The theories behind one of aviation’s strangest tales

On November 23, 1944 a B-17 Flying Fortress crash landed in Belgium. While normally a non-event, this one left many across the world perplexed. Although nobody knows the true story of the ‘Phantom Fortress’, the theories behind it come in abundance…

Boeing’s B-17 Flying Fortress was an integral part of aviation during its heyday. It undertook many flights and took part in many crucial operations during World War II. Many of the routine flights succeeded, others failed and made crash landings as a result. These crash landings were documented, all with their own story to tell and often with at least part of the crew there to tell it. 

On November 23, 1944 an RAF anti-aircraft unit stationed outside Cortonburg in central Belguim looked up to see a B-17 Flying Fortress advancing toward them in the sky at high speed with its landing gear down. In a rapid and uncontrolled landing, the B-17 dropped into an empty field just shy of the unit’s guns, shattering its propellers and ploughing into the ground with its wings as it came to a shuddering halt. The base personnel presumed that the aircraft was making an emergency landing, as no other landing was scheduled. Watching on as three of the bombers’ four engines continued to rumble, the gun crew expected to see the crew exit the aircraft normally – albeit shaken-up. But no one appeared. For more than 15 minutes, the onlookers waited… still hoping the crew would appear. Lacking knowledge of the B-17, Maj John V. Crisp approached it cautiously. Searching for an entry hatch underneath the fuselage, he eventually found one and climbed aboard as his men followed. Later, he would go on to relay what they had found: “Our most remarkable find in the fuselage was about a dozen parachutes neatly wrapped and ready for clipping on. This made the whereabouts of the crew even more mysterious. The Sperry bombsight remained in the Perspex nose, quite undamaged, with its cover neatly folded beside it. Back on the navigator’s desk was the code book giving the colours and letters of the day for identification purposes. Various fur-lined flying jackets lay in the fuselage together with a few bars of chocolate, partly consumed in some cases.”

B-17 airbourne
Public Domain. Source: WikiMedia Commons
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Despite obvious signs of a crew having been aboard, they were nowhere to be seen. The only clue as to their whereabouts was to be found a logbook, which stated ‘bad flak’. Despite this, closer inspection of the aircraft determined the only damage had been inflicted upon its abrupt arrival. Moreover, had the crew decided to bail, their parachutes remained – meaning they would have jumped to certain death. The B-17 and its mysterious crash landing was christened the ‘Phantom Fortress’. The aeroplane was confirmed as being assigned to the Eighth Air Force's 91st Bombardment Group – but this was where its mystery, began. As a result, many have discussed the multiple possible theories as to how – and why – the B-17 ended up crash landing in Belgium.

The Crew

Remarkably, the crew of the aircraft were located alive and well in Belgium. They explained how the aircraft’s bomb rack had developed a fault, which caused them to veer away from the rest of the 91st and run into enemy fire. This resulted in the loss of an engine; as a result, the crew decided to alter their course and attempt an emergency landing in Brussels. Experiencing continuing issues, the crew made the decision to set the aircraft to auto pilot and bail out.

But this story did not account for the evidence found on the aeroplane. The only damage to the aircraft was caused by its heavy landing – none of the damage the crew described was visible! Additionally, how could the crew have bailed out of the aircraft without their parachutes? More to the point, how could they have done so without obtaining any injuries whatsoever? And could battle damage have been mistaken for crash damage?

The Mechanics

Authorities on the case have studied the mechanical elements of the aircraft’s landing. Some of their theories play into the crew’s unlikely tale, while others seem to disprove it completely. Some considered that the B-17 may have indeed been experiencing technical difficulties with the crew still on board. However, could the engines really have burst back into life after the crew disembarked? This seemed highly unlikely, despite being theoretically possible, considering how crippled the aircraft must have been for the crew to reach the conclusion that abandoning it was their only option. Additionally, if the motors were in such a bad way, how was it that they continued to run after the suspicious landing? This gives rise to the ultimate question: how did the B-17 land relatively intact without the aid of a pilot? Theoretically, it should have hit into the ground – regardless of its autopilot being on. Certainly at that time, autopilot was not advanced enough to carry out a safe ‘automated’ landing.

The Physics

While most notions surrounding the mysterious tale of the Phantom Fortress seem to raise more questions than answers, there is one theory which accounts for most of the events of November 23, 1944. This is that it was simply physics… or more to the point, it was the result of physics. Those who have tried to understand the mystery have suggested that the aeroplane lost altitude slowly enough and just at the right angle to make it appear as though it was actually landing under control. While the odds are most likely stacked against this particular sequence of events, they seem to work in favour of the crew’s account. Still, questions remain.

With the aid of so many conflicting theories, historians and aviators alike have been unable to piece together the exact events which lead to the ‘Phantom Fortress’. While remaining open to speculation, there are two things that most seem to be able to agree on – the landing was a remarkable feat of engineering, physics and airmanship, and the crew of the aircraft came away with quite the story to tell!