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Mid-Air Collision at Bizerta, 1 february 1943


The term “Greatest Generation” doesn’t mean just people but can be equally applied to some of the finest  aircraft designs of all time; the C-47 transport, P-47 Thunderbolt and P-38  Lightning, both superb fighters! And of course the B-24 Liberator, the F4U Corsair (the Navy’s greatest carrier fighter), the P-51 Mustang (arguably the  finest fighter aircraft of its time) and finally the B-17 whose crews said  would bring them home in almost any condition and here’s one of those conditions! And Southwest thought they had a problem. A mid-air collision on February 1, 1943 between a B-17 and a German fighter over the Bizerta dock area became the subject of one of the most famous photographs of World War II. An enemy fighter attacking a 97th Bomb Group formation went out of control, probably with a wounded pilot then continued its crashing descent into the rear of the fuselage of a Fortress named All American, piloted by Lt Kendrick R. Bragg, of the 414th Bomb Squadron. When it struck, the fighter broke apart, but left some pieces in the B-17. The left horizontal stabilizer of the Fortress and left  elevator were completely torn away. The two right engines were out and one on the left had a serious oil pump leak. The vertical fin and the rudder  had been damaged, the fuselage had been cut almost completely through – connected only at two small parts of the frame and the radios, electrical and  oxygen systems were damaged. There was also a hole in the top that  was over 16 feet long and 4 feet wide at its widest and the split in the  fuselage went all the way to the top gunners turret. Although the tail actually bounced and swayed in the wind and twisted when the plane turned and all the control cables were severed, except one single elevator cable still worked, and the aircraft still flew-miraculously! The tail gunner was trapped because there was  no floor connecting the tail to the rest of the plane. The waist and tail gunners used parts of the German fighter and their own parachute harnesses in an attempt to keep the tail from ripping off and the two sides of  the fuselage from splitting apart. While the crew was trying to  keep the bomber from coming apart, the pilot continued on his bomb  run and released his bombs over the target. When the bombay doors were opened, the wind turbulence was so great that it blew one of the waist gunners into the broken tail section. It  took several minutes and four crew members to pass him ropes from parachutes and haul him back into the forward part of the plane. When they tried to do the same for the tail gunner, the tail began flapping so hard that it began to break off. The weight of the gunner was adding some stability to the tail section, so he went back to his position. The turn back toward England had to be very slow to keep the tail  from twisting off. They actually covered almost 70 miles to make the  turn home. The bomber was so badly damaged that it was losing altitude and speed and was soon alone in the sky. For a brief time, two more Me-109 German fighters attacked the All American. Despite the extensive damage, all of the machine gunners were able to respond to these attacks and  soon drove off the fighters.  The two  waist gunners stood up with  their heads sticking out through the hole in the top of the fuselage to aim  and fire their machine guns. The tail gunner had to shoot in short bursts because the recoil was actually causing the plane to turn. Allied P-51 fighters intercepted the All American as it crossed over the Channel and took one of the pictures.

B17They also radioed to the base describing the empennage was like a fish tail; the plane would not make it and to send out boats to rescue the crew when they bailed out. The fighters stayed with the Fortress taking hand signals from Lt. Bragg and relaying them to the base. Lt. Bragg signaled that 5 parachutes and the spare had been “used” so five of the crew could not bail  out. He made the decision that if they  could not bail out safely, then  he would stay with the plane and land it. Two and a half hours after being hit, the aircraft made its final turn to line up with the runway while it was still over 40 miles away. It descended into an emergency landing and a normal roll-out on its landing gear. When the ambulance pulled alongside, it was waved off because not  a single member of the crew had beeninjured. No one could believe that the  aircraft could still fly in such a condition. The Fortress sat climbed down a ladder, at which time the entire rear section of the aircraft collapsed onto the ground. The aircraft was repaired and flew further mission. 124406 was salvaged during 1945.

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