Tuesday, August 28, 2012

ALL AMERICAN BOMBER: MYTH AND FACTS




The following email has been widely circulated among aviation enthusiasts.  I’m including the original message between the asterisks, followed by facts that eluded the anonymous messenger:



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A mid-air collision on February 1, 1943, between a B-17 and a German fighter over the Tunis dock area, became the subject of one of the most famous photographs of World War II.   An enemy fighter attacking a 97th Bomb Group formation went out of control then continued its crashing descent into the rear of the fuselage of a Flying Fortress named All American, piloted by Lt. Kendrick R. Bragg, of the 414th Bomb Squadron.

When it struck, the fighter broke apart but left some pieces in the B-17. The left horizontal stabilizer of the Fortress and left elevator were completely torn away. The two right engines were out and one on the left had a serious oil pump leak. The vertical fin and the rudder had been damaged, the fuselage had been cut almost completely through connected only at two small parts of the frame and the radios, electrical and oxygen systems were damaged.  There was also a hole in the top that was over 16 feet long and 4 feet wide at its widest and the split in the fuselage went all the way to the top gunner's turret.

Although the tail actually bounced and swayed in the wind and twisted when the plane turned and all the control cables were severed, except one single elevator cable still worked, and the aircraft still flew - miraculously!  The tail gunner was trapped because there was no floor connecting the tail to the rest of the plane. The waist and tail gunners used parts of the German fighter and their own parachute harnesses in an attempt to keep the tail from ripping off and the two sides of the fuselage from splitting apart. 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 great 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. When they tried to do the same for the tail gunner, the tail began flapping so hard that it began to break off. The weight of the gunner was adding some stability to the tail section, so he went back to his position.

The turn back toward England had to be very slow to keep the tail from twisting 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 Me-109 German fighters attacked the All American. Despite the extensive damage, all of the machine gunners were able to respond to these attacks and soon drove off the fighters. 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 tail gunner had to shoot in short bursts because the recoil was actually causing the plane to turn. 

Allied P-51 fighters intercepted the All American as it crossed over the Channel and took one of the pictures shown. They also radioed to the base describing that the empennage was waving like a fish tail and that the plane would not make it and to send out boats to rescue the crew when they bailed 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 made the decision 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. 

When the ambulance pulled alongside, it was waved off because not a single member of the crew had been injured. 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.

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Who(m)ever wrote the foregoing should stick to writing PR brochures, as that’s apparently his profession.

Here’s some background based on a few minutes Googling:

Firstly:

The 97th Bomb Group originally was assigned to the 8th Air Force, flying missions from Britain between August and October 1942.  The next month the group moved to North Africa.  At the time of the incident described, the 97th’s base was Biskra Oasis, Algeria, about 150 miles west of the Tunisian border.  Author of the email was too damn lazy to check such basic facts and ASSUMED the group remained in England.

Some of the facts were readily available for anyone bothering to check.  A Wikipedia entry (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:B-17-battle-casualty1.gif) shows the U.S. Army caption which includes, “The aircraft was able to land safely on her home base in Biskra, Tunisia.”

Anybody can do the math as to whether a UK-based B-17 could fly the mission described and return to England before running out of fuel.  The straight-line round trip would be nearly 2,300 miles, mostly over occupied Europe.  Furthermore, 2 1/2 hours back to a British base about 1,300 miles from Tunis would produce a 460 mph groundspeed, on two engines!  Actually, Tunis was 350 miles from the 97th’s base, hence an actual return groundspeed of c. 140 mph.

Secondly:

The P-51s allegedly providing escort over the Channel did not exist yet.  Merlin Mustangs only entered combat in November 10 months later.  

Some additional info:

According to historian Steve Birdsall on the Army Air Forces forum, the German pilot was Sergeant Erich Paczia, a triple ace of 6/JG 53 flying a Bf 109G.  Online research reveals that on that day his squadron claimed one B-17 at Pont du Fahs, south of Tunis, credited to Ltn. Julius Meimberg (total 53 victories).

After receiving a new tail the composite All American continued flying until salvaged in March 1945, according to a 97th Bomb Group site.

Today’s lesson: never-ever assume anything that crosses your computer screen is accurate unless it contains sources.  And even then, remain skeptical.

Finally: OBVIOUSLY Boeing was stiffing the taxpayers if it knew its products did not need two horizontal stabilizers!  Maybe that’s why so many travelers prefer Boeing to Air Bus…

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