Miracle B-17 Makes It Home After Nose Blown Away

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IT WAS A FORTRESS COMING HOME

They Could Hear It Before They Could See it By Allen Ostrom

They could hear it before they could see it!

Not all that unusual in those days as the personnel at Station 131 gathered around the tower and scattered hardstands to await the return of the B-17's sent out earlier that morning.

First comes the far off rumble and drone of the Cyclones. Then a spec on the East Anglia horizon. Soon a small cluster indicating the lead squadron.

Finally, the group.

Then the counting. 1-2-3-4-5... ..

But that would have been normal. Today was different! It was too early for the group to return.

"They're 20 minutes early. Can't be the 398th."

They could hear it before they could see it! Something was coming home.
But what?

All eyes turned toward the northeast, aligning with the main runway, each ground guy and stood-down airman straining to make out this "wail of a Banshee," as one called it.

Not like a single B-17 with its characteristic deep roar of the engines blended with four thrashing propellers. This was a howl! Like a powerful wind blowing into a huge whistle.

Then it came into view. It WAS a B-17!

Low and pointing her nose at the 6,000 foot runway, it appeared for all the world to be crawling toward the earth, screaming in protest.

No need for the red flares. All who saw this Fort knew there was death aboard.

"Look at that nose!" they said as all eyes stared in amazement as this single, shattered remnant of a once beautiful airplane glided in for an unrealistic "hot" landing. She took all the runway as the "Banshee" noise finally abated, and came to an inglorious stop in the mud just beyond the concrete runway.

Men and machines raced to the now silent and lonely aircraft. The ambulance and medical staff were there first. The fire truck....ground and air personnel... .jeeps, truck, bikes.....

Out came one of the crew members from the waist door, then another.
Strangely quiet. The scene was almost weird. Men stood by as if in shock, not knowing whether to sing or cry.

Either would have been acceptable.

The medics quietly made their way to the nose by way of the waist door as the remainder of the crew began exiting. And to answer the obvious question, "what happened?"

"What happened?" was easy to see. The nose was a scene of utter destruction. It was as though some giant aerial can opener had peeled the nose like an orange, relocating shreads of metal, plexiglass, wires and tubes on the cockpit windshield and even up to the top turret. The left cheek gun hung limp, like a broken arm.

One man pointed to the crease in chin turret. No mistaking that mark! A German 88 anti-aircraft shell had exploded in the lap of the togglier.

This would be George Abbott of Mt. Labanon , PA. He had been a waist gunner before training to take over the bombardier's role.

Still in the cockpit, physically and emotionally exhausted, were pilot Larry deLancey and co-pilot Phil Stahlman.

Navigator Ray LeDoux finally tapped deLancey on the shoulder and suggested they get out. Engineer turret gunner Ben Ruckel already had made his way to the waist was exiting along with radio operator Wendell Reed, ball turret gunner Al Albro, waist gunner Russell Lachman and tail gunner Herbert Guild.

Stahlman was flying his last scheduled mission as a replacement for regular co-pilot, Grady Cumbie. The latter had been hospitalized the day before with an ear problem. Lachman was also a "sub," filling in for Abbott in the waist.

DeLancey made it as far as the end of the runway, where he sat down with knees drawn up, arms crossed and head down. The ordeal was over, and now the drama was beginning a mental re-play.

Then a strange scene took place.

Group CO Col. Frank P. Hunter had arrived after viewing the landing from the tower and was about to approach deLancey. He was physically restrained by flight surgeon Dr. Robert Sweet.

"Colonel, that young man doesn't want to talk now. When he is ready you can talk to him, but for now leave him alone."

Sweet handed pills out to each crew member and told them to go to their huts and sleep.

No dramatics, no cameras, no interviews. The crew would depart the next day for "flak leave" to shake off the stress. And then be expected back early in November. (Just in time to resume "normal" activities on a mission to Merseburg!)

Mission No. 98 from Nuthampstead had begun at 0400 that morning of October 15, 1944. It would be Cologne (again), led by CA pilots Robert Templeman of the 602nd, Frank Schofield of the 601st and Charles Khourie of the 603rd.

Tragedy and death appeared quickly and early that day. Templeman and pilot Bill Scott got the 602nd off at the scheduled 0630 hour, but at approximately 0645 Khouri and pilot Bill Meyran and their entire crew crashed on takeoff in the town of Anstey . All were killed. Schofield and Harold Stallcup followed successfully with the 601st, with deLancey flying on their left wing in the lead element.

The ride to the target was routine, until the flak started becoming "unroutinely" accurate.

"We were going through heavy flak on the bomb run," remembered deLancey.

"I felt the plane begin to lift as the bombs were dropped, then all of a sudden we were rocked by a violent explosion. My first thought - 'a bomb exploded in the bomb bay' - was immediately discarded as the top of the nose section peeled back over the cockpit blocking the forward view."

"It seemed like the whole world exploded in front of us," added Stahlman. "The instrument panel all but disintegrated and layers of quilted batting exploded in a million pieces. It was like a momentary snowstorm in the cockpit."

It had been a direct hit in the nose. Killed instantly was the togglier, Abbott. Navigator LeDoux, only three feet behind Abbott, was knocked unconscious for a moment, but was miraculously was alive.

Although stunned and bleeding, LeDoux made his way to the cockpit to find the two pilots struggling to maintain control of an airplane that by all rights should have been in its death plunge. LeDoux said there was nothing anyone could do for Abbott, while Ruckel opened the door to the bomb bay and signaled to the four crewman in the radio room that all was OK - for the time being.

The blast had torn away the top and much of the sides of the nose. Depositing enough of the metal on the windshield to make it difficult for either of the pilots to see.

"The instrument panel was torn loose and all the flight instruments were inoperative with the exception of the magnetic compass mounted in the panel above the windshield. And its accuracy was questionable. The radio and intercom were gone, the oxygen lines broken, and there was a ruptured hydraulic line under my rudder pedals," said deLancey.

All this complicated by the sub-zero temperature at 27,000 feet blasting into the cockpit.

"It was apparent that the damage was severe enough that we could not continue to fly in formation or at high altitude. My first concern was to avoid the other aircraft in the formation, and to get clear of the other planes in case we had to bail out. We eased out of formation, and at the same time removed our oxygen masks as they were collapsing on our faces as the tanks were empty."

At this point the formation continued on its prescribed course for home - a long, slow turn southeast of Cologne and finally westward.

DeLancey and Stahlman turned left, descending rapidly and hoping, they were heading west. (And also, not into the gun sights of German fighters.) Without maps and navigation aids, they had difficulty getting a fix. By this time they were down to 2,000 feet.

"We finally agreed that we were over Belgium and were flying in a southwesterly direction," said the pilot.

"About this time a pair of P-51's showed up and flew a loose formation on us across Belgium . I often wondered what they thought as they looked at the mess up front."

"We hit the coast right along the Belgium-Holland border, a bit farther north than we had estimated. Ray said we were just south of Walcheren Island ."

Still in an area of ground fighting, the plane received some small arms fire. This gesture was returned in kind by Albro, shooting from one of the waist guns.

"We might have tried for one of the airfields in France , but having no maps this also was questionable. Besides, the controls and engines seemed to be OK, so I made the decision to try for home."

"Once over England , LeDoux soon picked up landmarks and gave me course corrections taking us directly to Nuthampstead. It was just a great bit of navigation. Ray just stood there on the flight deck and gave us the headings from memory."

Nearing the field, Stahlman let the landing gear down. That was an assurance. But a check of the hydraulic pump sent another spray of oil to the cockpit floor. Probably no brakes!

Nevertheless, a flare from Ruckel's pistol had to announce the "ready or not" landing. No "downwind leg" and "final approach" this time. Straight in!

"The landing was strictly by guess and feel," said DeLancey. "Without instruments, I suspect I came in a little hot. Also, I had to lean to the left to see straight ahead. The landing was satisfactory, and I had sufficient braking to slow the plane down some. However, as I neared the taxiway, I could feel the brakes getting 'soft'. I felt that losing control and blocking the taxiway would cause more problems than leaving the plane at the end of the runway."

That consideration was for the rest of the group. Soon three squadrons of B-17's would be returning, and they didn't need a derelict airplane blocking the way to their respective hardstands.

Stahlman, supremely thankful that his career with the 398th had come to an end, soon returned home and in due course became a captain with Eastern Airlines. Retired in 1984, Stahlman said his final Eastern flight "was a bit more routine" than the one 40 years before.

DeLancey and LeDoux received decorations on December 11, 1944 for their parts in the October 15 drama. DeLancey was awarded the Silver Star for his "miraculous feat of flying skill and ability" on behalf of General Doolittle , CO of the Eighth Air Force. LeDoux for his "extraordinary navigation skill", received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

The following deLancey 1944 article was transcribed from the 398th BG Historical Microfilm. Note: due to wartime security, Nuthampstead is not mentioned, and the route deLancey flew home is referred to in general terms.

TO: STARS AND STRIPES FOR GENERAL RELEASE

AN EIGHTH AIR FORCE BOMBER STATION, ENGLAND - After literally losing the nose of his B-17 Flying Fortress as the result of a direct hit by flak over Cologne , Germany on October 15, 1944, 1st Lt. Lawrence M. deLancey, 25, of Corvallis , Oregon returned to England and landed the crew safely at his home base. Each man walked away from the plane except the togglier, Staff Sergeant George E. Abbott, Mt. Lebanon , Pennsylvania , who was killed instantly when the flak struck.

It was only the combined skill and teamwork of Lt. deLancey and 2nd Lt. Raymond J. LeDoux, of Mt. Angel , Oregon , navigator, that enabled the plane and crew to return safely.

"Just after we dropped our bombs and started to turn away from the target", Lt. deLancey explained, "a flak burst hit directly in the nose and blew practically the entire nose section to threads. Part of the nose peeled back and obstructed my vision and that of my co-pilot, 1st Lt. Phillip H. Stahlman of Shippenville , Pennsylvania . What little there was left in front of me looked like a scrap heap. The wind was rushing through. Our feet were exposed to the open air at nearly 30,000 feet above the ground the temperature was unbearable.

"There we were in a heavily defended flak area with no nose, and practically no instruments. The instrument panel was bent toward me as the result of the impact. My altimeter and magnetic compass were about the only instruments still operating and I couldn't depend on their accuracy too well. Naturally I headed for home immediately. The hit which had killed S/Sgt. Abbott also knocked Lt. LeDoux back in the catwalk (just below where I was sitting). Our oxygen system also was out so I descended to a safe altitude.

"Lt. LeDoux who had lost all his instruments and maps in the nose did a superb piece of navigating to even find England ."

During the route home flak again was encountered but due to evasive action Lt. deLancey was able to return to friendly territory. Lt. LeDoux navigated the ship directly to his home field.

Although the plane was off balance without any nose section, without any brakes (there was no hydraulic pressure left), and with obstructed vision, Lt. deLancey made a beautiful landing to the complete amazement of all personnel at this field who still are wondering how the feat was accomplished.

The other members of the crew include:

1. Technical Sergeant Benjamin H. Ruckel, Roscoe , California , engineer top turret gunner;
2. Technical Sergeant Wendell A. Reed, Shelby , Michigan , radio operator gunner;
3. Technical Sergeant Russell A. Lachman, Rockport , Mass. , waist gunner;
4. Staff Sergeant Albert Albro, Antioch , California , ball turret gunner and
5. Staff Sergeant Herbert D. Guild, Bronx , New York , tail gunner.

Originally printed in 398th Bomb Group Remembrances

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Profile picture for user GrahamSimons

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Perhaps you would like to see a picture of the aircraft - 43-38172 Lovely Julie - as featured in our latest Focus on Nuthampstead from Malcolm Osborn and myself, out next week! Picture is as supplied by Malcolm.

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Wow! To look at the extent of the damage and know they made it back is incredible. I have seen plenty of pictures of WW2 bombers with all sorts of damage, somehow make it back.

A mixture of fear and courage?

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Boeing B-17F-5-BO (S/N 41-24406) "All American III" of the 97th Bomb Group, 414th Bomb Squadron, in flight after a collision with an Me-109. The aircraft was able to land safely. (U.S. Air Force photo)

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2012/1492709713_6085320fb8_b.jpg

A ground close-up:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2283/1492709293_77e775651e_b.jpg

P-38--F5B after mid-air collision with H-P Halifax

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2632/3968644495_3e028c6482_b.jpg

Thomas W.Smith's P-38 after going head-on with an ME-109:

http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2637/3969430564_881cf526c7_b.jpg

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The F5 survived a mid-air and landed like that??? - Incredible.
(as are all these events)

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The F5 survived a mid-air and landed like that??? - Incredible.
(as are all these events)

What happened to the Halifax after the F5 'collected' one of its Fins ??

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Fascinating details , remarkable the damage these aircraft could take and make it safely home or at least back to the ground !

Wasnt there a story of two b-17's colliding and actually flying for a while joined together?

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Anybody know any more details about the P38/F5 story ? she must have been a real dog to handle with that sort of damage.

rgds baz

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Absolutely.. just as well the Hali Fin ended up on the side of what looks like the only serviceable engine. Given the same situation now i wonder how many of us would of just taken to the silk rather than trying to fly that mess home... let alone land it as well. Hats off to the pilots of the time.

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Boeing B-17F-5-BO (S/N 41-24406) "

Did they repair it or strike this aircraft off for spares?

Bloody suprised it made it back have heard the B-17 could take some punishment but that is severe.!!

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As regards the F5/Halifax photo above,after looking at it again,I thought hmmm ... possible to fly with that damage ??
So I did a bit of googling and there has been some discussion on at least one website as to whether it might have been a ground collision at Speke !!
Anybody know anything about it ??

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Hi Wasn't ther a photo of a Lanc( and it's pilot} with the nose blown off ???

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As regards the F5/Halifax photo above,after looking at it again,I thought hmmm ... possible to fly with that damage ??
So I did a bit of googling and there has been some discussion on at least one website as to whether it might have been a ground collision at Speke !!
Anybody know anything about it ??

Wouldn't surprise me!

About the only place I can think of Halifaxes (churned out of Rootes) and P38's (being assembled in the Hangars on the other side of the field) operating in close proximity in daytime.

Also the picture has been retouched to remove any background detail, so the location is clearly sensitive - I wonder if it had something like Garston gasworks in the background!

One other thought then, can anyone tie it up with a Halifax loss in December 1943? The date coming from some reserach on the internet.

Jon

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Halifax / F5 - I'm really not sure that the F5 flew like that. The leading edge of the starboard wing is too knackered to allow the wing to perform any useful aerodynamic function apart from create drag (and this wing appears to have partially sheared immediately outboard of the engine, bending backwards a little). A bloody great flat thing attached to the leading edge of the port wing does the same job for that side, only more so (just having an unfeathered prop on a seized engine can make a twin un-flyable). Besides which, I am doubtful that the fin could become attached to the wing leading edge (traditionally, quite a curvy and smooth surface) at the moment of impact in such a way that it could resist airflow (and prop wash) at flying speeds and remain there. It also looks like the starboard prop wasn't turning when the collision happened..

B17 pics impressive tho. They built those things well, didn't they?

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Yes that is why I did a little googling about the F5,the stbd wing looks to have major structural damage ,one website said it was swept back approx 25 deg,so with that damage and the position/size of the Hali fin...I am convinced by the ground collision argument.
Would be nice to see confirmation though,nobody so far seems to know 100%

rgds baz

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Apparently, this site has more info... and it was indeed a mid-air!

http://forum.armyairforces.com/Lightning-Collision-with-RAF-Bomber-December-1943-m168150.aspx

according losses of the 8th and 9th airforce on 22 dec 1943 had an F-5B midair collision with an Hallifax
s/n of the plane was 42-67318

.....

History card for 42-67318 F-5B-1-LO..
shows last entries:
Soxo, 30 Nov 43-13 Dec 43
May have been repaired or stripped for parts prior to being condemed.
Then Condemned 9 Jun 1944

.....

The interest being the New type Halifax tail unit (Square type) that was only just being introduced on new a/c and reto-fitted on older a/c.

.....

I have found only ten or so Mk III Halifax a/c lost between 16th Nov 43 and 22nd Dec 43, but there were several others of other mark's that were abandoned in air that the Lightning could have collided with, however the chance that they had been converted is I think slim.
The ten Mk.III's were -
25-11-43 ... HX237 "HD-A" - 466 Sqdn
1/2-12-43... HX235 "HD-D" - 466 Sqdn
9-12-43 ... HX276 "HD-Y" - 466 Sqdn
16-12-43 ... HX296 "HD- " - 466 Sqdn
19-12-43 ... HX245 "BM - " - 433 Sqdn
19-12-43 ... HX277 "BM- " - 433 Sqdn
20/21-12-43...HX270 "TL-M" - 35 Sqdn
20/21-12-43...HX273 "TL-J" - 35 Sqdn
20/21-12-43...HX236 "HD-J" - 466 Sqdn
20/21-12-43...HX273 "HD-W" - 466 Sqdn

Another site has this:

http://rmena.org/bulletin-june09.pdf

The Lightning was obviously a very robust aircraft and could survive heavy damage. We were shown several photos of damaged planes that were able to continue flying. In one case a Halifax had a midair collision with the Lightning and left its tail section impinged in the wing, and the Lightning was able to land safely. Apparently the Halifax was lost. Another example showed a plane that had run into a telephone pole, lost one engine and had its wing bent back but
still flew home.
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Wow,it's stories like this that keep me coming back!What can be done
and to the crews that did it.Hats off keep'em coming,Thank you.:eek:

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Re the F5 photo...it would be interesting to see a photo taken from the port side,although I am still more convinced by a ground collision,I would be very happy to be proved wrong :D
Any pilot able to land an a/c in that condition would surely attract high praise from the brass,and perhaps a medal ??
Any mention of the pilots name anywhere ??

rgds baz

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To have collected the port fin of the Halifax on the port wing of the F5 would have been difficult in a ground collision? The fin looks quite new (!)