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Unbreakable

World War II aircraft that were shot to hell—and came back.

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His fellow pilots see a fire raging beneath the cowling and a propeller windmilling out of control. They catch a final glimpse of his craft in a slow turn toward friendly territory, spewing oil and black smoke as enemy fighters move in for the kill. After they return home, the airmen are sadly contemplating their fallen comrade’s fate when a commotion brings them outside. A sputtering machine appears, flares at the last possible second, and disappears into a cloud of dust and debris. A shaken young man emerges. He tells his story as the others hurriedly round up his belongings, which have already been divvied up among the other flyers.

From such stories, certain airplanes earned a reputation for the ability to bring their crews home during World War II. The tales were swapped, enlarged, and argued over as pilots and crew swore allegiance to their ships, convinced that they owed their survival to the designers at Boeing, Lockheed, Douglas, Grumman, or Martin. But was one airplane really more indestructible than another?

Exaggeration has played a part in inflating the reputations of certain aircraft, says Dik Dazo, a former Air Force fighter pilot and now curator of modern military aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum, but, he adds, “some aircraft did handle battle damage better than others, and that is still true today.”

For instance, there is evidence to suggest that the aircraft often mentioned as the most rugged of World War II—the B-17—was, in fact, stouter than its stablemate, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. “The B-17 had a huge wing,” says archivist Dan Hagedorn of the National Air and Space Museum. “You could put a lot of holes in it and it’ll keep on going.” Hagedorn says the B-24’s thin, high-aspect Davis wing, which had low drag characteristics at a low angle of attack, gave the Liberator a bomb load, range, and cruising speed superior to those of the B-17. But the airfoil’s performance was quickly degraded by flak or cannon fire from attacking German fighters.

In some cases, says Hagedorn, it was the conditions under which an aircraft type was flown that contributed to perceptions of great durability. The B-24s that attacked the refineries at Ploesti, Romania, experienced some of the worst flak in World War II. But, in general, he says, the flak that the B-24s of the 15th Air Force experienced as they flew over Italy and Rome was “intense, but not as intense as that over Munich or Berlin,” where more B-17s than B-24s were found.

In fact, despite the latter aircraft’s impressive moniker, the Luftwaffe proved that there was no such thing as a flying fortress. The B-17 suffered some of the most appalling losses of any type during the war—more than 40 percent of the aircraft that rolled off the assembly lines were downed over Europe. And yet its legend grows.

Not every type of aircraft was known to be particularly rugged, nor did every pilot get a reputation as the ace of the base. But under the right combination of pilotage and providence, any aviator, and any aircraft, could return home and become a legend.

Fortresses

The B-17 was the Army Air Forces’ relative oldtimer, first flying in 1935 as Boeing’s Model 299. The last production version, the G, carried 13 .50-caliber machine guns and had a crew of 10. It formed the backbone of Curtis LeMay’s daytime strategic bombing campaign against the Reich.

Over North Africa, a Bf 109 collided with a B-17F named All American. The fighter tore through the rear fuselage of the bomber and tumbled to Earth ensnared in the wreckage of the B-17’s left horizontal stabilizer. Crewmen in nearby aircraft were shocked to see All American pitch up, recover, and miraculously fly on. Lieutenant Charles Cutforth, in the Flying Flint Gun, snapped an image of the stricken bomber that would become famous: All American cruising over the desert landscape, with a ragged slice through its fuselage.

Yet another famous World War II image shows a B-17G shot through the chin with an 88-mm anti-aircraft shell over Cologne, Germany, in 1944. As Lieutenant Larry DeLancey recalled in the U.S. Army Air Forces’ Impact magazine, “What little there was left in front of me looked like a scrap heap.” The dangling nose guns chattered against the inboard propellers, the oxygen system failed, and all the instrument indicators sank to zero. Yet DeLancey found all four engines roaring away and the airplane controllable. Why not try for home? As cold air hammered in, the B-17 dropped out of formation and turned toward England. Hours later, men at the Nuthampstead airfield heard the awful howling of the injured Fortress before they saw it appear over the field and deliver its crew.

On a bombing mission over the rail yards in Debreczen, Hungary, another anti-aircraft shell found its mark in the waist compartment of a B-17G named Sweet Pea. 429th Bombardment Squadron historian Allen Ostrom later reported in the unit’s official history that the hole in the bomber was “[l]arge enough for a jeep to pass through” and added, “Observers who had seen the plane hit had given all hope up of it returning to base.” With every tail control cable but one lost in the shattered mess of the fuselage, the pilots held the bomber on course by manipulating the throttles. Hundreds of miles later, Sweet Pea made a crash landing at its base in Foggia, Italy. Boeing sources reported the airplane was held together “by a few longitudinals and 27 inches of skin.”

The B-17’s big brother proved to be no less rugged. On a bombing mission near Tokyo, Japan, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress named Irish Lassie was rammed twice by Japanese aircraft and then riddled with gunfire when it fell out of formation. At the same time, a B-29 named Pride of the Yankees suffered damage that left its two left engines dead. The chances of either airplane returning across at least 1,500 miles of lonely ocean to the island of Saipan were very slim, yet both beat the odds. Irish Lassie flew home and broke apart upon landing when its nose gear collapsed. However, the entire crew survived.

Pride would be repaired to fly again. On a mission over Japan four months later, it again suffered damage that destroyed its two left engines. And again, it returned to Saipan.

The Lightning

Lockheed P-38 pilots often noted that the Lightning had two Allison engines so that when one failed—they claimed one always did—the pilot could make it home on the other. The P-38’s engine problems were an annoyance, but in combat, when the two V-12 powerplants were running smoothly, redundancy could prove critical to getting back to base.

Over North Africa, P-38 pilot Lieutenant Benton Miller was so fixated on strafing ground targets that he didn’t see a telephone pole. The ensuing collision tore away one propeller and cleanly snapped the pole in half as it crashed through the fighter’s wing. Miller’s craft had a dead engine, the left wing was twisted upward and backward, and a crushed gun bay access door scooped air like a speed brake. Amazingly, the pilot coaxed the battered Lightning back to friendly territory and made a safe landing.

As the late aviation writer Martin Caidin recounted in Fork-Tailed Devil: The P-38, not even a mid-air collision could always stop a Lightning. Lieutenant Thomas Smith’s P-38 smashed headlong into a disintegrating Bf 109 as the German fighter’s spinning propeller tore gashes in the P-38 from engine to tail and severed the horizontal stabilizer, which extended between the Lockheed’s twin booms. Worst of all, the P-38’s right engine froze with the prop blades at a high-rpm setting, so they were set almost flat to the airstream.

Smith radioed that he was bailing out and jettisoned his canopy—an action he would regret in the cold hours that followed. As soon as he let go of the control yoke and took his feet from the left rudder pedal, the P-38 rolled violently into the dead engine. It would be nearly impossible for the aircraft to stay stable long enough for Smith to jump.

Smith made it back by flying a series of climbing orbits followed by a short dash toward home base. When he stumbled over the enemy-occupied town of Trieste, Italy, every flak burst sounded horrifyingly close as he flew with no canopy. Incredibly, Smith made a wheels-up landing. Besides being exhausted and half-frozen, he suffered his only injury upon landing—a lump on his head from hitting the gunsight.

Corsair and Hellcat

Flying and fighting over the vast Pacific Ocean, a Navy or Marine Corps pilot with a crippled aircraft usually had only two options—bail out into the sea or limp back to shore or to the carrier. Built to survive the controlled violence of repeated carrier arrested landings, many Naval aircraft could withstand extensive battle damage with the brawn of a battleship.

One Vought F4U Corsair chased down a Japanese “Nick” fighter near Okinawa. At a range of 50 feet, Marine Lieutenant Robert Klingman found his guns frozen by the cold at 38,000 feet. Unwilling to let his quarry go, Klingman pushed on, ramming the aircraft’s tail and rear cockpit and downing the Nick. The Corsair’s engine coughed and protested, and it seemed unlikely Klingman could coax his airplane back to Okinawa—150 miles away—but the engine continued to run until the fighter was within gliding distance of the island’s runway.

But perhaps the king of the rock-solid World War II Navy fighters was Grumman’s F6F Hellcat. If it can be said that the Japanese designed  the Zero to reflect the best characteristics of a samurai warrior—swift, nimble, and lethal—then the Long Island-based Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation built the Hellcat to emulate a burly Brooklyn bouncer.

Built around the powerful and reliable Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engine, the Hellcat began as a concept for an improved F4F Wildcat, but what emerged was a fighter that shared little with its predecessor except ruggedness. Unlike its Japanese counterparts, the Hellcat’s vital areas, such as the cockpit and engine oil tank, were protected by thick armor plate.

When a new facility was needed to build Hellcats at Grumman’s Bethpage plant, some of the steel for the project came from the remains of New York’s old Second Avenue elevated railway. As tough as the aircraft were, the recycled steel inspired an oft-repeated joke that became part of Hellcat lore. As the new fighters thumped down on carrier decks around the fleet, crewmen would say, “Here comes another piece of the Second Avenue El!”

The stories of the Hellcat’s ruggedness perhaps started with Lieutenant Casey Childers, whose F6F experienced engine problems during a delivery flight. Descending toward a forest 30 miles north of Cape May, New Jersey, Childers dead-sticked his aircraft through the trees, and when the remains of his Hellcat stopped cutting wood, he emerged from the cockpit uninjured.

In the Pacific, the Hellcat’s legend continued to grow. While Lieutenant Bruce Williams was strafing an ammunition barge, his Hellcat was blown upward 250 feet and showered with debris. The shredded fighter came back to the carrier with stove bolts and pieces of planking embedded in its wings and underbelly. After the deck crew examined the damage and determined the Hellcat was beyond repair, it was pushed overboard.

The Thunderbolt

While often used as a high-altitude bomber escort, the Republic P-47 also showed amazing ability as an attack aircraft—going down on the deck to hunt down and ruthlessly blast trucks, tanks, and trains. The Thunderbolt’s sawed-off snout and heavy, all-business airframe caused some P-47 flyers to give it a name that stuck: the Jug.

In the Pacific, a flier describes how a fellow P-47 pilot hauled his Jug into a tight turn to get a shot at some Japanese trucks. The big fighter slid into the trees, briefly disappeared from sight, and then emerged, seemingly no worse for wear. Coming home, the pilot noticed his engine was running hot; once he was on the ground, everyone gathered around to find the engine cowl stuffed with branches as thick as a man’s wrist.

Famed ace Robert Johnson was tumbled out of his squadron’s formation by Luftwaffe Focke Wulf Fw 190s that left his Thunderbolt riddled with holes and his canopy jammed closed. Nearly blinded by leaking hydraulic fluid, Johnson was coaxing his crippled airplane toward England when another Fw 190 caught up with him. As Johnson hunkered down behind his armor plate, the German pounded his P-47 with machine gun fire. Between barrages, the enemy fighter cruised alongside, as if its pilot was puzzled by the invulnerability of the Jug, which, hit with dozens of rounds, refused to go down. With his ammunition expended, the pilot finally climbed away.

So could you really, as some pilots claimed, fly a P-47 though a brick wall and live? A post-war Air National Guard Thunderbolt undershot the runway upon landing and plowed into the second story of a factory. With its wings sheared off, the crumpled fuselage came to rest inside the building. The pilot walked away.

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