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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.

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