Thursday, January 10, 2013

WW II Bomber B-17 was beyond a flying tank

This B-17 aircraft, of USAF not only created history but also boosted the morale of Allied Forces during WWII

Those interested in aviation will be able to appreciate this breathtaking unique and unrealistic looking bombing sortie of WW II. 

It is 1st of February, 1943. World War II is on.  German Messerschmidt fighters are firing on Allied Forces' (USAF) B-17 Bomber over Tunis* dock area in Allied Territory. No one knows that this sortie is going to become the subject of one of the most famous photographs of World War II. 

* Located on the Northern most tip of African continent, Tunis is capital of Tunisia. During WW II, it was a French Colony and was liberated in 1956.

Wounded pilot Lt. Kendrick R. Bragg, and co pilot of 414th Bomb Squadron are finding difficult to manage to keep the "flying fortress" in the air as it is continuing to descend and gradually going out of control. Another hit breaks the B-17 aircraft apart, but strong base of the fuselage is keeping it fixed to the aircraft. Vital controls are working but sluggishly.
Left horizontal stabilizer of B-17 and left elevator are completely torn away. Out of 4 engines, both the right engines are dead and one on the left has a serious oil pump leak. The vertical fin and the rudder are damaged by enemy firing; half of the fuselage is damaged. Parts of main frame, radios, electrical and oxygen systems are damaged. There is 16 feet long and 4 feet wide hole in the fuselage and the top gunners are without cover.
Tail is bouncing and swaying in the wind and it gets twisted when the plane turns.   With just a single elevator cable still working, - miraculously, the aircraft is still flying.
In an attempt to keep the tail from separating in air and two sides of the fuselage from splitting apart, the waist and tail gunners used parts of their parachute harnesses to tie the ends.
While the crew was trying to keep the bomber from coming apart, the pilot continued on his bomb run and released his bombs over the target.

When the bomb bay doors were opened, the wind turbulence was so strong that it blew one of the waist gunners into the broken tail section. It took several minutes and four crew members to pass him ropes from parachutes and haul him back into the forward part of the plane.

The turn back to England for this USAF B17 bomber had to be very slow to keep the tail from twisting and falling off. They actually covered almost 70 miles to make the turn home. The bomber was so badly damaged that it was losing altitude and speed and was soon alone in the sky. For a brief time, two more Messerschmidt Me-109 German fighters attacked this USAF aircraft. Despite the extensive damage and some injuries to the gunners, they responded to these attacks and soon drove the fighters off.  The two waist gunners stood up with their heads sticking out through the hole in the top of the fuselage to aim and fire their machine guns.
The extent of damage can be better understood by the fact that the tail gunner had to shoot in short bursts, because the recoil was actually causing the plane to turn.

Allied P-51 fighters intercepted the German attack as it crossed over English Channel and took one of the pictures shown above. They also radioed to the base describing that the bomber was waving like a fish tail and that the plane may not be able to reach base and advised to position boats to rescue the crew when they would bail out. The fighters stayed with the Fortress taking hand signals from Lt. Bragg and relaying them to the base.
Lt. Bragg signaled that 5 parachutes and the spare had been "used" so five of the crew could not bail out. He decided that if they could not bail out safely, then he would stay with the plane and land it.

Two and a half hours after being hit, the aircraft made its final turn to line up with the runway while it was still over 40 miles away. It descended into an emergency landing and a normal roll-out on its landing gear.

No one could believe that the aircraft could still fly in such a condition. The Fortress sat placidly until the crew all exited through the door in the fuselage and the tail gunner had climbed down a ladder, at which time the entire rear section of the aircraft collapsed onto the ground. The rugged old bird had done its job.

It also speaks high of the rugged quality of aircraft that could withstand so much of harshness. As compared to today's aircraft, where the tolerance is sacrificed to reduce weight, the new generation of aircraft may not be able to see so much of tough handling.

V S Saxena


  1. Many of my friends and contacts have liked this Blog and sent me a mail of appreciation. I am thankful to them for their gesture and appreciation.

    I would rather appreciate and request you to convey your comments on the space provided on this very page.

    Thanks and Regards

    V S Saxena

  2. One of my friends Mr U S Dhariwal from Rohtak (Haryana, India) has sent me a mail with the following contents:

    "The element of Sacrifice in your blog is really extraordinary and exemplary.

    Though five crew members including 2 pilots, had parachutes. The three non flying crew were ordered to bail out, and they could have easily done so.

    But No!

    Since they had fought the battle together, they requested Captain to reverse orders. They wanted the same fate that their colleagues would have.

    This is the spirit that wins wars. My salute to the great sons of American soil. A nation that has such dedicated soldiers in its Forces, can never face any defeat in any war in any corner of the world.

    Thank you Vijay for your wonderful blog. Keep writing, I am reading:
    U S Dhariwal. (Rohtak)"

  3. Very informative for the next generation