The hazards of flying in wartime were numerous and not all were related to the enemy. The aircraft were often pushed to the limit. In inhospitable conditions on open airfields the maintenance crews struggled to keep them properly serviced, always under pressure to keep a minimum number ready for operations. Aircraft that probably shouldn’t have been allowed to fly were pushed into service to make up the numbers. In such cases it was often a matter of luck whether a crew discovered the faults before they had gone too far … and even more luck might be needed to get back safely.
Oak Mackey, a co-pilot on a B-24, describes just one incident in which the crew were lucky to walk away from a broken aircraft:
The date was January 10, 1945, a bad day for the Jack Clarke crew of the 392nd Bomb Group of the Second Air Division of the Eighth Air Force. I, Oak Mackey, was the copilot; Brad Eaton, navigator; Bob Lowe, bombardier, E.C. Brunette, engineer; J.T. Brown, radio operator, Ralph Heilman, nose gunner; George Peer and John Heckman, waist gunners; and Kevin Killea, tail gunner; perhaps the best crew in the 8th AF.
We were awakened at 02:00 a.m. for briefing at 04:30 a.m. The target was Dasburg in the Bastogne area to support our ground troops there. The weather was absolutely atrocious – through the night there had been a combination of freezing rain, sleet, snow showers and fog. The runways and taxiways were covered with a sheet of slippery ice.
At briefing we learned that our usual B-24 was not available and we were assigned the squadron spare. We were a deputy lead crew and would be flying off the right wing of the lead plane of the leading squadron. Upon reaching our assigned airplane we found it had not been warmed up, the engines were cold and very difficult to start. Only after much cranking, priming and cussing were we able to get them running. We were supposed to be two for takeoff just after the Group lead airplane. By now most of the entire Group had departed.
We made our takeoff, climbed through the overcast to on top of the clouds and had the rest of the Group formation in sight. At this time the #3 engine propeller severely over-speeded, probably because of congealed oil trying to pass through the propeller governor. This is a serious problem – because of the engine over-speed the engine might turn to junk, or the propeller might come off the engine and pass through the fuselage or hit the other engine on that side. Jack told me to shut down the engine and feather the propeller. I reduced power to the engine and pushed the feathering button. It immediately popped out again, for it is its own circuit breaker. Brunette was sitting between Jack and me on the cockpit jump seat, as all good engineers should. He pushed the feathering button in and held it there which caused the secondary circuit breaker to pop open, which he immediately held down with his other hand, a risky procedure as it could cause the feathering oil pump motor or associated wiring to catch fire. Oh-so-slowly the prop blades turned to the feathered position and engine rotation stopped.
With one engine out and a loaded airplane there was no way we could stay with the Group. We were now in the vicinity of Great Yarmouth, so we flew out over the North Sea and dumped our bombs. We left the arming safely wires in place so the bombs could not explode.
As we turned to go back to our base, the #2 propeller ran away, compounding our numerous problems. We got the engine shut down and propeller feathered with less trouble than we had with #3. A B-24 cannot maintain airspeed and altitude with two engines out and full fuel tanks, and we gave careful consideration to bailing out but decided to stay with the airplane for a while and conserve altitude as best we could. The weather at our airfield near Wendling had not improved, but we had little choice but to try to return there.
We were about due south of Norwich ten miles or so when we spotted an airport through a hole in the clouds, our first good luck of the day. We descended through the hole in the clouds and had gone through the before-landing checklists, lowered wing flaps to the landing position, extended the landing gear, and were turning to line up with a runway from west of the airport when the thick bullet-resistant windshield and side windows iced up, a common occurrence when descending through a temperature inversion. We could not pull up and go around with the landing gear and flaps down with only two engines operating – we were committed to landing.
Jack and I could not see through the iced-up windshields and windows. We had to continue our descent to keep air speed above stalling. Through a small clear place on my side window I saw men running at full speed, and I also saw that we were about to touch down. I assumed those men were running from a building of some sort and we were lined up to hit it. Without any thought and perhaps with instinct, I pushed full left rudder that caused the airplane to slew around to the left and we touched down in a sideways attitude. The landing gear snapped off, the two outside engine propellers broke off and went cartwheeling across the airfield. We slid sideways on the fuselage for a long way on the ice and snow; it seemed like forever. The fuselage was broken behind the cockpit area and the nose tilted up, which enlarged the window to my right a bit so that I was able to go through it with my backpack parachute on. Likewise Jack went out the left cockpit window. I ran along the right side of the airplane, stopped at the waist window to look in to see if everyone was out, continued around the tail and there they were, all nine of them and no one had a scratch. We had landed at Seething Airfield, home of the 448th Bomb Group, and we had missed the control tower by only 100 feet or so.
An ambulance pulled up in a few minutes and took us to the base hospital where the doctor looked us over to be certain there were no injuries. For medicinal purposes, someone brought out a bottle of 100-proof rye whisky. We took our medicine like real men. Someone called our base at Wendling and a truck came for us in an hour of so. So ended a bad day for the Clarke crew. It could have been much worse.
Read the whole of this story, and the remarkable sequel for Oak Mackey many years later, at BBC People’s War.