Fly On, Little Wing

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On October 2, 2019, a B-17 Flying Fortress crashed shortly after takeoff in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, killing both pilots and five passengers. The aircraft, built in 1945, had been exhibited and flown as an aeronautical history lesson: thousands of B-17s were operated by the United States during World War II and the model has long stood as the symbol of US air power’s role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. But this latest accident – numerous other surviving planes of the era have been destroyed in fatal mishaps, sometimes in view of air show spectators – revives questions about how much longer 80- or 90-year-old machines should be authorized to get off the ground. Are the restorations worth the risk?

While the issues of flight certification and safety are legitimate – even modern planes, like the Boeing 737-Max, have been officially grounded when technical experts deem them too dangerous to fly – it’s important to understand the context in which military aircraft of the 1930s and 1940s functioned. They were never designed to be safe; they were never designed to be user-friendly. During World War II they were manufactured by all combatants in staggering numbers: 18 000 of the American B-24 Liberator heavy bomber, for example, and over 33 000 of the German Messerschmitt 109 fighter (compare those figures with the total of just 1300 Dash-8s, a familiar commuter craft today). From a procurement perspective, such products were little different than rifles or helmets. They were expected to be consumed, i.e. lost, whether in training, bad weather, from gradual or sudden breakdown of components, and not least of all to enemy action. At the end of the conflict thousands of airworthy but surplus US and British planes were scrapped, while most of their German and Japanese opponents had already been destroyed in combat or cannibalized for vital fittings. That any of them might still be operational in the 21st century was the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Although these aircraft were state-of-the-art, high-performance weaponry in 1942, they were engineered to standards largely expedient then and which have since been rendered obsolete by advances in metallurgy, electronics, and other technology. Often described as aerial sports cars, they were more like aerial Jeeps, overloaded transport rigs, or souped-up Formula-1 racers (driven by young men barely old enough for ordinary driver’s licenses). Their internal systems were entirely analog: levers, wires, gears, piping, pulleys, and hydraulic fluid. Many planes of the time have been called “ten thousand parts flying in close formation around an oil leak,” while a 1940 Spitfire is said to contain more moving pieces than a 1994 Eurofighter Typhoon. They were usually equipped with armor plating and defensive gunnery, but common hazards of engine failure and other defects claimed many aircrews before they ever went into battle. American fliers joked that the B-26 Marauder killed a complement of rookie aviators at the rate of “one a day in Tampa Bay” at their Florida training base, while even the legendary B-17s required so much regular maintenance they were known to mechanics as “plumber’s nightmares” or “hangar queens.” If a few designs were praised as “forgiving,” far more were notoriously unstable and pilots required all their strength and alertness to hold them straight and level, let alone execute grueling high-G manoeuvres while other teenagers tried to kill them.

Given all this, it’s reasonable to ask if the few dozen World War II warbirds still taking to the skies ought to keep doing so, jeopardizing the lives of their pilots, passengers, and onlookers on the ground. While they are still subject to safety inspection by government overseers, and most now carry modern navigational and radio gear, their basic airframes have been around as long as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the movie Casablanca, and Joe Biden, and aren’t getting any younger. Yet static displays in museums cannot convey the full bravery of the people who originally manned these aircraft between 1939 and 1945. Only as long as they can still be boarded, started up, and flown off can we begin to understand the epic history – and the epic tragedy – of sending kids like those up in crates like these.

Postscript: Sadly, this issue has taken on renewed urgency, as, on November 12 2022, there was another fatal B-17 crash after a collision with a World War II-era P-63 Kingcobra in Dallas Texas. It’s great to see the old planes still flying, but it’s heartbreaking to see them destroyed as violently as they might have been in combat eighty years ago.

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