The Mysterious case of the B-17 Phantom Fortress
Wars hold some of the most remarkable tales of strangeness there are, and if battlegrounds are a repository of uniques cases of weirdness then World War II is certainly one of the vaster troves of such lore. If one looks there can be found all manner of oddities and anomalies scattered in the background of the more sensational news of the fighting, coming from land, air, and sea. The smoke tinged, bomb blasted skies of the war hold a plethora of such accounts, and among all of the aviation oddities to be found here, ranging from UFOs, to phantom planes, to unexplained aerial phenomena, to just plain head-scratching insanity. One rather curious case that I came across is the seemingly well documented report of a bomber that came out of nowhere to land itself without a crew and add yet another tale of wartime mystery to the many.
On November 23, 1944, a British Royal Air Force antiaircraft unit stationed near Cortonburg, Belgium was surprised by something they saw lumbering towards them in the sky. There barreling in their direction was an American Army Air Corps B-17 bomber, a four-engine heavy bomber so colossal and heavily armed that it was nicknamed the “Flying Fortress.” The plane was coming in rather fast with its landing gear down, and because there was no such landing scheduled and because of the speed of the incoming aircraft it was assumed that it was preparing to make an emergency landing at their base. A communication with the base proved that indeed no such B-17 landing was expected, and the gunner crew braced themselves as the massive aircraft came hurtling in towards a nearby open, plowed field.
It was a rather messy landing to say the least, with the aircraft bouncing and swerving along as the terrified gunners looked on, finally stopping dangerously close to the position after one of its wings clipped the ground, yet it was still in one piece and had not actually crashed. The aircraft sat there looming over the field as its formidable propellers continued to spin in a cacophony of noise, but as the minutes ticked by no one exited the plane. When 20 minutes had passed with no sign of human activity, and the plane just squatting there with its engines running like some growling beast, it was decided to go in and investigate.
The team warily went in, opened the entry hatch located under the fuselage and proceeded to enter, expecting that perhaps the crew had been injured or otherwise unable to get out of the plane. What they did not expect was that the plane would be completely empty. A full sweep through the aircraft showed that not a single crew member was aboard, although it would later be reported that there were signs that the crew had just recently been there and must have vacated the aircraft in a hurry. There were found to be chocolate bars unwrapped and half eaten lying about, a row of neatly folded parachutes, with none apparently missing, and jackets that had been neatly hung up. The superior officer, a John V. Crisp, would say of the eerie scene:
We now made a thorough search and our most remarkable find in the fuselage was about a dozen parachutes neatly wrapped and ready for clipping on. This made the whereabouts of the crew even more mysterious. The Sperry bomb-sight remained in the Perspex nose, quite undamaged, with its cover neatly folded beside it. Back on the navigator’s desk was the code book giving the colours and letters of the day for identification purposes. Various fur-lined flying jackets lay in the fuselage together with a few bars of chocolate, partly consumed in some cases.
Where had they gone and how had the plane landed on its own? No one had any idea. Crisp had the engines shut down and the interior was further inspected. The log book was found opened, and the last cryptic words written in it were “bad flak.” Yet considering that all of the parachutes seemed to be accounted for and the exterior of the plane did not have evidence of damage except for what it had incurred in its rough landing, such as the buckled wing and one disabled engine, it seemed to be a rather strange last message.
The mystery B-17 began to be called the “Phantom Fortress,” and nobody knew just how it could have come in to make a landing by itself minus a crew, or what had become of those aboard. It would not be until a team was sent in by the Advanced Headquarters, 8th Air Force Service Command in Brussels, that a picture of what occurred was formed. It was ascertained through the aircraft’s serial number that the plane had been part of a bombing squadron called the 91st Bombardment Group, and that they had been on a mission to bomb oil refineries in Merseburg, Germany, when problems arose.
According to the bomber’s crew, all of whom were tracked down and found to have been alive and safe, their aircraft at some point had developed a malfunctioning bomb rack and had been forced to abort. They flew off away from the rest of the group but had been hit by enemy fire, which knocked out one of the aircraft’s four engines. There was also a hit on the bomb bay itself, which had caused a bright flash, but rather oddly had not set off the ordnance. The decision was made by the crew of the limping, damaged plane to set a course towards England, but this idea was quickly abandoned when it became apparent that the hobbled aircraft was never going to make it that far.
They changed their course towards Brussels, Belgium, at the same time making the plane lighter by dumping and jettisoning any unnecessary or nonessential equipment on board. When the plane still continued to suffer and a second engine on the struggling plane sputtered out, it was decided that the aircraft would be unable to make the journey, and the crew had then decided to bail out. The B-17 was put on autopilot and left to its fate as the crew jumped to safety. No one thought it would make it very far, let alone somehow land, but land it did.
This was all very interesting information, but it still did not seem to explain a lot of odd details. For one, why did ground crew report all 4 engines working as the bomber had approached, with one being damaged only upon landing, when the report said that 2 engines had been knocked out during the mission? Indeed, where was the damage from the claimed enemy fire? Also, why were all of the parachutes still there if the crew had bailed out? Perhaps most mysterious of all, how had a large, cumbersome plane like the B-17 manage to come to a landing without a pilot?
Authorities on the case, as well as crew members of the Phantom Fortress, offered up some theories to try and shed some light on at least a few of the mysteries surrounding the event. For instance, with the engines it could have been that the technical difficulties cleared up on their own after the crew had bailed out, making the plane seem to have 4 fully operating engines on approach, although why they would start working again after being taken out remains mysterious. If the engines had been in bad enough shape for the crew to abandon the aircraft it seems odd that they should kick back into working order on their own and continue whirring away even after the rough landing.
With regards to the lack of any apparent visible damage from enemy fire, it has been suggested that this could have just been simply due to the untrained eyes of the team that initially investigated the plane after it had landed. They were after all a gunner crew, not trained aviators, and may have mistaken the damage reported by the B-17 crew as being from the crash. They simply might not have noticed that the aircraft had sustained battle damage, but then again they were antiaircraft gunners and might have had some idea. With the parachutes, it was surmised that they had possibly mistaken some spare parachutes as the full compliment. However, this is all speculation, and the mystery has never been totally solved.
As to how the B-17 could have come to a landing mostly intact without a pilot, that is still largely a mystery as well. Autopilot is one thing, but landing is another beast altogether. After all, there is that old saying, “Flying is easy, landing is hard.” Even with a pilot landing such an immense aircraft would be very difficult. A pilotless B-17 landing by itself with no one on board was totally unprecedented, and one would expect it to have careened into the ground to crash into a ball of fire and debris, or at least ended up a heap of twisted wreckage, so how could this happen?
Although no one really knows for sure, the main theory is that the plane simply lost altitude slowly, at just the right speed, and with just the right angle of descent to come down relatively softly enough to appear as if it was landing, with the B-17’s legendary toughness and sturdy frame managing to hold it together to keep it from disintegrating. The odds of all of this happening in just such a way seem to be extremely small and unlikely, but is this really possible at all? Also, there is the rather odd detail that this unmanned plane just happened to come down in the exact best place to land under the circumstances, in that wide open field, and not one of the countless other places it could have come down more tragically. This could very well all be pure, blind chance, and these disparate factors all amazingly coming together just right, but it still all seems very strange indeed.
The mystery landing of the “Phantom Fortress” did happen, but the details of how it did remain mysterious and open to speculation. What we do know for sure is that this B-17 was on a bombing mission in Germany, that it did land without a crew in that field, and that the crew members were later found to have been alive and well with quite a story to tell, but questions remain. Are the B-17 crew’s reports or the British gunnery crew’s accounts totally accurate? Why don’t they line up? Did everything happen as they said it did? How could this plane have landed by itself in just the right way and in just the right place to keep from being a mangled pile of metal? Just what in the world happened here?
There are all manner of odd accounts and conundrums peppered throughout the history of war and aviation, and this is just one more little oddity among many, another historical conundrum we may never have a full answer to. The Phantom Fortress is one of those wartime events which is sort of lost to history and faded from memory amongst the larger picture of the war, and shows that among all of the fighting and violence there are plenty of largely forgotten pieces of weirdness underlying these conflicts. Some of these we may stumble across amongst archives and texts to wonder about and ponder, and perhaps others will remain lost to time forever, forgotten amongst the cast off debris of our history to swirl about forever unknown to anyone but the ones who experienced them, themselves long gone and pushed from the realm of our collective memory.