I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
A B-17 was on a bombing mission over Germany in late 1944 when it got into trouble and made an emergency landing in a field in Belgium. People on the ground were astonished to find there was no one on board the aircraft.
Where Is the Crew?
On November 23, 1944, anti-aircraft gunners at a British army base near Brussels were amazed to see a B-17G coming towards them with its landing gear down. It was flying faster than it should have been for a landing but it touched down anyway. The landing was hard and one wing hit the ground causing an outboard engine’s propellers to disintegrate.
The plane came to a stop about 100 feet from the gunners and the soldiers waited for the crew to disembark. Minutes passed and there was no sign of the flyers.
Eventually, army Major John Crisp decided to investigate; maybe the crew were wounded and needed help. But, when he got into the fuselage there was no one there; not a soul.
Major Crisp found evidence of occupation such as partly eaten chocolate bars and a flight log that said cryptically “Bad Flak.”
Even more puzzling was the existence of a dozen unused parachute packs.
The Phantom Fortress
The head-scratching started with Major Crisp’s report and passed up the chain of command. The aircraft’s tail number identified it as belonging to the U.S. 91st Bomber Group stationed in eastern England.
It had been part of a flight of B-17s carrying out a daylight attack on oil installations in eastern Germany. The aircraft was under the command of Lieutenant Harold R. DeBolt, an experienced pilot, and had a crew of 10. All of the airmen were found safe and sound at a base in Belgium.
Failed Bombing Mission
According to the pilot and his crew, their aircraft developed some sort of problem and was unable to fly at the same altitude as the rest of the group. Also, its bomb rack developed an issue. Then, one of the engines took a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire and another piece of ordnance slammed into the B-17’s belly. Lt. DeBolt reported “We had been hit in the bomb bay, and, for the life of me, I don’t know why the bombs didn’t blow up.”
With three engines and a wounded aircraft, Lt. DeBolt decided to abort the mission and head for home.
However, the plane kept losing height and the pilot ordered all unnecessary equipment to be jettisoned. Then, another engine failed. Still, the plane slowly descended and it became obvious they weren’t going to make it back to England. Somewhere near Brussels the pilot ordered everyone to bail out. Lt. DeBolt was the last to leave after he put the plane onto autopilot.
A Crippled B-17 Crash Lands
The fog of war is notorious for creating widely divergent versions of the same event, and so it is with the “Phantom Fortress.”
The soldiers on the ground clearly reported all four of the B-17s engines were running when it landed. Did the two damaged motors mysteriously fix themselves after the crew abandonned the plane?
Why were a dozen parachute packs on board when Lt. DeBolt said he ordered everything unnecessary to be thrown out?
Major Crisp reported that he saw no obvious anti-aircraft damage to the plane.
But, the biggest puzzle of all was how did the plane land itself? This is decades before GPS equipment or on-board computers. Planes of the era had to have a human at the controls in order to land safely. As historian Matthew Black notes “It’s mind blowing that the plane landed as though it knew how to land itself, which any pilot will tell you is preposterous.”
How did the B-17 achieve the correct angle of descent? Was it just pure luck that it landed in an open field and not in a forest or on a building? Why did it come to a stop with three of its four engines running?
None of these discrepancies are resolved in the official report of the incident. At the time, military folk were far too busy trying to win a war; there was no time to waste trying to square the circle of conflicting stories.
Were the boffins experimenting with a radio-controlled pilot-less aircraft that was forced to land inconveniently in front of puzzled witnesses? Was the crew bailing out story conjured up to disguise a hush-hush experiment?
It's unlikely we'll ever know the truth.
- Actor Jimmy Stewart flew B-17s on bombing missions over Germany during World War II.
- The B-17 was made by Boeing and its 12,700 examples became the workhorse of the United States Air Force’s World War II bombing raids. It sacrificed bomb load for greater speed and heavier defensive armaments.
- Daylight bombing raids over Germany were extremely hazardous and the casualties among B-17 crews were very high. On October 14, 1943, 291 Flying Fortresses took part in a raid on Schweinfurt. Of these, 60 were shot down and a further five crashed on the way home after being damaged. Of the 2,900 members of flight crews, 650 were lost although some were captured and became prisoners of war. The unescorted daylight raids became so costly that they were temporarily halted.
- The B-17s were rugged aircraft and many limped home with severe damage, as shown below.
- “The Mysterious Case of the B-17 Phantom Fortress.” Brent Swancer, Mysterious Universe, March 17, 2017.
- “WHAT?!! ‘Phantom Ghost Fortress’ B-17 That Landed at an Airfield – NO Crew Were on Board!!” Jack Knight, War History Online, September 11, 2015
- “This WWII Ghost Bomber Mysteriously Landed Itself.” Matthew Black, History 101, July 12, 2019.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
sage on September 15, 2019:
WOW that was cool!