A War story that sends chills up my spine and lights pure fascination in my heart. The mysterious b-17 bomber, belonging to the 91st Bomber Group (which was sent out to bomb German Oil Refineries) landed itself completely absent of her crew. The Phantom Fortress.
To this day, the story remains unsolved.
Written in the open and abandoned aircraft log were the words: Bad Flak. Parachutes were still onboard and flight jackets were laying next to half-eaten chocolate bars. There was no blood or indication of gunfire used in hostile attacks. The crew was simply missing and the Phantom Fortress landed on an allied airfield in Belgium. Well, crash-landed so to speak. The landing gear was down but the B-17 came in too fast and too low, causing it to land in the field near the tarmac. After twenty minutes of waiting for the men to leave the crashed plane, Major John V. Crisp approached the bomber to find it empty. He describes it in his own words:
We now made a thorough search and our most remarkable find in the fuselage was about a dozen parachutes neatly wrapped and ready for clipping on. This made the whereabouts of the crew even more mysterious. The Sperry bomb-sight remained in the Perspex nose, quite undamaged, with its cover neatly folded beside it. Back on the navigator’s desk was the codebook giving the colours and letters of the day for identification purposes. Various fur-lined flying jackets lay in the fuselage together with a few bars of chocolate, partly consumed in some cases.
Ground crews found no damage was similar to a bomber flying through flak, only the damage from its astounding landing.
Because the parachutes were untouched, it was speculated that the crew must have bailed out to their deaths. There was no other explanation for what happened to them. That is until they were found in Belgium.
The crew stated that there was an issue with the bomb rack, so they moved away from the squadron to resolve the issue. While doing so they took on enemy fire and one of the four engines was disabled. The crew then decided to go to England but later changed that idea to land in Brussels Belgium. As they continued on their flight they tossed out things to keep the bomber flying. They realized that doing so had no effect and the bomber was continuing to go down, so they set it on autopilot and bailed out.
The crew’s story didn’t match up. The parachutes and the damage the bomber sustained were hard to match up. While it was possible that ground crews could have mistaken crash damage for actually flak damage, it didn’t explain how the crew bailed out without parachutes.
On top of that, the B-17 managed to land in one solid piece without being guided down for landing. For early aircrafts, no matter how superior the B-17 was, it was a challenge that was virtually impossible. But, it did.
My favorite theory is that the engine snapped back to life, which also explains how the b-17 came in so fast for a landing. Much like a B-26, Flak Bait, was capable of landing with multiple engines on fire. However, that theory only explains how the aircraft survived not how the crew managed to bail. There is a surplus of theories out there but each one lacks how the crew escaped. I find there to be a slim possibility of the crew bailing at an extremely low altitude, the aircraft then veering upward with landing gear down, flying until the engines stalled, and somehow flew back to base. But even then the bomber wouldn’t have crash-landed in one piece. I think regardless of what happened to the bomber, the idea was to keep it out of enemy hands. It’s truthfully an amazing feat but one that leaves you riddled with questions.
Whether the crew was telling the truth or this was simply a one in a million chance, remains unknown to this day, despite how people speculate. The only people who will ever know are the crew members who were once aboard the Phantom Fortress.
“B-17.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/technology/B-17.
Hoitash, Christopher. “Phantom Fortress: The Crewless Landing of a B-17.” WAR HISTORY ONLINE, 14 June 2019, www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/phantom-fortress-b-17.html.
Ryan, Matthew. “Still Unsolved Story Of B-17 Landing With Crew Missing.” World War Wings, 25 June 2018, worldwarwings.com/still-unsolved-story-of-b-17-landing-with-crew-missing/.