The Swamp Ghost Comes Home

Boeing B-17E no. 41-2446 went into combat only once, on February 23, 1942, in the U.S. Army Air Forces’ first raid on Rabaul. Nobody got hurt, no bombs were effectively dropped—the release mechanism malfunctioned over the target. On a second run over the target, the bombs were dropped through cloud cover, but the Flying Fortress got shot up so badly that it had to crash-land in a New Guinea swamp. The crew walked out, mosquito-bit half to death, after several days in the jungle.

Since the wreck’s rediscovery in 1972 by an Australian army helicopter crew, the “Swamp Ghost,” as it was soon dubbed, has been the focus of seemingly endless modern-day combat between preservationists and warbird restorers, Australians versus Americans and aircraft recovery groups versus the quixotic government of Papua New Guinea. It was, after all, the earliest surviving B-17E, the first “big tail” Flying Fortress. Only 512 Es were made, and the first 112 (including the Swamp Ghost) had rare remotely operated Sperry electric ball turrets. Better yet, this one had been landed wheels-up, so nicely that there was little damage to anything but the props, and somehow the fresh water that cushioned and cosseted the hulk seemed to have anti-corrosion properties. The Swamp Ghost was soon to be called the single most important unrecovered World War II aerial-combat artifact.

Though that war is finally over, the controversy continues. The Swamp Ghost has been snatched from its PNG government impoundment in Lae and shipped to the West Coast by Pennsylvania aviation enthusiast Fred Hagen. Many preservationists are furious; most warbirders are delighted.

That epic journey stretches back to 1986, when TIGHAR (The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery) first looked into bringing 41-2446 back to the U.S. for the Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson AFB, but ran into PNG resistance once that government realized the airplane was potentially valuable and could be turned into a tourist attraction. Warbird collector David Tallichet was next up and in 1998 paid $100,000 for an export license for the hulk, but ultimately gave up the extremely difficult recovery quest. In 2001 Tallichet sold Hagen the rights to the Swamp Ghost.

Hagen actually recovered the airplane in May 2006, disassembling it into its main components (wings, fuselage and tail and engines) for heli-lift to a barge. By the time the barge reached Lae, however, a storm of criticism had erupted from Papua New Guineans outraged at what they considered the theft of a piece of national treasure, and the wreck was seized. Last August, the PNG state solicitor reversed the illegal-sale decision, and B-17E 41-2446—it never was nicknamed during its wartime career—landed on U.S. soil for the first time in 68 years.

The Flying Fort’s ultimate fate has yet to be determined. Hagen, who has already spent $1 million on the recovery, has said that he might have it restored to flying condition. If that proves impractical, he’s considering leaving it as is and displaying it at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Ariz., in a setting that replicates the swamp from which it was recovered.

For more information and updates, go to theswampghost.com.

-Stephan Wilkinson

Battle of Britain Beacon

On May 13, in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon announced plans for a monolithic memorial to the battle—a 380-foot, steel-and-glass beacon visible from the center of London, eight miles away. The Battle of Britain Beacon will be the world’s tallest museum building and will be privately funded to the tune of £80 million. The museum hopes to complete the memorial by the 75th anniversary of the battle—within the lifetime of some of the remaining veterans, now mostly in their 90s.

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, which also designed the Milestones of Flight building at Hendon and the National Cold War Museum at Cosford, had two major specifications to meet: fit the memorial in a limited space and house the RAF Museum’s entire Battle of Britain Collection, currently at the Battle of Britain Hall. The tapered body of the structure— which is covered with a double skin of perforated glass—will rise to a shell-like cone, cut diagonally to contain replicas of a Messerschmitt Me-109, Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane. The beacon will have a high-speed elevator to “scramble” visitors through the vertical display area to these three planes outside the glass at the apex, locked in everlasting combat.

Visitors will then wind their way down the body of the building through the collection of original aircraft suspended in the central well. The RAF collection includes iconic airplanes such as the Me-109E-3, Spitfire I, Hurricane I and Heinkel He-111H-20, as well as lesser-known planes of the era like the Westland Lysander III, Short Sunderland MR.5 and Italian Fiat C.R.42 Falco.

Internet forums have recently been abuzz with criticism of the beacon design (with some derisively dubbing it “the egg timer”), but the museum’s director general Peter Dye has defended the plan as innovative. “This is the first building dedicated to an air battle in the world,” he said. “It’s the first building that actually seeks to place the visitor in the very air space in which the battle was fought, so its height is integral in telling the story.”

The Battle of Britain Beacon announcement came a day after plans were revealed for a £3.5 million monument to RAF Bomber Command at Green Park in London. The RAF Museum at Hendon is also working to move the 1917 Watch Office—headquarters of the Hendon Aerodrome in World War I—onto museum grounds by the end of 2011. For more on the beacon project, visit battleofbritainbeacon.com.

-Stephen Mauro

B-24 Tulsamerican Discovered by Divers

The Consolidated B-24J Tulsamerican was the very last Liberator assembled, under contract, by Douglas Aircraft’s Tulsa, Okla., factory before the facility was converted to produce the company’s own A-26 Invader medium bombers. Tulsans were so proud of that one Liberator, and the 951 that preceded it, that they paid for Tulsamerican themselves, with war bonds. Between late September and December 17, 1944, Tulsamerican flew 18 missions from its base in Italy with the 461st Bomb Group. It was a unit with heavy Oklahoman representation that welcomed the hometown hero.

But Tulsamerican never returned to Italy on that snowy December 17. Flying on instruments in heavy cloud cover, it was the lead aircraft in a box of six that got separated from the main formation and climbed out of the clouds south of their mates. Their fleeting shadows had been stalked in the soup by a bunch of hungry Focke-Wulf Fw-190A-8 pilots, who had noted that the six bombers’ belly turrets were retracted— to reduce drag and extend the B-24s’ range slightly—so they planned on six-o’clock-low attacks. The 461st hadn’t expected such strong fighter defenses, but the Luftwaffe had been hoarding avgas and repositioning fighters to support the Wehrmacht’s just begun breakthrough in the Ardennes—the Battle of the Bulge.

The Germans shot down four of the six B-24s, and Tulsamerican got hammered. One engine, the hydraulic system and a fuel tank were riddled. Pilot Eugene Ford ordered the bombload toggled and set a course for home, but over Hungary flak from anti-aircraft guns took out a second engine. Ford diverted toward an emergency strip off the Yugoslav coast, on the island of Vis.

Flight engineer Charles Priest hand-cranked the main gear down and set to work extending the nosewheel. Ford orbited low over the Adriatic, unable to hold altitude, but during the second circle the other two engines coughed and died, out of fuel. There was no time to set up a proper ditching, and the airplane hit hard and broke up. A Yugoslav fisherman and his wife and mother rescued seven of the crew, but Ford, Priest and navigator Russell Landry went down with the bomber.

In the mid-1980s, CalTech scientist Gerry Landry began putting together a family tree and discovered the fate of his cousin Russell. He also uncovered a devoted group of aviation historians who had been researching Tulsamerican’s brief career. He found the adult children of the rescuers, on the island of Hvar, in Croatia (a part of what was once Yugoslavia), who in turn led a team of scuba divers from the Croatian Conservation Institute to the wreck site.

This past spring, after several exploratory dives, the pros recovered a machine gun serial number from the battered wreckage, and the final resting place of Russell Landry, Eugene Ford and Charles Priest was irrefutably identified. No remains have been recovered and perhaps never will be.

-Stephan Wilkinson

A B-29 and a Little Bit Country

The Commemorative Air Force launched an unusual team of performers this past summer: country music star Aaron Tippin traveling with the B-29 only flight-worthy Superfortress. Marking Fifi, the world’s Fifi’s return to the skies after four years of engine work, the “Red, White and Loud” tour will for the first time give her fans the opportunity to ride in a Superfort, and will also let fans of Tippin—a longtime pilot and aircraft mechanic who plans to qualify to copilot the big bomber—see him perform. The first stop of several in 2010 and 2011 was slated for Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport at the Colorado Sport International Air Show in August. For more about Fifi’s schedule, visit cafb29b24.org.

‘Last Time’ DC-3 Reunion

More than 30 Douglas DC-3s and C-47s gathered at White- side County Airport in Rock Falls, Ill., on July 23-26 to commemorate the DC-3ʼs 75th anniversary, perhaps the last large reunion of veteran pilots with the aging planes. The gathering included General Hap Arnoldʼs personal C-41A version, stationed out of Bolling Field in the late 1930s; no. 32833, a C-47 that towed gliders to Normandy on D-Day; and no. 9531, a British Dakota that transported members of Parliament out of RAF Hendon. Also at the event was one of only two remaining DC-2s, now owned by the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

The reunion marked the largest gathering of “Gooney Birds” since World War II; the last record, 27, was set in South Africa in 1985. Despite some miscommunication between organizers at Rock Falls and Experimental Aircraft Association staff at the annual AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisc., 23 DC-3s made it airborne for a formation flyover above Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh. Spectators there were treated to the sound of 46 humming Pratt & Whitney 1830-90C Twin Wasp engines and a conga line of perfectly spaced planes touching down on the runway. DC-3 pilots and enthusiasts then gathered at an EAA amphitheater on July 29 to swap stories and hear speeches.

The organizerʼs official website, thelasttime.org, features “DC-3 Diaries,” a lively message board with hundreds of remembrances from former pilots, mechanics, restorers and admirers. Typical of the comments is one from Simon Diver, who flew DC-3s for a family-run freight outfit in central Texas in the late 1990s: “I will always love the DC-3. She could surprise me and scare me, but through all our times together she brought me home safely.”

 

Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here