Military Aviation

This B-17 was hit by an 88mm shell, remained in formation and gave the chance to those who survived to bail out safely. The story of the headless Flying Fortress.

As seen from the right waist of an accompanying B-17, this 463rd Bomb Group Flying Fortress received a direct hit beneath the pilot’s feet from what is believed to have been an 88mm shell, which entered the airplane and then detonated.

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress flew in every combat zone during World War II, but its most significant service was over Europe. Along with the B-24 Liberator, the B-17 formed the backbone of the USAAF strategic bombing force, and it helped win the war by crippling Germany’s war industry.

The B-17’s design emphasized high altitude flight, speed, and heavy defensive armament in order to survive enemy defenses. Advanced turbosupercharged engines allowed it to fly up to about 30,000 feet with a combat load, while powered turrets and flexible guns covered all areas around the aircraft.

As explained by Brent William Perkins in his book Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress, without a doubt the B-17 is also known to have been one of the most stable platforms in the air. The photos in this post demonstrate this fact. As seen from the right waist of an accompanying B-17, this 463rd Bomb Group plane received a direct hit beneath the pilot’s feet from what is believed to have been an 88mm shell, which entered the airplane and then detonated. The results are terribly obvious. The mortally wounded B-17 begins a level descent with all four engines still running. Everyone forward of the top turret was killed instantly.

The inherent stability of the airframe enabled the headless bomber to remain in loose formation with the Group for several minutes. Because of the smooth flight attitude those who survived the explosion from the radio room back were able to bail out safely.

Seeing friends lose their lives day after day created staunch and fatalistic outlook, among the crews. To make twenty-five missions was much more than a milestone for them. Everyone looked forward to flying that final raid, but many feared that they would never live to make it.

The odds were simply stacked against the airmen of the Mighty Eighth Air Force at this time. They all knew that after their fifteenth mission, they were living on borrowed time. Superstitions ran wild; rabbits feet, horseshoes, ribbons from girlfriends, and other things all found their way onto many bombers. Many even refused to fly a thirteenth mission-they simply referred to that run as their mission number 12A.

Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

This print is available in multiple sizes from – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. B-17G Flying Fortress – 42-31076, LG-V “Chief Sly’s Son” 91st BG, 322nd BS – 1944
Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

View Comments

  • Ive been on Memphis and God damn I don't get how anyone in the radio room survived if that truly was an 88 impact. I'm a... Nerd and mat sci guy so looking at that picture is.. wow.

    Something I assume you guys do not know and nor do I or can source it so please do not quote me but have been told by someone - that the aluminum alloying on the early b17s was sometimes full of asperities from them using shitty copper. (If anyone wants an explanation I'm an autodidact junior level "metallurgist" so I'd explain it, basically it's just making a .. material that is very .. inconsistent with it's mechanical properties? Wartime production and logistics is my guess.)

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