Trains, Boats & Planes | 21 August 2015Piloting a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Share article facebook twitter google pinterest First Lieutenant Grant A. Fuller was entranced from the start. She was a sight to behold, that B-17 Flying Fortress. The Lieutenant shares, in his own words, what it was like to fly her. His account is featured in James P. Busha’s Wings of War. Check it out: Grant Fuller poses in front of a B-17, similar to the one he was flying on the day when two of them collided. Source – Wings of War I remembered so clearly how, once the last hatch was closed and the order to start engines was given, every man inside a B-17 began to work as one. From pilot to tail gunner, ball turret to bombardier and all the other men in between, the nine of us began our tasks and plugged into the mother ship. The pilot and I would get busy cranking up the four Wright Cyclones and pretty much ignored the dozens of ’Forts (as we called the B-17s) in the other revetments as their crews did the same thing. It must have sounded like thunder outside with so many engines running. Just as the B-17s in formation depend on the other ships next to them for protection, so was it inside the fuselage for our crew. This was our little world, just the nine of us depending on each other. The same scenario was being played out in the other B-17s next to us as we began our mission… Paul Zak, standing fourth from right, had a front-row seat to the piggyback mission. Source – Wings of War It was New Year’s Eve 1944 and the “Bloody Hundredth” would lead this mission to the German oil refineries and sub pens of Hamburg. I was in the lead B-17 of the lead squadron. Normally, I would have been up front in my copilot position, but on this mission, a Major Martin took my spot as command pilot, making decisions on what the entire formation did. With no use for two copilots, I flew in the tail gunner’s position and became the back set of eyes for the command pilot, overlooking the entire formation. Our thundering herd of B-17s took off from the base at Thorpe Abbotts, England, and began our steady climb up through the soup. Reaching our assigned altitude of twenty-six thousand feet, I had the best seat in the house. Sitting in the tail-gun position afforded me a spectacular view of the rest of the bomb group, with the high squadron off to my left at twenty-seven thousand feet and the low squadron off to my right below at twenty-five thousand. Lieutenant Glen Rojohn, piloting B-17 Little Skipper, flew the tail-end Charlie position of the entire group. Familiar landmarks came into view through the cloud breaks as we left England and approached the North Sea. Flying over the North Sea was preferable, as there was no flak or German fighters. The German pilots were no more interested in doing battle over freezing water than we were; you had about forty seconds of survival time to get aboard a life raft if you had to bail out. Although Hamburg was not that far away from our base, it felt like we were really moving fast and well ahead of schedule. We began our initial point of the bomb run very close to Denmark. We did not want to violate their airspace and made a hard right-hand turn against a 150-mile-per-hour wind. We were now in a severe crosswind to the target and tried to maintain our positions while crabbing into the wind. We looked like a scattered flock of geese as we approached the target. The excessive turn made by the lead squadron caused big problems for the high and low squadrons. The high squadron could not hold its position and had to make S turns out and back above the group. A gap was created that diminished our bomber-box effectiveness—an easy and tempting target for German fighters. The low squadron was ordered to move in and fill the void, as the high squadron would now be the last ones over the target. B-17s converge in a box formation. This offered greater protection from enemy fighters. Crabbing thirty-plus degrees toward the target, it was the slowest and most torturous bomb run I had ever been on. The flak gunners had us zeroed in as “black death” exploded all around and through us. Our B-17 took hits all over the place as we took our turn in the shredder. Flak took out all the number-two engine oil lines, the copilot’s intercom, the bombardier’s interphone, and the waist oxygen system. I had a piece of flak come through the glass by my left ear, hit the bulletproof glass on the gun sight, and ricochet out the other side by my right ear! We were the lucky ones. Our left wingman was hit by flak, nosed over, and collided with another B-17 that was just below the lead element. The lead squadron also lost a third B-17 to flak while on the bomb run. The high squadron fared no better, losing four B-17s during this long-drawnout bomb run. Gaps began to form as the remainder of the group reached the release point. Two B-17s from the low squadron, low element, were hit and shot up badly; one entered a tight spin and crashed below. The two remaining B-17s in the low element, Lt. Glen Rojohn in Little Skipper and Lt. William G. MacNab in Nine Lives, closed in on one another for protection. A mix of B-17s and one lone B-24 Liberator make their way to the target area. Note the differences in paint schemes and natural metal finish. With bombs away, the lead squadron dropped down one thousand feet to confuse the flak batteries and turned into the 150-mile-an-hour headwind, beginning its slow-motion crawl back home. The low squadron was now following the lead squadron at the same altitude. The instant the flak stopped, the German fighters poured in. Fw 190s, Bf 109s, and Me 262s tore into us from all directions as trails of wretched black smoke and flame could be seen pouring out of the engines on many of the B-17s. Cannon and tracer rounds filled the sky as aircraft on both sides hammered away at one another. I told Major Martin what was happening behind us, and, through his commands, the formation closed tightly as the three squadrons slowly became one group. With our left wing exposed, two B-17s attempted to fill the slot: Rojohn in Little Skipper from above and MacNab in Nine Lives from below. Both were trying to find protection and fill the void on our left wing. The only thing they found was each other. It was surreal as they came together, not with a resounding crash but rather a melding of two planes. I stared in disbelief at the “piggyback” B-17s in front of me. Eight engines turning in unison, two B-17s stuck together, each with a death grip on the other. They were almost perfectly matched, wingtip to wingtip, with Little Skipper above just to the left of Nine Lives’ tail. I could only imagine what was going on inside those two helpless B-17s as we flew back above the North Sea. View from the top turret gunner’s position showing B-17s pulling contrails as they make their way to the target. The Luftwaffe fighters loved these white-scribed lines because they were easy to spot. Source – Wings of War Later, Sgt. Paul Zak, flying in the high squadron, said that he, too, saw the two B-17s collide: “I was the ball-turret gunner on Harold Bucklew’s B-17, named Silver Dollar. We had just left the target area as I began to search for German fighters. The target in Hamburg was burning behind us as we headed home. I looked right behind me and below, and I saw two B-17s latch on to one another with all eight engines still running! It was the most unbelievable thing I had ever seen! The two B-17s made a graceful circle to the left, and I called our navigator and gave him the tail numbers on both B-17s as they passed below me. I began to count the chutes as they came out of the bombers and I watched the helpless pair of B-17s fall behind and descend until they disappeared from my view.” Rojohn described how he and his copilot, Lt. William Leek, fought to save their ship and crew. Gunning the engines and attempting to pull their B-17 off of MacNab’s proved to be impossible. To make matters worse, Little Skipper’s ball turret was embedded into Nine Lives. There was nowhere to go but down as the two B-17s made a gentle turn to the left. Rojohn said that finding that his elevators and ailerons still functioned properly, he and Leek turned the hybrid B-17s slowly and reentered German airspace. With one of MacNab’s engines now on fire, Rojohn gave the engine shutdown command to Leek, and they feathered the props and cut all four of their engines. Lieutenant Rojohn rang the bailout bell for the remainder of his crew, who frantically tried to free Cpl. Joseph Russo from his ball turret, which was slammed right through the top of MacNab’s fuselage. Rojohn told me that he thought that both MacNab and his copilot, 2nd Lt. Nelson B. Vaughn, in Nine Lives below him were either killed or severely injured by fighters moments before the two B-17s became one. Head-on firing passes by German fighters were the probable cause of their injuries. For the rest of MacNab’s crew, it was time to “get while the getting was good.” From my position, I saw four members of MacNab’s crew successfully bail out and begin their long descent to earth. A stateside B-17 crew poses while in training. All of the men had to work as a team while inside the Flying Fortress. Source – Wings of War I later heard that as the conjoined B-17s neared the German coast, flak batteries began to take aim at the approaching targets, thinking it was some new kind of American bomber or a secret eight-engine wonder weapon. According to the stories, however, the German antiaircraft officer in charge refused to give the order to fire. He realized it was only a matter of time before these poor souls would crash. Passing quickly through ten thousand feet, Rojohn said his crew reluctantly gave up on trying to free Corporal Russo from his ball-turret tomb. He said they were flying with both sets of feet on the instrument panel and the yokes buried in their stomachs, as they fought to keep the two B-17s level. Corporal Russo recited Hail Marys over the intercom, and the other members of Little Skipper began to bail out of their stricken ship. According to Rojohn, where the two B-17s would land or crash was anyone’s guess. The fire below, deep inside Nine Lives, intensified, and .50-caliber ammunition began to cook off and explode as the B17s descended toward northern Germany. One hundred thousand pounds of Boeing aircraft were about to make their mark on German soil. Falling fast and gliding like a rock, the two airplanes, with Nine Lives on the bottom, hit hard and pancaked into the frozen ground near Wilhelmshaven. Acting as a cushion for the top B-17, Nine Lives disintegrated like an eggshell. The force of the impact lifted Little Skipper and sent the B-17 on its last mission. I personally think it’s rather ironic that in its last dying act as a US Army Air Corps bomber, B-17 Little Skipper destroyed its final target, smashing into a German HQ building and leveling it. When the smoke and dust settled, Rojohn and Leek found themselves both very much alive! Sitting in their seats still attached to the nose and cockpit section, they simply undid their straps, stood up, and climbed out from their twisted wreckage with only minor injuries. A scattering of broken and bent metal lay behind them. Unfortunately for Corporal Russo, still trapped in his ball turret, Lady Luck was not with him on this flight; it is believed he was killed on impact. Rojohn said he pulled a cigarette from his pack and put it to his lips, but a young-looking, very nervous German soldier snatched the cigarette before it could be lit. Pointing to the ground with his rifle, both Rojohn and Leek saw the cause for his alarm: fuel had spilled everywhere, including the wing they were standing on. After convincing their German captors that they were not flying a secret weapon, Lieutenants Rojohn and Leek, along with eight other survivors, became guests of the Luftwaffe and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp. Of the eighteen men total that made up both crews, eight were killed in action; five men from MacNab’s B-17 and three men from Rojohn’s gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country. Had it not been for the heroic actions of both Lieutenant Rojohn and Lieutenant Leek at a time when their worlds collided, the killed-in-action count would have been much higher. Wings of War: Great Combat Tales of Allied and Axis Pilots During World War II Author: James P. Busha Wings of War encompasses the World War II air war from late 1939 through 1945 and provides a chronological snapshot not only of famous and significant events from the global air war, but also of other lesser-known events that are equally thrilling and important. Over three dozen different Allied and Axis airplanes are featured, giving you a unique experience at the controls of a variety of World War II’s famed fighters, bombers, liaison, and jet airplanes. The action is truly global–from the skies over England, Greenland, mainland Europe, the African deserts, the CBI Theater, the entire Pacific Theater (including the Aleutians, Russia, Japan, and China) and many more, this is one book no fan of warbirds will want to miss! Here are just a few of the stories included about World War II aces from author Jim Busha’s vast archival research and interviews: – A pilot that flew a P-36 against the Japanese at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, while still in his Sunday pajamas. – A B-25 pilot who launched off the USS Hornet along with his fellow Doolittle Raiders. – P-40 pilots who flew against Rommel and his Afrika Korps. – A PBY pilot helped locate and recover a downed Zero over the Aleutians, which was later used as a test bed to learn its deadly tricks. 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