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Testing on the Fly: World War II Field Expedients That Kept Aircraft in Combat

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Journal article

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Normally, solving weapon system problems requires a deliberative process of arriving at engineered solutions, and of testing and evaluating them under controlled conditions. But this process became a casualty of war when damaged aircraft needed improvised fixing in flight. During the heat of World War II air battles, with no time to ponder and test a solution, aircrews relied on their own ingenuity to bring aircraft -- in this case, B-17s and B-24s -- back to base. The B-24 Liberators of the 5th Bomb Group operated in an atmosphere rife with disaster. The runway they used at Samar in the Philippines in 1945 was packed coral, sharp enough to cut tires, yet yielding enough to cause wheels with flat tires to gouge into its surface. When the Liberators experienced asymmetrical tire failures on the coral, they often turned abruptly toward the ditches that paralleled the runway. The 5th Bomb Group, self-nicknamed the Bomber Barons, drew patrol missions in the uncertain days of August 1945, after Japan reeled under two atomic bomb attacks, but before the formal surrender. The Groups task was to reconnoiter the China coast for any evidence of recalcitrance by Japanese forces, and it took a lot of gasoline to fly from Samar to China and back. On one such sortie, a loaded Liberator had sufficient speed to give good controllability on take-off, until the left main tire blew out. Just clearing the coral at about 6 AM, the bomber was lucky to be airborne, but its crew still faced the predicament of an inevitable return to the same treacherous airstrip that had claimed lives and airframes before. But what to do about the crippled B-24 in the air Its fate was in the hands of Lt Col Albert W. James, who brought some prior Wright Field test and evaluation savvy with him when he joined up with the 5th Bomb Group in the Pacific. This article recounts how James helped this crew land safely with a main tire blowout, and how he helped another crew land safely with a nose tire blowout.

Subject Categories:

  • Bombers
  • Humanities and History
  • Safety Engineering
  • Mechanics

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