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The Queen of the Skies

Splasher Six Volume 30, Spring 1999, No. 1
Cindy Goodman, Editor

When I asked you to respond to my question about why the B-17 was the Queen of the Skies, I was little prepared for the eloquence and depth of your responses. You sent me poems, thoughts, memories, and even an original sketch! What you said expressed the feeling and emotions with which you still regard a very special aircraft . . . an aircraft which brought many of you back, literally, from the brink of destruction. Many great planes have been built, and many have garnered the devotion of their crews, but none will ever touch the regard with which the men who loved her hold the B-17

George Madden, a 351st Squadron TTE on Lt. Richard Helmick’s crew, summed up his thoughts in one, succinct sentence, while Robert B. Kazee, a 351st TG, related a particularly memorable mission. Pat Smera was so moved by the words and memories of her father, George Bush, that she wrote a poem expressing her feelings.Robert Keyes did likewise, as well as draw a B-17. I think you’ll find these all to be as thoughtful and touching as I did. Here, then, are your words and a few others, which tell us undeniably, that there is only one Queen.

In his book, Flying Forts, Martin Caidin pays homage to the Queen after flying with a jury-rigged formation of Forts to England for the making of the movie The War Lover. “The British aviation press, not known for unseemly enthusiasm, described our flight as ‘an operation which was not without its epic quality, with weather difficulties and engine troubles.’ This is in some ways a grand understatement but nevertheless one in which all of us who were involved can concur.

After the British press visited with us at Gatwick, where we landed, the stories enlarged somewhat, the reporters now having a firmer grasp on the details. Our delivery flight had become ‘aviation history’ . . . with the safe arrival, despite many vicissitudes, of three B-17 Flying Fortresses at Gatwick. Literally taken from the scrapheaps, the reconditioned planes made an inspiring sight, landing at Gatwick, each plane touching down within a matter of minutes.

When we took the Fortresses into the skies in formation, the song those engines gave out wasn’t just the thunder of pistons ramming up and down and of propellers thrashing mightily at the air. The old Fort hurls forth a cry that is singularly hers. No other airplane anywhere has quite that deep-throated and distinctive sound. And there isn’t another airplane in the world that looks quite like the B-17, that is as beautiful in the sky as seen from a sister ship in formation. The lines of the Fortress don’t begin to flow until she sings her song of flight in the elements for which she was designed.

To the writer, no other airplane ever built can fly like the Queen. She had a touch with her controls that defies description; she was a big and husky airplane, but s sweet and true in her handling characteristics as any pilot could ask. When you took the yoke in your hands and planted your feet on the rudder pedals, she was yours, and make no mistake about it. She was all these things, and more.”

The persuasive testimony of a mission was made by Robert B. Kazee to affirm his belief in the Queen. “The B-17 had a tremendous source of power in unusual circumstances. On our 30th mission to Frankfurt, 29 Dec 44, we experienced numerous problems, but the Queen held together and we got back to base safe and sound. As we approached the target that day, a burst of flak knocked out an engine, but we continued on and dropped our bombs over the target. As we made our turn from the target area, the other engine on the same side caught fire from additional flak hits, and we were forced into a dive to extinguish the flames.

Our pilot, Captain Miller, quickly discovered other things going awry. We lost hydraulic power and had to descend to about 10,000 feet because the oxygen source was gone too. Struggling on, se arrived back at base late, but still holding together. As we made our final approach and neared touchdown, the pilots observed another plane landing from the wrong direction. Capt Miller asked the Queen for reserve power and we were able to climb with only two engines on one side working, thus avoiding the other plane and disaster. As we landed, my parachute, which had been strapped to the tail strut, was thrown out the tail door. It opened up and slowed us down enough for Capt. Miller to pull off the runway and get the plane stopped. Incidentally, the other plane, which was shot up worse than we were, also landed safely.

There were other experiences, but to me this one was a great example of reserve power, a superb pilot, and a guidance system of God Himself.

Robert Keyes, 456th Sub Depot, wrote that the Flying Fortress deserves to be called the Queen of the skies because she was sleek and majestic and reigned for many years. She did her best to protect her people aboard, and like a mighty sword piercing through the sky with a rumble and a roar, she soared towards the heavens with her contrails flowing behind her like the train on a royal wedding gown.

The 351st Squadron’s Robert Stachell provided another compelling example. “B-17 #42-39867 was named Hang the Expense II by the Frank Valesh crew. When the tail was badly damaged and repaired, this plane was assigned to our crew, the Edgar Wolf crew. Because of the two major damages to the plane, we changed the name to the Boeing Belle for good luck. This plane crash-landed with severe damage on 30 DEC 43, and again on 4 JAN 44, with significant tail damage. We flew 20 of our 35 missions in the Boeing Belle, and it was shot up several times by flak and fighters.

Even after the mishaps from the Valesh and Wolf crews, this plane went on to fly another 100 plus missions. When you think about it, the Boeing Belle was probably in the formation when many of the 180 planes lost by the 100th went down.

I’m sure that the Valesh and Wolf crews would agree that this plane could well be the Queen of the Skies. It always be.

“Poetry in Motion” is what Danny Shaffer, a 351st navigator, calls the B-17. “How can you call tons of metal propelled through the air by four huge engines a sex symbol? You can if it’s in reference to the B-17 WWII bomber. Just sitting on the ground it looked formidable. Flying high in the sky, it was poetry in motion.

The sweeping lines of this durable demon of destruction looked like it was designed by an artist who painted only masterpieces. The huge, flowing tail was a timeless signature. The nose, wings and fuselage completed the materpiece.

Guns bristled from every strategic point and challenged the enemy to take her out of the sky. The B-17 in flight was as graceful as a ballet dancer and as durable as a might tank. It stayed aloft when severely wounded. It brought its crew home even though air conditioned by hundreds of flak and bullet holes. As long as propellers turned, it was indestructible.

Queen of the Skies is a fitting tribute to this huge bird of prey. Bombers have come and gone, but nothing will ever match the majesty and mystique of this might eagle. She was royalty with a common touch. Take me home, your highness. And she did.”

Don Steward, Jr., a ROG on the Don Jones crew, said that he wanted to respond to the special request also for he does think of the B-17F and B-17G as Queens. “Quite a lot of what I think comes from seeing pictures of shot-up B-17s that returned to England, and some of it comes from a personal experience on the mission of 17 October 44, when the bombardier and I were put out of commission as far as active crew members.

An incendiary cluster, an ‘M-17’ blew up, or at least, the scattered charge blew up inside the bomb bay of the B-17 on which we were flying our 11th mission. The pilot and co-pilot flew it back with the bomb bay doors sprung open, and with ‘a great big hole’ in it. (I was sedated by morphine given to me by one of the other gunners, and remember even less about the riding back in a beat up plane than what I usually remember!) I feel sure you must have seen pictures taken of B-17s, which would present the view that it would have been impossible for said plane to fly, but fly it did!”

Ernie Warsaw flew on Picklepuss (42-30053), and added this thought. “The reason the B-17 was the Queen of the Skies is plain and simple – it was the most graceful configuration of any airplane in flight.”

Perhaps Martin Caiden summed it up best in closing Flying Forts. “There was something else that was terribly real and important in our flight. It is obvious that we were turning back the clock for many years in our mission across the Atlantic. Perhaps ours was the final, the last formation flight across the ocean that the Fortress will ever know, and there was a touch of sadness in writing this kind of finis to the Grand Old Lady.

It seems that when we flew the Atlantic, whether we cruised above enormous sweeping banks of clouds, or drifted like tiny spores between canyon walls of thunderheads that sailed out of sight above us, or when we rushed scant feet above the wind-whipped waves . . . no matter where we were, or where we flew, we had passengers with us. You couldn’t see them; you had to feel, or sense, their presence, but it did seem as though we had ghostly visitors in those airplanes.

If you listened carefully, very carefully, through the roar of the engines and the creaking of the airplane and the cry of the wind . . . you could hear the whisper of all those who had come and gone. In the deep, shadowy gloom of the fuselage, with the airplane swaying and rocking gently in the wind, you might almost see the forms of the men. Then drifting timelessly from wherever it is that the great battles of the air are remembered, the ghosts would come alive.

In the half-light and gloom the turrets would see to move and men to bend to their guns. When sunlight speared the gloom and illuminated the dust motes, you could, by squinting carefully, see behind the dust the floating wisps of smoke from the guns and see the flash of the empty shell casings as they whirled to the floor of the airplane.

If you believed, and you tried, really tried . . . well, it all depends upon what the Fortress means to you.

This, then, was the airplane . . . the Queen herself, that our small group would bring back to England. And this is why, wherever we landed, wherever we went, we couldn’t keep the people away from those wonderful, old, weary, ex-derelict and glorious airplanes.

That kind of ledger will never be closed.”