Unbreakable- page 2 | History | Air & Space Magazine
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Unbreakable

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

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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.

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