Why Flying a B-17 Bomber over Nazi Germany Was Nearly a Death Sentence

October 2, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: B-17MilitaryTechnologyWorldU.S. Air ForceHistory

Why Flying a B-17 Bomber over Nazi Germany Was Nearly a Death Sentence

A legendary plane with a very tough assignment. 

Taking Their Places on Board

Most of the crew enters through a rear door, but for those with positions on the flight deck and in the nose, “getting aboard” means by way of an emergency hatch aft of the navigator’s station. Described as a “cupid’s leap,” the process requires grasping the upper, outer edge of the opening with both hands, lifting and swinging both legs through while twisting them down the fuselage in the process. With a final heave and squirm, one’s body is deposited with somewhat of a thud.

Hardwicke and Flickema take the leap first, followed by Jackson and Papousek. A turn and step up and pilot and copilot are ready to occupy their accustomed bucket seats of aluminum construction with padded backs and cushions clearly marked “Do not remove from airplane.”

They stow their parachutes and flight bags and slide into place, Hugh on the left, behind individual control columns. These are shaped like half-wheels with three spokes connected to a centerpiece properly identified, “B-17 Flying Fortress” above the Boeing Company’s signature, a vertical B-o-e-i-n-g attached at the O with a pair of stylized wings.

They are surrounded by a maze of instruments, switches, dials, and knobs—to the front, above, and on both sides. The cockpit is far from spacious, but thanks to a design engineer who recognized the need for excellent visibility as well as the psychological value of light, they also are surrounded by windows—to the front, above, and on both sides. As Hardwicke adjusts his feet to the rudder pedals and settles into the position he will occupy for the next seven-plus hours, his thoughts drift for a moment.

Hardwicke In His “Office”

Behind the controls he is at home. Although it may be a bland metaphor, the cockpit is his office, a place where he functions best. With some 500 B-17 flying hours and countless more of ground instruction, he glances around with an inner satisfaction. He has not just learned, he has absorbed the instrumentation. Yes, he can, even when blindfolded, identify and render each device properly.

The console between pilot and copilot holds the tools through which they will gain and sustain flight. The B-17, unlike any other four-engine aircraft in service, incorporates a set of three throttle controls. Grasp the top rung and engines 1 and 4 will respond, while the bottom rung activates engines 2 and 3; the split middle rung, the one most used, offers all four simultaneously.

Throttles and their base feature a distinctive metallic green color and the adjacent throttle control lock is topped with a white knob. Controls forward of the throttles include fuel mixture and turbo-supercharger, ignition, fuel-boost pump, fuel shutoff, wing flap, landing gear, and light switches. A lower pedestal features the elevator and rudder trim tab wheels, elevator and rudder lock, autopilot flight control panel, and tailwheel lock.

Above the windshield one finds a clock, compass, and de-icer pressure gauge; above and between Hardwicke and Flickema resides their prime radio equipment, command receiver unit, loop, light and volume switches, band selector knob, tuning crank, transmitting key, and channel selector. At Hardwicke’s left, controls range from the windshield de-icer to the aileron trim tab control; to his front, a series of instruments: pilot’s directional indicator; emergency bomb salvo button; radio compass; oxygen flow indicator, altimeter, and indicators for airspeed, rate of climb, turn and bank plus directional gyro and prop-feathering buttons.

To Flickema’s right are found, among others, intercooler controls, engine primer hydraulic hand pump, engine-starting switches, carburetor air filter switch, parking brake, and engine fire-extinguisher controls. And in front, set against a dark panel, pressure gauges of vital consequence: manifold, fuel, oil, along with temperature gauges for oil, carburetor air, free air, and cylinder head; also tachometers, fuel-quantity gauges, and flap-position indicator.

Putting Abilities to the Test for Dreaded Merseburg

Hardwicke knows that today his ability will be tested yet again, to Merseburg, dreaded Merseburg. Yet, Lucky Dolan is going to lead, and after all, there are two sevens in the tail number, and early on they had been designated as “replacement crew No. 7.” Just for good measure, he finds in his A-2 pocket a certain silver dollar and permits it to slide gently between his right thumb, index, and middle fingers. No. 176, “Uninvited,” may be owned by the Army Air Forces, but she belongs to Hardwicke and his crew, a proprietary interest that began on September 2, when she was assigned as their aircraft. They had logged almost 190 combat flying hours since July, of which a little more than half have been in “Uninvited.”

Hardwicke adjusts his headset over his flying helmet and goggles, firmly in place over the left ear but set behind the right to better hear Flickema, plugs into the command frequency, and snaps in place his throat mike when word from the tower is received. Prepare for at least a half-hour delay to permit more favorable weather in the target area. C Squadron engine start now 0830, taxi 0845, takeoff 0900, ETD 0945. Flickema nods to Hardwicke in confirmation.

“Damn,” Hardwicke mutters to no one in particular. Delays always are tedious and sometimes weather closed on the field, as was happening now, or over the target, and in some instances this led to a mission scrub. He checks his watch, 0750. Enough time, he thinks, for an interior inspection; something he did rarely because of complete confidence in his crew. But today, everything must be in place, all in readiness. He eases from his seat, “Going to take a look inside, Flick.”

A check in the nose discloses a somewhat relaxed Papousek and Jackson engaged in casual conversation. “Everything OK?” he inquires. “Current maps, radio facility charts, navigational aids, direction-finding charts?” “Sure, Hugh, all right here,” Jackson responds. As he looks around, portable oxygen bottles in place, ammo stored properly, first-aid packets OK, nose guns secure, bombsight ready. He turns with the traditional OK sign, thumb and index finger locked in an oval, and they return the gesture.

From nose to the top turret; switches in off position, oxygen bottles stored correctly along with fire extinguishers. He navigates the tricky narrow catwalk between bomb racks. This is Papousek’s domain and he is methodical; bombs are OK, bomb bay doors closed, no excessive gasoline fumes, hand transfer pump in place.

Preparing for Flight

He moves to the radio compartment. “What’s up, Hugh?” Weaver asks. “Just checking.” Extra parachute stored, main oxygen system OK, emergency landing gear hand crank in place and locked, life raft emergency release handles set properly. On to the waist. Ball turret and waist guns secure along with ammo, windows closed, control cables clear. In the tail, drag link screw and assembly in alignment, control cables OK, section neat. He returns to the flight deck satisfied, reassured.

“Everything OK, Hugh?” “Looks good, Flick, didn’t think it would be otherwise. I just need to be sure,” Hardwicke says as he resumes his position. It is 0805, time for the preflight check. This pilot-copilot ritual, no matter how often orchestrated, is serious and never taken for granted. Flickema has the list in hand and begins in a loud, clear tone with either he or Hardwicke responding. “Pilot’s preflight complete, form 1A checked; controls and seats, checked; fuel transfer valves and switch off; intercoolers cold; gyros uncaged; fuel shutoff switches open; gear switch neutral; cowl flaps open right, open left, and locked; turbos off, idle cutoff OK, throttles closed, autopilot off, de-icers and anti-icers wing and props off, cabin heat off, generators off.”

Rudder, elevators, and ailerons are put through the full range of movement and proper direction of operation. Hardwicke and Flickema adjust their seats and safety belts to ensure freedom of movement. It is 0831, green light from tower, time to start engines. Hardwicke goes on the intercom, “All positions check in.” “Tail to pilot OK, waist to pilot OK, radio to pilot OK, ball to pilot OK, top gunner OK, navigator and bombardier OK.”

Hardwicke and Flickema slide back their side windows and call to the ground crew, “Fire guard clear.” Flickema continues the checklist. “Master switch on, battery switches and inverters on and checked, parking brakes on, hydraulic check OK, carburetor filters open, booster pumps pressure on and checked.” Avery, standing behind the pilots, monitors the process carefully, especially engine instruments and controls.

Ready To Start the Engines: B and C Squadrons On Their Way

The engine-starting sequence is left to right, 1 to 4. Hardwicke makes sure both engines on his side have the props pulled through three or four complete revolutions, and Flickema does the same. Hardwicke holds up an index finger, and Flickema responds, “Ready to start No. 1.” Flickema energizes and expels air from the primer until he has a solid fuel charge. Some 12 seconds later Hardwicke calls, “mesh No. 1” and Flickema, while still holding the switch at start, moves the mesh switch to the correct position and continues to prime until the engine fires with a rush of blue exhaust. Hardwicke sets the mixture to autorich and notes the oil pressure is coming up.