Sunday, November 29, 2009

P-38H #42-66767, Ellensburg AAF AND Paine AAF. December 1943

Some people have bad luck; we called them unlucky. Some vehicles have bad luck; we call them lemons, especially when dealing with cars. What do you call an aircraft with bad luck, though? P-38H #42-66767 might fall into the category of an unlucky airplane. What about a group of machines built at about the same time? #42-66767’s siblings might also fall into this category, but more on them later. Aircraft #42-66767 was a P-38H-5 LO.

First, a little information about military aircraft designations. When a company gets approved to produce a new aircraft, that company produces a first example. In some cases, two or three. These are usually given designations beginning with X, basically indicating the aircraft was experimental. So the first P-38 would have been the XP-38. During that era, the first few production/service examples were given a designation beginning with Y, meaning these were prototypes. So the first few P-38s were YP-38s. The first model of an aircraft to see service, that is full service, is usually followed by A, so there was a P-38A. When the designers make improvements that are major, the aircraft undergoes a model change. The P-38H was a result of many improvements on the original P-38A. Sometimes, during a production run, minor changes or improvements are implemented. If they do not entail a model change, these improvements are marked by block numbers. Block numbers are a way to keep track of minor improvements since the first new model. Usually they jump by five, so the second block would be -5, then -10, then -15, however, that was not always the case. Sometimes these block numbers were followed by letters designating the factory at which the aircraft was constructed. A B-29A -10 BW would have been the third block built at the Boeing Witchita plant. So, P-38H-5 LO #42-66767 had minor differences from the earlier P-38H blocks. LO stood for the Lockheed plant.

P-38H-5 LO #42-66767 was assigned to Ellensburg Army Air Field. At the time, the field was used for training. On the first day of December, 1943, 66767 had already been up twice with two different pilots when Flight Officer Russell W. Senger got into her for a local gunnery mission at a little after 4pm local time. He went through his check lists and then taxied out to the active runway and took off as part of a four ship flight. The aircraft had been checked out and was considered airworthy, which she was. At about 5:30, Senger landed safely on Runway 29. His flight was cleared to taxi. It was 1734 hours, or 5:34pm. At that time of year in Central Washington it begins to get dark at about 4:30pm (in fact as this is being written, November 29, 2009, it is now 5:22pm and I consider it to be completely dark outside). It was well into dusk then, when Senger began taxiing back to the parking area. He had only go about 600 feet when the right main gear left the taxiway and entered a drainage ditch, which was about 4 ½ feet deep. The pilot could not right the situation once it had happened, and momentum carried it another 100 feet where it stopped at a right angle to the taxiway. A P-38 pilot taxiing behind him notified the tower of the accident. The accident board attributed it as 75% pilot error (carelessness) and 25% taxiway construction. They recommended painting marker lines on the taxiway.

Normally, that would be the end of an article like this. The aircraft would have been repaired and sent back to service. However, 66767 was an unfortunate aircraft. 66767’s nosewheel had been damaged in the December 1st accident. A group of workmen from the 32nd sub-depot at Paine Field replaced the entire assembly. However, they were unable to repair the nosewheel door because there was no sheet metal shop facilities at Ellensburg AAF. The Engineering officer decided to have her flown the short distance to the 32nd sub-depot at Paine Field with her wheels locked down.

The gear handle was placed in down and safetied (Captain Laven’s account says it was safetied with wire). The main landing gear shut-off valve was closed to prevent an inadvertant gear-raising. Captain George Laven, Jr. was chosen to fly the aircraft to Paine Field on December 29, 1943. He took off at 3:48pm and encountered no trouble during the flight, except that the propeller on the left engine went out and he had to set to the manual position (What he meant by that was probably the variable pitch propeller was not operating automatically, so he had to operate it manually). He entered the landing pattern at Paine Field at about 4:30pm. Everything was normal until about 200 yards into the landing roll when he felt the ship turning right. He applied left brake, but the ship continued to pull right. He looked over and noticed that the right wing was lowering and felt the ship settle in that direction. He knew then that the right gear was collapsing and so as much left brake as he could to ease the turn. As soon as it left the runway he shut off the booster pumps, batteries, and mixture controls. When the ship stopped he exited the aircraft, no doubt, with alacrity.

First Lieutenant Robert W. Campbell, assistant operations officer at Paine Field, witnessed Laven enter the pattern and land. He watched as the right gear began to collapse and the plane veared off the runway. He jumped in a vehicle and headed for the scene of the accident. When he arrived the pilot was out of the aircraft.

The accident board discovered that the “right landing gear locking pin had been screwed down too far.” This prevented the gear from completely locking. The shut-off valve had also been shut in cold weather on the eastern side of the state while cold oil was still in the line bewteen the main gear and the actuating cylinder. The oil became heated due to engine temperatures and the warmer external air temperatures of the coastal climate over Everett, Washington. The heat expanded the oil sufficiently to partially move the actuating cylinder enough to dislodge the locking pin. The shock of landing and Laven’s application of brakes put enough force on the gear to retract.

As a result of this accident both engines were damaged by sudden stoppage. Three propeller blades were bent. The lower stabilizer and rudder were bent and crushed. Relatively minor dame considering.

I do not have information concerning what happened to 66767 after this. Given the amount of damage described in the report, it seems she was probably repaired and went on to lead a productive life, perhaps eventually becoming a part of the soda can we drink from, or perhaps she eventually made her way overseas and saw a different end. We may never know.

That 66767 was unlucky, may remain to be seen, since the damage she sustained was minimal and she could be returned to flying status. That her sisters were unlucky is no joke. #42-66775, #42-66768, and #42-66778 all met similar fates. I will write of them at a later date, though.


Accident reports for #42-66767, dates: 12-1-1943 and 12-28-1943.

Fighter Planes,

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fifty Caliber

Developed during the closing days of WWI, the fifty caliber did not enter service until 1921. The Browning Mk. 2 heavy machine gun uses this round. Originally in water-cooled variants, the Mk. 2 was also used in air-cooled versions later. In fact the Mk. 2 is still in service today. By WWII, it was used by land, sea, and air units.

The specimen seen here was found on the Zillah Gunnery Range, in Central Washington, by my uncle. The Zillah range is an area which was used by the US Navy for ground attack training. I have very little information on this area. There are conflicting opinions from locals that the area was either very small or stretched almost to the Hanford Reservation.
Note that the round appears to have received a tremendous blow to the casing. Note also that there appears to be no crushing damage, so, it seems unlikely the dent was caused by being driven over by a land vehicle. My admittedly hazy understanding of aerial machine guns would interpret this shell is proof of a great fall after an aircraft charged or cleared its guns. I know that there were solenoids that that allowed remote firing of these guns, and suspect it was possible for them to clear jams remotely, too. If someone out there can confirm or deny this possibility, I would appreciate it if you would leave a comment doing so, possibly explaining the processes or capabilities of such weapons as related to clearing a live shell from the chamber.
I did receive a response from the USN concerning the collision of two F6F Hellcats over the Zillah Range on August 14, 1945. It took four months for them to get round to sending a single page. I am now getting ready to write to the National Archives for more information. I noted in a letter to the USN that the USAF saw fit to write up to 30 pages on an accident report, while the single Army accident report I have is over 200 pages in length, surely the USN did more than note the time, date, and tentative cause of the accident. Alas, we see the differences in the branches of the US Military.

Friday, November 13, 2009

P-38L #44-24350

On September 14, 1944, 2nd Lt. Glenn Ingersoll took off from Moses Lake Army Air Field as the number three ship in a four ship Oxygen Training mission above 20,000 feet. A short time later, his body was resting with the smoldering pieces of the P-38 he rode to his death about five miles West of Warden, Washington.

That morning, P-38L #44-24350 would have been fueled and readied for its coming flight. The two Allison V-1710s would have been readied for their flight to 25,000 feet. The fluids topped off and everything fixed as well as possible. Start up would have been followed by a taxi out to the active runway. All four ships would have checked their brakes and their engines would have been run up. Then, with a signal from the lead pilot, all four would have rushed down the runway. Or, if they were taking off one-by-one, the lead would have taken off and started on a slight turn, the next a slightly sharper turn, and the third a sharper turn than that, and so on. All would have joined up eventully and made the long climb to 20,000 feet.

The point of this exercise would have been to familiarize the new pilots with operating at altitude with oxygen masks and all the attendant difficulties associated with completing a mission profile. Eventually they would likely have been tasked with long range navigation and other onerous tasks while wearing oxygen masks. On this mission, though, the lead pilot, 1st Lt. Clarence Seltz, had instructed the flight to spread out and feel the plane out at 25,000 feet. The air is thinner there and the plane would have acted slightly differently than it would have at 5,000 feet.

Ingersoll's aircraft broke from the formation in a normal way, according to the number four pilot, 2nd Lt. Edward Meeker. Meeker continued to fly wing on Ingersoll until they had lost about 3,000 feet, at which time Ingersoll's aircraft had become difficult to fly formation on. Meeker broke off. When he broke off from Ingersoll, Meeker said that Ingersoll was very erratic and turning very fast, so that Meeker could not make out which way he was going. He rejoined with the leader at 25,000 feet expecting Ingersoll to rejoin also. This happened about 0930. The flight landed at 1000. Ingersoll never did joined up.

The Accident Board determined that the crash was caused by the pilot experiencing compressibility. A phenomenon encountered when the P-38 (and other aircraft of the era) reached too high of a speed and the air around it interacted with the aircraft controls in ways that made controlled flight difficult to impossible. Usually the latter. Compressibility created a nose down condition in the P-38, which continued to induce compressibility. Few control inputs could help the problem once it was encountered in full force. Ingersoll's aircraft began to break apart in flight at about 4,000 feet.

Ed Knecht "observed" the accident from a distance. He said he saw pieces come from the aircraft, but could not identify what those pieces were.

The board decided Ingersoll had encountered compressibility and used elevator trim with no success, then he used the dive flaps, at which time the aircraft responded, but, at the speeds and forces in question, the aircraft disintegrated, and the "G" forces encountered killed the pilot. The second theory was that the pilot experienced hypoxia.

The accident board suggested that it was pilot error, because no malfunction with the aircraft could be found. It was not an old aircraft; it had less than 53 hours on it. Still, he should have been familiar with compressibility. The other possibility was "Oxygen Starvation" or Hypoxia. Two days prior to the accident, Ingersoll had crash landed another P-38. His personal oxygen mask was found in the first crashed P-38 after this crash. It was supposed that he had borrowed a different oxygen mask, which may not have been fitted in the correct fashion, thus causing hypoxia. If his oxygen mask had not fit perfectly, it seems possible that he may have experienced oxygen starvation. He had been through 9 hours of high altitude formation flying. He had been through the oxygen chamber. He knew what could happen. He may not have recognized the signs, however. Having lost consciousness it is not a great leap to assume he lost control, too. The P-38 dove, gaining speed until it encountered compressibility which induced even more nose down attitude, which increased speed. When he was finally low enough to recover from his daze, he may have tried to lower the dive brakes, but it was too late.

The committee recommended that flight leads make sure that their charges were fitted with the correct oxygen masks, since they were in a position to make sure of such things.

So, what killed Glenn Ingersoll? Hypoxia or compressibility? Both? It is likely that we will never know. The fact that Ingersoll's mask was found in the first P-38 would seem to indicate that he may have perished because of a mis-fitting oxygen mask. It is a sad truth that many of the deaths experienced state-side were training related, but they did not die in vane, these deaths served to educate and better arm the men who survived so they might better survive a tour overseas.

Thank You, 2nd Lieutenant Ingersoll for your sacrifice.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Wilbur B-29 #44-69989

In the aftermath of WWII, Americans wanted their troops home. NOW. Once hot to fight and win a war on two fronts, public fervor cooled significantly once the cries for peace arose in the West and the East. Gone was the cool, level-headed father-figure of Roosevelt, here was the country-bumpkin dropped-into-the-frying-pan Harry S. Truman.

He faced unheard of trials in the days after being sworn in. President Roosevelt had not seen fit to keep him up to speed on all things. He was notified within hours of Roosevelt's death, but after Stalin, of the existence of the atomic bomb (though not by the same people). He was not particularly deft at international diplomacy, so his debut at Potsdam was less than stellar. He did make a big decision, though: he decided to drop the bomb. He also presided over the peace that came. A series of labor strikes and economic upheaval followed the war, though, calling his leadership into question.

To fund new domestic spending requirements the military was demobilized in massive numbers as fast as possible. All branches were affected. The US Navy mothballed hundreds of ships in the three years after the war. All but a few battleships were resting pier side within a year of the end of the war. Tons of equipment was either sold to other countries or melted down. Sometimes it was taken straight from the factory to the scrap yard.

The Army Air Forces once boasted fleets of aircraft in the tens of thousands, and a fleet of over 2,800 B-29 bombers alone at war's end. By 1947, the newly created Air Force had fewer than 300 B-29s in active service (largely because of the small number of air crews to pilot them). Only a few of which, in the 509th bomb group, could deliver an atomic bomb.

It was in 1947, however, that things were changing yet again. The Soviet Union had been proving difficult to deal with. Stalin continued to retain his "Satellite" states despite United Nations and US demands for the satellite states to be made independent. Recent communist ventures included Greece and few others that raised US fears of expansion. It did not help that Stalin continued to preach his expansionist intentions.

Defense planners began to work on the best way to deal with the Soviet Union within months, if not weeks, of the end of the war. The US monopoly on Atomic Weapons made strategic aircraft an important factor in any such plan. As the Soviets continued to ignore deadlines for release of states, continued to talk about expansion, and continued to stall the re-unification of Germany, tensions in US defense circles continued to rise. Efforts were began to bolster the numbers of air crews that would be needed for the new jet bombers scheduled to come on line in the next few years.

There were nearly two thousand B-29s in storage. Bringing them out of storage, fixing them up and using them to train and hone new air crews was now an objective. Expanding the military was going to prevent the Soviet Union from making the move that was so feared.

The B-29 was a four-engined bomber developed by the Boeing Aircraft Company to carry heavy bomb loads long distances. It consisted of a very aerodynamic fuselage and narrow low drag wings. It had four large Wright R-3350 Duplex Cyclone engines sporting 18 cylinders each. These wonderful engines were the fruit of years of labor and design. The engines were miracles of engineering! They did not have to depend on a heavy liquid cooling system, all they needed was air. The only problem with B-29s was that, in the early years, their engines had a habit of overheating (for the real story on the R-3350 and the building of the Chrysler production line in Chicago, please see this site. It is well worth the time it takes to read.).

On November 4th, 1947, B-29 #44-69989 crash-landed in a wheat-stubble field just three miles South West of Wilbur, Washington. The course of events leading up to this, while perhaps not complicated, was definitely steeped in politics of the era.

The B-29 in question had originated from Warner Robins AFB. Warner Robins did not exist ten years previous. It did not begin life until 1941 when the ground was broken for a depot. It was not until January of 1942 that it was named Warner Robins. By 1947 it was being used to rehabilitate aircraft.

The ferry crew picked the aircraft up at Warner Robins AFB on November 3, 1947, and flew it to Forth Worth, Texas. From Fort Worth, they planned to fly the aircraft to Spokane Army Air Field. The flight went well, they flew at 20,000 feet and as expected discovered a frontal area that topped out at 15,000. As they were letting down into SPAAF in weather (read overcast). All of sudden, the number three propeller began to run away, or overspeed. Overspeed happens when the propeller wants to turn faster than the engine due to external pressures, like airflow, putting stresses on the engine that can damage it. left unchecked the massive propeller blades COULD fly off and damage the aircraft fatally. Usually the variable pitch propellers of the era would simply change their pitch to maintain the same engine RPM, however, 9989's number three propeller system was not working.

Major Douglas H. Kellar, of the 345th squadron, was the pilot. As he was beginning to bring 9989 in for the base leg at SPAAF, the engineer, Robert C. Marks, called out to watch number three engine. He had been in the middle of his check list. Everything was ready. The RPMs were set at 2200, gear and flaps were up, and the "putt putt," or auxiliary engine was on the line (it supplied auxiliary electricity at times like landings and take off because the main engines would be called on to make throttle changes and might not keep up the appropriate electrical load. The B-29 had numerous motors and servos that required electricity. When the B-29 was designed it was decided that electric motors would be less prone to battle damage than a hydraulic system.) Marks noticed that number 3 engine was up to 2250 RPM. He checked to make sure the pilots were not adjusting it, but it continued to climb.

The co-pilot, Major Edison F. Arnold, also of the 345th, noticed that the engine RPMs were about 2700 and climbing. He attempted to bring the RPMs down with the RPM toggle switch, but that did not work. Major Kellar retarded the throttle and Major Arnold pushed the feathering button. That only brought the RPM down about 300 hundred RPM, but it quickly began to rise again. They repeated the process after it was obvious there was no action the first time. This also did not work. Then Marks reported that number 3 engine was losing oil rapidly. It was coming from behind the propeller governors. The right scanner, William Schafer, also noticed the oil leak.

At this point Arnold declared an emergency, or in his words, he, "notified GCA that we were in trouble." He also notified them that they were heading West to find clear weather. GCA had him down as saying: "Having trouble with number 3 engine, turning westward." The ceiling at SPAAF was only about 400 feet above the ground. They had been through some heavy precipitation in the course of their let down and realized that it would be difficult to make the approach the first time. Kellar did not feel it safe to continue the GCA let down because if they should have to make a go around, the number three engine would not be available for use. They knew that the weather cleared to the west, so they decided to try to make it to Moses Lake or Ephrata. This would give them a chance to control their difficulties without sacrificing altitude in a GCA letdown. If they could not fix it, they would bail out. Kellar instructed the crew to prepare to abandon the airplane.

They slowed the aircraft to 180mph and that seemed to help hold the RPM down. The oil continued to leak out of number 3. Marks shut down number 3 by turning off the magnetos and fuel flow. The oil pressure in the nose of the engine was down to 10 pounds, but the pressure in the rear continued to hold until there remained only about 10 gallons of oil, then it began to oscillate. Marks reported, "We lost 55 gal[lon]s of oil in about 15 to 20 minutes." Major Kellar asked if there was a chance of fire, to which Marks replied, "With all that oil there was a very good possibility." Someone in the crew requested that they belly it in, but Kellar replied that the land below was too rough for that. The vibration from the surging engine and prop was considerable. Kellar feared the propeller might leave the nacelle and strike the cabin if the engine froze up.
This crew stands in front of their bomber which had a runaway prop which separated from the nacelle in World War II. Fortunately, it happened after landing. It severed the nose from the rest of the aircraft. No wonder the crew was worried about the runaway prop! (image from Squadron Signal publications)
The front end of the number 3 engine, note the oil! A Wright R-3350 is buried in there.
Note the oil on the exterior of the cowling. Also, the fact that the propeller reduction gear box has broken free of the engine is obvious in this photo.
More oil, notice the damaged flaps.

When the oil in number three was almost exhausted, Kellar ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft. The altitude was 5,500 feet and speed was 170. The two scanners who rode in the rear, left via the rear entrance door, right scanner first, then left. The Radio operator, Navigator, and Engineer left via the entrance through the nose gear bay. The engineer went head first while the other two opted for a feet first exit. It was shortly after the crew bailed out that Wilbur, Washington was sighted through a hole in the clouds and cultivated fields nearby. The pilots decided to try to attempt a belly landing.
9989 rests in a wheat stubble field near Wilbur, Washington.

They had closed the nose gear doors and proceeded with a belly landing. Crash investigators described it as a very successful belly landing. According to Kellar, on approach to the chosen field, the vibration got very bad, and the RPMs bounced from 500 to 4000. Arnold stated that he had seen RPMs of over 4500. As they were making their final approach, number 3 was vibrating badly and beginning to freeze up. The landing was undoubtedly rough on the pilots, however, neither was injured. Both set about securing the aircraft by cutting off the magnetos to the remaining engines, disconnecting the batteries, and turning off the auxiliary engine to avoid the possibility of fire.

The hand drawn map in the accident report indicates that the ship came to a stop in about 150 feet. The aircraft was on a heading of 120 degrees, which is roughly South East. The map also indicates that there was some sort of road going north to south just west of the crash site. Wilbur is noted as being approximately 3 miles North East.
The causes for this accident are considered to be several, but all center around the propeller governor and feathering mechanism. Because of the damage upon landing, it was impossible to discern for certain. The oil pressure was lost to the propeller governor and it could not, therefore, control a constant RPM. The cause of this was assumed to be the rupture of a pressure oil line. The propeller governor gasket also failed and the remaining oil left via that failure. The gasket was considered to have failed because it was either a "shipping" gasket, or one of improper substitution.

One of the main issues was that the crew failed to make a test hop before leaving on their cross country ferry flight. This, coupled with no ground test of the feathering system and a cursory inspection of the aircraft before lift off was likely a recipe for the following crash.

Captain Moore, the Navigator, and S/Sgt. Schafer, the Right Scanner, were wounded after they jumped out. The rest were unharmed. It is assumed, due to the statements of the investigating board that 9989 was returned to flight status. She was removed from the field. It is assumed, also, that 9989 went on to protect American interests.

The land owner, August Rux, signed an affidavit confirming that he did not expect compensation for the damage done to his land. He noted that the only damage done was the road that led to the crash site, which would be fine, since he planned to plow over it in the spring anyway.

(Author's Note: I have sent off for the Aircraft History Card for this aircraft, and hope to receive it in the next month or so. I will add that information to this post when I get it, so please leave a comment and check the box for responses if you are interested, as I will post notification of the UPDATE there. Thank you for reading!)

2 different Accident Reports from the USAF concerning B-29 #44-69989

Great Engines and Great Planes.

Warner Robins AFB Wikipedia Entry

Warner Robins AFB Site

B-29 Superfortress Wikipedia Entry

Birdsall, Steve, B-29 Superfortress in Action, Squadron Signal Publications, Carrollton, Texas, 1977.

Collison, Thomas, The Superfortress is Born; The Story of the Boeing B-29, Duell, Sloan & Pearce, New York, 1945.

Wagner, Ray, American Combat Planes; Third Edition, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1982.