The Toughest Plane Ever Built? Take a Look

World War II inspired intense experimentation human and mechanical. My mother’s affair with a flight surgeon, for instance, was a personal experiment, more or less intentional, that was in turn part of a larger, accidental experiment in which millions of people were uprooted from their daily lives and dropped into intense situations with strangers. Much domestic disruption.

Another experiment was the empirical field-testing of aircraft. Is this great trial, the B-17 Flying Fortress put up one of most impressive displays, proving not only an effective carrier of firepower (the plane delivered over a 3rd of the ordnance dropped by the allies in Europe and much of the ordnance dropped in the Pacific) but an astoundingly tough plane. Pilots and crews soon learned that the B-17s, which flew tens of thousands of missions under heavy antiaircraft and fighter-plane pressure, could take extraordinary damage and still get home. A site called Dave’s Warbirds carries a particularly impressive series of photos showing planes that survived incredible damage and got home.

Some of these produced incredibly close calls for entire crews; others killed some crew and left others to get home.

Here, for instance, a rocket fired by an enemy fighter ripped a hole in a B-17 called The Sack: According to Dave’s Warbirds, a 14-inch fragment of the rocket tore the pants off the turret gunner without hurting him. SOURCE: Target: Germany by Life Magazine and The Mighty Eighth by Roger A. Freeman)

This B-17 took from a around of antiaircraft fire Messerschmidt’s 88 mm cannons, however, that blew the radio operator and the ball turret gunner out of the aircraft:

When flak struck just next to this ball turret (being inspected below by a crewman), the gunner got away with some frostbite and the loss of a little toe:

Some of the nose hits are impressive. Captions by Dave’s Warbirds:

"Two men in the nose killed instantly, power lines ruptured, plexiglass blown away, nose and engines riddled -- but she came home. Source: Black Thursday, by Martin Caiden

Enemy 20mm cannon hits ignited electrical equipment in the nose of "Belle of Maryland", including the pilot's instrument panel. Numerous fire extinguishers barely kept the fire under control until landing (with a burning engine as well). As soon as the B-17 came to a stop the nose erupted in flames, and while the crew escaped safely, the bomber was ruined beyond repair. Source: Mighty Eighth War Diary by Roger A. Freeman
Tinkertoy, 'jinx ship' of the 381st BG, after the October 8, 1943 mission to Bremen, Germany. Men point to holes made by 20mm cannon shells which decapitated the pilot. SOURCE: The Mighty Eighth by Roger A. Freeman

Some, of course, had no chance  of coming home:

B-17G-15-BO "Wee Willie", 322d BS, 91st BG, after direct flak hit on her 128th mission. Via Wikipedia.

The  “All American,” of the 97th Bomber Group, made arguably the most astonishing return. (The 97th operated out of Tunisia; among the astounding photos at this memorial site is one of Winston Churchill visiting a morning briefing. There’s also one of a B-17 ditching in the Mediterranean — the type of situation to which Angus, my mother’s lover, few rescue missions to salvage.) The huge gash in the plane’s section rose from a collision with an enemy fighter, whose wing sliced almost clean through the fuselage:

The tail gunner was trapped at the rear of the plane because the floor connecting his section to the rest of the plane was gone. The plane, piloted by a Lieutenant Kendrick Bragg, flew 90 minutes back to base with the tail barely hanging on. By one account, it wagged like a dog’s tail, and the pilot, after dropping his bombs, made a U-turn 70 miles across so as not to stress the tail.  When the plane landed and came to a stop, the tail finally broke off.

As the Reddog site notes, the All American got home because the designers built some redundancy into it. It was a very tough plane:

The ONLY reason that machine broke apart on landing is that, notice, the rear landing wheel has been carried away, and all the weight is being put on the bottom of the rear gunner’s station. The machine is not designed to do this with such structural damage.

The rear surface control cables are remarkably tough. Two sets of overhead control cables can be seen in the waist photos. I wonder if there is another port and starboard set under the floor. Hard to see how they remained functional otherwise, the top of the fuselage is gone so far down.

Losing the port stabilizer left the starboard stabilizer functional, apparently. Cannot see how the machine could be controlled otherwise. This was designed in, otherwise impossible. A machine designed, intended, for war.

My 9 year-old son is currently fascinated with World War II planes, and as we recently experienced at an airshow at the old USAAF air base in Duxford, England, it’s hard not to admire the sheer flying beauty of many of the World War II warplanes. The Spitfire and the P-38 Lightning are particularly beautiful craft, and to have them fly aerobatics over your head is to experience a particular sort of awe and elation.

Yet as my father-in-law, a retired Brigadier General from the USAF Reserve, is fond of reminding my son, we should never glorify war, for there is nothing more horrid; and World War II was the most horrid of all: slaughter in every quarter, and a world of hurt that still rings loud. Yet I find it hard not to admire the resilience of both the people who fought the war and some of the machines they built. I’m not quite sure how to square the horror and the admiration.


Image at top: A B-17 damaged by flak over Cologne, Germany. Two crew died. 1st Lt. Lawrenece DeLancey got the plane back to England. Via Dave’s Warbirds; source: Air War Against Hitler’s Germany, by Stephen W. Sears.


My Mother’s Lover: My New Story in The Atavist

What Mom Was Like – A eulogy for the woman in ‘My Mother’s Lover”

Finding Angus: A True Story of Love, War, and Family – The Atlantic

Airplane Heal Thyself? Self-Repairing Aircraft Could Improve Air Safety | Autopia |

Tim Harford’s Adapt: What the RAF’s World War II Spitfire can teach us about nurturing innovation and radical ideas. – By Tim Harford – Slate Magazine

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