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. 

The process is repeated three more times, and now all engines are running smoothly. Flickema returns to the checklist, “Flight indicator and vacuum pressures checked.” He keeps close watch on engine instruments and calls to Hardwicke, “Oil temperature 70 degrees, oil pressure 75 pounds, clock set, magnetic compass float level, flap position checked and ready.”

The green light flashes from the tower, and it is time to taxi. Hardwicke and Flickema order wheel chocks removed by the ground crew, still alert with fire extinguishers in hand. The engines are performing well, and Hardwicke knows the drill. Keep the inboard engines idling at not less than 500 rpm with just enough friction lock applied to prevent the throttles from creeping. Using throttles, with as little brakes as possible, Hardwicke rolls No. 176 slowly onto the taxiway that surrounds the main and auxiliary runways. As “Uninvited” settles into the engine din and associated vibration, Hardwicke joins the almost apparitional procession: B-17s in front, behind and, it seems, on all sides.

By now, A squadron has departed and B is well on the way. C Squadron, at 45-second intervals, is next. No. 176 reaches the engine run-up area, and Hardwicke and Flickema begin final checks. “Brakes set,” Flickema confirms. Hardwicke runs up each engine and checks magnetos, rpm, and voltage output as Flickema checks fuel and oil pressure, as well as cylinder-head temperature. The run-up is complete, engines OK.

Hardwicke steers “Uninvited” into takeoff position on the main runway as he and Flickema watch the preceding B-17 clear a patch of woods at the far end and disappear into the mist that has begun to shroud Station 153. Forty-five-second intervals are just enough to avoid propwash, which, if flown into, may stimulate undesirable aerodynamic characteristics.

Takeoff, the Most Critical Moment

“Cowl flaps open, trim tabs set, gyros set, tailwheel locked, autopilot off, brakes set,” Hardwicke and Flickema agree. No. 176 is held stationary as Hardwicke, with the conventional palm-up grasp, advances the throttles to full takeoff power. Engines thunder, the plane shivers as brakes are released and it begins, not a rush to altitude, but a swaddle—in Hardwicke’s view, a sort of proud half swagger, half undignified waddle. Some 65,000 pounds of airplane, fuel, bombs, and crew lurch forward.

Takeoff is the most critical moment, and one mistake means “Uninvited” becomes their final resting place. The fuel mixture is full rich, and the airplane is in a straight line on the runway as Flickema begins the all-important airspeed calls. He intones, “60, 70,” and with very little pressure on the control column the tail rises; “80” and the yoke feels light as speed increases, “90, 100, 110” as the end of the runway rushes toward them, “115, 120” and Hardwicke feels air under No. 176. The plane is past stalling speed, committed to flight. “Uninvited” is airborne, and Hardwicke eases back on the control column. Throttles remain full, mixture full rich, 2,500 rpm as “Uninvited” slices through the fog.

Once airborne, Hardwicke calls to Flickema, “Wheels up, cowl flaps closed.” Flickema applies brakes slowly to stop rotation on the wheels as they slide gently into wells beneath engines 2 and 3. Both make a visual check. “Gear up left, gear up right.” Flickema closes the cowl flaps and retracts the tailwheel. All is well; manifold pressure, oil pressure and temperature, rpm, airspeed at desired levels. Now begins the tedious climb to altitude and assembly.

They follow a VHF “buncher” beacon, a radio signal designed to guide planes into their proper areas for formation assembly. The crew is on high alert for other aircraft as they rise at 200 feet a minute without visual reference. Their only identification signals are blue running lights on the wingtips, and mid-air collision is a very real possibility. Some groups climb faster, some slower, and an incident of a month or so ago flashes before Hardwicke. Suddenly, a B-17 with a black triangle, not a square J on its tail, popped from the clouds and rushed past them much too close for comfort.

Up to 7,000 Feet

It is a busy time in the cockpit. Flickema adjusts fuel mixture; he and Avery monitor manifold and oil pressure as they continue to climb in a giant counterclockwise circle. In theory, all 390th aircraft are laboring through the same process.

At 7,000 feet, they shake free of the murk and suddenly face the glorious evanescent hues of sunrise. During those few transitory moments, Hardwicke lowers his tinted goggles to help shield glare reflecting off the left wing. It is magnificent, exhilarating; streams of light from above, generous banks of white clouds below, and Hardwicke’s faith is reinforced. Only God, he assures himself, is capable of such beauty. For the first time since takeoff, other aircraft are clearly visible, their silver forms well defined.

Hardwicke and Flickema guide No. 176 into its position as C Squadron low-element lead. Throughout this process, and the mission, they will alternate flying “Uninvited” for 20- to 30-minute intervals. Gradually, inexorably, the group takes shape as other ships find and fit into their assigned slots. Jackson becomes the most important crew member; his responsibility is to be absolutely certain of their exact location at all times. Others are occupied with checking planes around them. Assembly is nearly complete, and once more Hardwicke marvels at the accomplishment as the 13th Combat Wing, above, below, ahead, and behind, readies itself for the journey to Merseburg.

The bomber stream is designed with time and space intervals allocated to the many groups. There are maybe a hundred feet between Hardwicke and the squadron elements ahead with 500-foot vertical squadron differentials, necessary separations to avoid propwash and ensure an envelope of reasonably stable air. Today, assembly has required about an hour as they continue to climb, and Hardwicke knows the departure point, Southwold on the North Sea coast will be reached momentarily.

“Departing English Coast Three Minutes Early”

“Navigator to pilot, departing English coast three minutes early.” Hardwicke responds and checks the clock, 0942. A few minutes later, at 10,000 feet, he alerts the crew to “go on oxygen.” Each acknowledges and snaps his A-14 rubber mask in place where it will remain for at least the next six hours. Although manufactured with consideration for facial contours, it has become its own oxymoron, a vital irritant. Hardwicke knows this heading will carry them across the North Sea, over Belgium and the battle line, and into Germany. It is not exactly an easy route with enemy fighters and flak batteries on alert to greet them.

Defense against fighters is characterized as a gleaming three-dimensional sword, its edges tempered by skill and experience. The marksmanship of No. 176 gunners Avery, Grogg, Downham, and Hammond is superior, not to mention Papousek, responsible for the electrically driven chin turret and sharing the two cheek .50s in the nose with Jackson. They represent the initial edge.

Edge two is the carefully developed staggered, three-plane elements within a squadron and staggered squadrons within a group. They are positioned to provide a compact yet easily maneuverable “box.” This permits maximum, concentrated firepower, sustained by consistently tight formations.

Edge three is the fighter escort of “Little Friends.” Today, the fighters will be North American P-51D Mustangs, which will rendezvous near the battle line. The fighter pilots, displaying superior combat aptitude in a single-engine aircraft whose range and versatility is unparalleled in European skies, have achieved impressive scores against the Luftwaffe.

Hardwick’s Defense: Prayer

Hardwicke has considered ways to defend against flak on a number of occasions during their previous 25 combat missions. He has produced but one answer—prayer, sometimes silent, often articulated with vigor. But he has more important considerations just now. “Pilot to gunners, check ’em.” “Roger,” each responds. As weapons are activated, spent shell casings ricochet throughout each position, muzzle flashes are clearly visible, the odor of cordite noticeable. Each time firing begins, in test or combat, Hardwicke thinks to himself, “Damn well hope old 176 can take the stress one more time and not come unglued.”

As they continue to climb, fuel conservation is essential, and Hardwicke knows the technique of adjusting a leaner fuel-air mix, as long as cylinder-head temperatures remain at acceptable levels, for just such a purpose. In addition to concentration and composure, combat flying requires enormous stamina; physically demanding, it is work for the young. As low-element leader, he must maintain position as smoothly and evenly as possible to ease the flying burden on his two wingmen, as well as the poor soul flying below and behind him in “Purple Heart” corner.

“Navigator to pilot, just crossed the enemy coast, four minutes early.” “Roger, Jack.” At 15,000 feet, Hardwicke calls for an oxygen and equipment check and exhorts the crewmen to ready their flak helmets and vests. At high altitude, life expectancy without oxygen declines sharply; with temperatures hovering between 50 and 60 degrees below zero, any malfunction in the heated suits, gloves, or boots may be catastrophic to one’s extremities. From tail to nose, they acknowledge the check call in the affirmative. Flickema points to his mask and nods as does Hardwicke, and both certify their suits are plugged securely to the heater outlets.