Ready or Not: Into the Wild Blue
by J. Francis Angier
1944 October 25, The Longest Mission
The aircraft assigned to us on October 25 was 42-97899. I conducted the pre-flight inspection with my flight engineer T/Sgt Howard Lang and the ground-crew chief as well as the communications and armament people until we were satisfied with the condition of the plane. It was in excellent shape, nearly new, so we took off and climbed up through 23,000 feet of fog and weather to assembly altitude, where I assumed my position in the formation as leader of the high squadron.
As we approached the island of Helgoland, just north of the German coast, we turned right, according to the briefed route that would take us along the east side of the Weser River estuary. We saw the usual flak coming up from Helgoland, letting us know the enemy was awake, but it was too far away to bother us.
Our penetration of enemy territory was through reported light defenses over a cloud coverâ€”according to weather forecastsâ€”at about 2,200 feet. This cloud cover obscured the coastline, and when I observed the first anti-aircraft fire from the mainland, it appeared to be eight to ten miles ahead and dead level with the groups flying in front of us but considerably to the right of our flight path. Another four bursts of heavy caliber fire appeared dead ahead of our aircraft, and as I was flying to the right of and somewhat higher than the lead squadron led by Capt. Bill Doherty, I moved the squadron slightly to the left to avoid subsequent fire.
Meanwhile we were conducting an oxygen check. I had advised the crew there was flak at our level at 12 oâ€™clock. â€œCheck your flak suits and oxygen and acknowledge, please.â€ Just as the tail-gunner, S/Sgt. Maynard Judson acknowledged, three bursts of flak appeared immediately in front of us and the fourth burst struck between the No. 3 and No. 4 engines, blowing a large hole in the leading edge of the right wing approximately three feet by six feet and back into the wing as far as the main spar.
A small fire with a peculiar blue-green flame started in the No. 4 engine. We expended our fire extinguisher on the fire with very little effect. I found I had no control over the two starboard engines, with No. 4 revving to the red line and No. 3 shaking violently in the engine supports. The engineer called out, â€œThe whole right wing is on fire.â€ And indeed, the fuel tanks were burning so intensely that we could see the internal structure of the wing glowing red. No. 3 engine was bending down, and vibration soon tore it loose from the mounts.
Realizing there was no way to save the aircraft, I called my deputy leader and asked him to move the squadron above and to the left of us to avoid any of my crew striking the other planes in the squadron as they bailed out. I had just hit the bail-out bell and told the crew to leave the aircraft when the No. 3 engine and right landing gear fell away. Pieces of metal from the debris struck S/Sgt. Osborn, cutting his face as he bailed out the waist door.
Hoping everyone had left the airplane, I attempted to turn out of the formation, but the maneuver turned into a roll and a horizontal spiral due to No. 4 engine running wild and uncontrollable. I pushed No. 1 to full throttle in an attempt to balance No. 4; No. 2 had shut down.
Lack of oxygen was beginning to blur my vision. I no longer had any control of the plane and was attempting to leave my seat when the plane went into a steep climb. This caused heat from the fire in the bomb bay to rise into the cockpit, and although there was no fire around me the heat was becoming unbearable. The paint on the instrument panel was already blistering, and I thought it was all over, for sure.
When the aircraft reached a vertical nose-up attitude, all power stopped abruptly. The plane started falling tail first. Then it explodedâ€”violently.
Approximately two-and-one-half minutes had elapsed since we were hit by the burst of anti-aircraft fire. It was generally agreed that a B-17 would explode in about 40 seconds after being on fire. I lost consciousness from the concussion but had the sensation of being ejected out the right side of the cockpit and remember feeling the intense cold.
After falling about two miles, I came to my senses. My immediate concern was the condition of my parachute; I anticipated that it might have caught fire or been damaged in the explosion. Reaching around to examine the backpack, I was greatly relieved that although my leather jacket and flight suit were badly torn, the chute seemed to be intact. There was a light coating of ice on me, no doubt caused by the sudden change from the intense heat to the minus 50 degrees below 0 outside. The layer of ice began to fly off in the wind my fast fall was generating. I was bleeding from several cuts and could hear absolutely nothing.
Some people have the misconception a person falling from great heights would â€œbe dead before hitting the ground.â€ The sensation of falling lasts only during the time a body is accelerating. After that it is a feeling of being supported by a strong rush of air. I had missed that initial feeling of falling because of my momentary loss of consciousness.
I was falling â€œlike a logâ€â€”on my back, without spinning or tumblingâ€”and, looking about, I could see both the east and west coasts of Denmark on my left and the Zeider Zee and Friesian Islands in Holland on my right. Because the plane had no forward motion when it exploded, the debris was falling with and around me.