
The B-17 was the fastest bomber of its time, and a major part of its mission was to bomb Germany. The B-17 used to fly over Germany in World War II, dropping bombs on Nazi targets. The bomber’s crew also flew it to Japan, where it flew in support of American troops.
The B-17 was a dangerous aircraft. Its engines were loud, and there was an exhaust fire risk. Its machine guns, while powerful, were slow to reload. There was no parachute to protect a crew from a crash. And its bomb bay doors were heavy, making them difficult to operate.
The B-17’s crew was trained to handle battle damage and accidents. The B-17’s 75 tons of fuel were so dangerous that it had to be in gun turrets or below the bomb bay, not in the belly of the plane.