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Although the B-17 Flying Fortress prototype flew in 1935, only a relatively small number of B-17s were in service when the US entered the war in 1941. Production quickly increased, and three companies—Boeing, Lockheed-Vega, and Douglas—mass-produced Flying Fortresses by the thousands.
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress flew in every combat zone during World War II.
In the Pacific, the planes earned a deadly reputation with the Japanese, who dubbed them “four-engine fighters.” The Fortresses were also legendary for their ability to stay in the air after taking brutal poundings.
Seventy-five years after the B-17’s first flight, an 88 year-old veteran sent The Boeing Company a letter. After explaining how he returned to England after a bombing raid over Germany with 179 flak holes and only two out of the four engines, he wrote: “I’m glad to be alive. Thank you for making such a good airplane.”
The pictures featured in this post confirms his claim.
Taken on Feb. 1, 1943 the incredible photos in this article show B-17F-5-BO, serial number 41-24406, “All American” still flying after being struck by a Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Me 109.
The story behind this episode is quite interesting.
All American was delivered to the 414th Bomb Squadron (BS), 97th Bomb Group (BG) on Aug. 24, 1942 and assigned to Lt Kendrick R. Bragg and crew that chose the aircraft’s name. On Feb. 1, 1943 97th BG bombers leaded by Major Robert Coulter departed their base near Biskra, Algeria, to attack the German-controlled seaports, Bizerte and Tunis, Tunisia.
One of his scheduled wingmen had engine trouble prior to take-off, so All American, a ‘Spare,’ took his place.
After dropping their bomb load and returning toward base, the bombers were attacked by German Messerschmitt Me 109 fighters. Two fighters attacked the lead B-17 and the All American which was flying next to it in formation, respectively. The bombers’ machine gun fire downed the first fighter, but the second pressed its head-on attack against the All American.
According to Steve Birdsall book Pride of Seattle, The Story of the First 300 B-17Fs, what happened next left indelible impressions on the men in front of the aircraft. “I was firing at it all the way… I figure one of us must have killed the pilot because the plane crashed right into us… When we hit, our plane almost stood up on its tail. Then we went down at a very sharp angle. I thought to myself, ‘boy, this is it’.” Bombardier Lt. Ralph Burbridge remembers.
Navigator Lt. Harry Nuessle said, “About 300 yards out [the fighter] began to roll over in order to be able to pull down and away after his attack – but somewhere about halfway around, either Burbridge’s fire or fire from the lead ship must have gotten the pilot or disabled the plane because he never completed his intended roll and rapid pass under our ship – for one horrible instant he was right there inches in front and above us – I ducked instinctively, though God knows had he hit us head-on [then] no amount of ducking would have saved any of us. But he passed over us with distinctly audible swoosh followed by a tremendous jar and whoomp! Our plane began to dive, and I reached for my ‘chute.”
Brag recalls, ” I rammed the controls forward in a violent attempt to avoid collision… I flinched as the fighter passed inches over my head and then I felt a slight thud like a coughing engine. I checked the engines and controls. The trim tabs were not working. I tried to level All American, but she insisted on climbing. It was only by the pressure from knees and hands that I was able to hold her in anything like a straight line.” As explained by Birdsall, co-pilot Lt Godfrey Engel tried his controls with the same result, but the pilots found that by throttling back the engines, they could keep her “on a fairly even keel.”
The wing of the Me 109 (the pilot of which was reported as being 16-victory ace Erich Paczia of I/Jagdgeschwader 53) almost sliced through the B-17’s fuselage, leaving the tail section hanging on by a few slender spars and a narrow strip of metal skin.
Bring B-17 All American back home
Nevertheless, Bragg and his crew decided to try to bring All American back home.
“As we neared the field we fired three emergency flares, then we circled at 2000 feet while the other planes in our formation made their landings and cleared the runways… I lowered the landing gear and flaps to test the reaction of All American. They seemed to go reasonably well, considering,” Explains Bragg. “I made a long careful approach to the strip with partial power until the front wheels touched the leveled earth and I could feel the grating as she dragged without a tail wheel along the desert sands. She came to a stop and I ordered the co-pilot to cut the engines. We were home.”
The All American was repaired and returned to service, but since here flying characteristics were plagued with problems, was used as a utility aircraft until she was salvaged overseas in March 1945.
The following video along with All American story, provides some unique pictures of the crippled B-17 after it returned safely to base.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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