A big bomber is an exciting thing at any time. On the ground you see it massive and lifeless. As you walk close up to it, and stand under its huge wings, it gives you the impression of being some huge and permanent structure, so immense that you wonder it could ever leave the ground.
You climb aboard and you are in a new world, a world of instruments , leather armchairs, windows, guns, innumerable pipelines, switches, fire extinguishers, slim doors; you are in a huge corridor, with bulkheads like a ship's. In the nose is a duplex apartment, the ground floor occupied by the bombardier and front gunner, the top by the two pilots and the navigator. You sit in one of the seats and try to assimilate all you see before you. There are banks of instruments, dials, printed labels—some in red, some in blue. You see telephones, pressure gauges, heating apparatus, parachutes, and a labyrinth of pipes and conduits. As you look ahead, you see the sky; but look down. You are about as high as the third floor of a house. Men on the field look diminutive. You can see the top of the truck that is feeding gasoline to one of the huge tanks. You go down into the "sun parlor" glass nose of the giant for a bird's-eye view of the ground activities. Supposing you had to get out of this machine in a hurry! It would be quite a jump, too low for a parachute of course, but too high for comfort. A fighter plane is taxiing toward the runway. It goes past you looking like a dwarf.
As you sit in the "office" of one of these 70,000-pound monsters, you get an impression of permanent solidity, of massive bulk, of sturdy rigidity. Here is something so strongly built that it seems practically indestructible. You recall having seen an automobile crash into and tear a large hole in a wall. The automobile suffered only superficial damage. Its hood was dented, and the glass of the headlights shattered, but its steel construction had won the battle of ramming. Suppose this great giant were to crash into a wall, into a house, into a fleet of automobiles! Nothing could stand against it.
Consider those giant double-row radial engines with their gleaming three-blader propellers. There is more power in those engines than ever went into an automobile. See those graceful, tapering, metal-skinned wings. They are stronger than the body work of your family car. You could walk on them without denting them. Everything about this bomber seems superstrong, superdurable, as durable as a battle-wagon of the Navy. Then you remember a recent communique of air operations.
"Seventeen of our bombers are missing." Seventeen of these giants were knocked out during a raid over enemy territory. How could that happen? It does not seem possible that this creature can be crippled. You catch a brief glimpse then, perhaps, of what happens when enemy shells and bullets have pierced the steel hide of the mammoth, when the interior fills with smoke and flames, when 70,000 pounds get out of control and hurtle in a flaming mass to the ground below. "These are escape hatches," points out one of the crew. "We use them when we have to bail out." It is a common hazard of war. The sky is dotted with parachutes, and this grand monster is diving derelict to destruction, still giving you the impression of being indestructible. This huge solid thing is as secure as a fort. There is nothing flimsy about it. If someone dropped you inside this bomber blindfolded, without telling you where you were, when they removed the blindfold you might guess you were in a ship, or in a submarine. It smells rather like a ship, with the warm odor of oil, gas, leather, and paint. But you are in a bomber, the flying ship that is likely to do more to win the war than any other weapon in use on *land, sea, or in the sky.
You are going to take a flight. The pilot finds you a place behind him and his co-pilot, and you wait happily while the pilot and aircrew go through the check-routine preliminary to the take-off.
Each pilot has his special duties. The check-list seems interminable. Finally, the engines purring, the bomber turns and heads toward the runway. "This is Bomber 12-024 waiting to take off on'training flight," says the pilot.
"Bomber 12-024 on training flight, your runway is No. 4," replies the radio. "Acknowledge." "Bomber 12-024. I am heading for runway No. 4," repeats the co-pilot.
The machine taxies across the airfield. The flight-control officer speaks again. "Bomber 12-024, wait where you are. There is a B-25 coming in with a priority. You will proceed to the runway when he is clear." You wait, the engines reduced to a tick-over. A slim Mitchell bomber darts down, lands on its three wheels, and streaks across to the parking lot. "You are expected on runway No. 4," calls the flight-control officer. "Bomber 12-024 heading toward runway No. 4," says your pilot. In a matter of seconds he has turned his huge craft nose into wind and you are thundering down the runway.
If the crew have given you earphones, you are lucky, for you can hear what is being sent over the voice-jammed ether. The air over an airfield is as full of conversation as a woman's veil is full of holes.
Everyone is talking, but the big boss of the air is the flight-control officer. When he tells a pilot to make another circuit of the airfield, he means it. Unless the plane is in trouble and has a very good excuse to land, there is no alternative but to obey. Sometimes the flightcontrol officers blast; sometimes they are mildly humorous. They do a lot of talking in the course of a day's flying.
The engines of the machine in which you are flying are at full throttle. The tail is up. You look at your watch. One second, two seconds, three, four . . . five. The rumbling underneath made by the huge tires that support the machine on the ground ceases. Suddenly you are off. You relish the smooth, silky, lighter-than-air feeling as the bomber rises into the air. Airborne! This huge creature is flying at last. "Retract landing gear," orders the pilot. The co-pilot works a red handle which sets in action the hydraulic retraction gear. "Landing gear retracted," he replies.
The flight-control officer speaks again. "Bomber 12-024, vou are too near the incoming land. There is a pupil flying solo in an SJ-14 to your port, at nine o'clock. Don't go too near him." The nose is pointing skyward now. The thundering burble of the engines changes to a steady roar. You watch the pilot's hands. He moves them ever so slightly and the huge machine heels over. You see land appear along the tip of the starboard wing. The pilot looks at you and smiles, "She handles like a put-put." You are likely to remember your first flight in one of these big ships, how you peered out of the Plexiglas nose, watched the navigator at his table with his instruments. You squinted through the bombsight and lay flat on your stomach to watch the ball-turret gunner crouched at his gun. As you come in to land, you watch the crew go through their routine once more. You feel the wheels touch.
The smooth progress of the machine is checked by the rumbling of the wheels along the ground. You make note of an impression you caught during the flight. It was like traveling in a railway coach without the clack of the rails, or like being in a penthouse that was flying. All the time you felt tremendously secure.
Once on the ground, you take another look at the bomber you have just left. Its immense size hits you in the eye. It hits harder this time, because you know this huge thing does fly, and you have experienced its swift nimble progress in the air. You are still a trifle staggered at it all.
You watch the bomber take off again, this time with a new crew on a training flight. As it taxies to the runway it seems to you rather like an oversized mechanical lizard. It groans and roars as it turns.
Once as it hesitated and the pilot gave one pair of engines the gun, the machine sounded as if it were screaming in protest. Then you hear the concerted roar of the mighty motors as the giant heads down the runway—up goes the tail. The great nose seems to protrude suddenly like a swan or duck in flight. Your fancy of course— and then you see the great wheels climb into the air, the nose pulls up, and away she soars, a graceful thing as beautiful and inspiring as a windjammer in full sail beating along before the trade winds; and with some of the same mighty beauty of an express train roaring past a junction.
A bomber of the same type on the ground is shapely, of course, but it seems ungainly. Its fin is too big, its belly droops, and its nose points at the sky rather pathetically, as if it is held down against its will.
As you fly over it you get the impression of seeing some giant insect pinned down to a collector's board. You watch it taxi across the airfield to the runway and it seems to be a live crawling thing, moving slowly and painstakingly, held back by some invisible power.
You look at it again from the ground, and you get an impression of power and awkwardness. You will agree perhaps that on the ground an airplane is completely helpless. Robbed of its speed, it is at the mercy of bomb and bullet. It cannot protect itself. Without space it cannot take the air.
It is still like an animal, a prehistoric monster, like the ones you saw brought to life in a Disney movie, but not quite. Then you get the idea that in some ways it is like a seal or sea lion. They flop and wobble and slump in grotesque attitudes. But once they are in the water, how they change! They become poems of floating grace.
They carve exciting arcs out of the green water. Speed in the water gives them new life. Look at the bomber again, and you begin to understand. Speed gives it life. Once it is in the air, it takes on its real personality. It is in its element—a thing of beauty, a joy to behold , a tremendous tribute to the men who designed and built it.
You can think, too, that this handsome knight of the air is a national hero. He has more glamor than a movie actor, more guts than the toughest screen he-men. He is the product of many brains, the result of the work of thousands of skilled fingers. He has a pedigree longer than that of the finest of race horses. In his make-up are some of the qualities of the fighter plane, such as speed and armament. He has the range of the big passenger planes of prewar days, the toughness of a destroyer, and he can haul the load of a super delivery truck faster than any land vehicle can travel. He can drop a bomb heavier than the largest shell in use, with double the accuracy of the longrange gun; he can reach a target hundreds of miles beyond the range of the longest-range gun ever made. He shoots down enemy fighters, flies faster than they do, often at high altitudes. He roars through the sky at better than 300 miles per hour and lands in about the space required for a fast single-seater ten years ago. He has a skin of steel that nothing but the heaviest bullets can pierce, and he packs a heavy wallop himself, anything from ten to thirteen machine guns and cannon.
The men who fly it make up the heart and brains of the bomber. They are a combat crew ranging from two to ten men according to the size of the plane. The combat crew of a bomber such as the Fortress or the Liberator are trained first as individuals and then as a team. Teamwork is their business. Each is a specialist at his own particular job, each knows something of the other man's work so that if his comrade is knocked out he can pinch-hit for him, and help the team come through. Often during the bitter fighting over France and Germany the bombardier of a Fort or a Liberator has brought the monster safely home after the pilot and the co-pilot have been killed or seriously wounded.
These bomber crews are the human factor of the air forces. To quote General Henry H. Arnold, Commanding General of the United States Army Air Forces: "It is as men—not as heroes—that they have to fight this war. It is a dirty war, as dirty as any. Heroes or not, our men have done heroic things. Privates, sergeants, generals have put their lives on the line—not without regard for the consequences, as some like to think—but knowing full well what the odds were. . . . They pit their flesh, skill and steel against the flesh, skill and steel of the enemy. It is they who are fighting this war."
The crew of a big bomber consists of a pilot—the captain of the ship—a co-pilot, a navigator, and a bombardier. These are usually commissioned officers or flight officers, the new warrant rank created by the Army Air Forces. The pilot is responsible for the ship at all times and for crew discipline. At one time only during the flight does the captain take orders, and that is for the run over the target, when the bombardier has complete command, and gives orders.
Other crew members are gunners, radio and flight engineers, who also double up as waist gunners. The tail gunner, known as "Tail-end Charley," is the man who gets the most glamor and public notice.
He has a rough cold job, but the ball-turret and top-turret gunners do their share too, and many an enemy plane has been shot down by the waist gunners who may be the flight engineers, or the spare man of a combat crew, such as the photographer whose job is to film the flight of the bomb as it leaves the bomb bay and falls towards the target.
There is another member of the crew too, a silent, mechanical man whose work is of inestimable value. This is the auto-pilot which flies the ship on its course, thus saving pilot fatigue, and which cooperates with the synchronized bombsight that has made American high-altitude bombing the most accurate in the world. You would hardly notice this master magician of the air if you were looking at the insides of a big bomber, but it is all-important to the functioning of the big ship.
The electronically controlled auto-pilot actually transforms the plane into a steady platform from which bombs can be dropped.
It differs considerably from "George," the peacetime automatic pilot. It is self-correcting to a minute degree. When coupled with the bombsight which itself consists of two gyroscopes, one moving on the lateral, one on the vertical axis, the super-sensitive electronic mechanism returns the plane to its course regardless of cross-current, wind variations, and blasts of exploding flak. It can also be used to enable the plane to take evasive action.
Another advantage of this wonder instrument is that it allows the installation of control stations in various parts of the plane, so that if the main controls are damaged by enemy action, the plane can be flown from the center or even the tail area.
One example of the auto-pilot's efficiency was recently revealed by the War Department, in telling of a Flying Fortress that was almost cut in two when rammed by an Me-109 fighter plane. The pilot's control cables to the rudder and elevators were severed. With such defects a plane could be expected to crash out of control, probably with the entire crew, there being no time to bail out. The autopilot , however, brought this ship safely back to its base, the control surface motors of the electronic system being located in the tail.
In another instance a B-24 flew for 2000 miles after its crew had bailed out.
You will notice in inspecting this flying battleship that there seem to be machine guns everywhere. These heavy .50-caliber rifles point from turrets and gun ports in every conceivable direction. The big wide fuselage is in reality a fort. There seems to be a gun ready every way you turn. There are guns pointing ahead, guns sighted to the rear, guns on each side. Underneath there is a tiny compartment where a man sits curled up in a little glass "office" which is a gun turret. The turret itself, electrically controlled, is one of American industry's modern marvels. The gunner operates it with his feet and his hands. It will turn in any direction he wishes. He goes with it. The mechanism is hair-trigger sensitive, but as tough as the other components of the plane. The gunner can swing his guns at finger pressure in the heaviest slip stream, and hold his aim at will. If the electric mechanism fails, he can operate his guns by hand. His weapons are the best of their type ever taken into air. He has a wondersight that absolves him from all responsibility except the actual sighting. This is the Sperry computing sight.
To appreciate the wonder of this device, you have to understand the problems facing the aerial marksman. Many people think that anyone who is a good shot on the ground with a sporting rifle will make a good aerial gunner. Nothing is further from the truth. We'll admit that if a boy has learned to use a bow and arrow, and a small gun, and can hit a moving object at twenty-five to fifty yards, he will have some idea of the rudiments of marksmanship, but guesswork is not enough in modern aerial gunnery. Too many dimensions and elements have to be considered. The gunner's problem is to arrange for his projectiles to arrive on the enemy's line of flight at the moment the enemy plane will be there. To achieve this he needs to know the speed of the enemy plane, and the direction of its flight.
In sighting he must also allow for the speed of his own plane, and its line of flight. In some instances gunnery may be simple. Aerial gunners endeavor to reduce the angle of deflection by getting on the tail of the enemy plane, the oldest practice in aerial gunnery.
Fighter plane pilots, however, are taught never to fly in a straight line while hostile planes are in the area, and to approach a bomber flying on a broken course. Actually the enemy fighters come in to attack in a series of sweeping downward curves, often diving at a speed of 400 miles per hour or more. At such a speed they give the gunner little chance to draw his sight on them and get a burst.
Being a bigger plane, the bomber itself is at the disadvantage of offering a larger target area to the fighter than the fighter gives to the bomber's gunners. Unless he can predict the right spot at which to aim his bullets, by calculating the speed, course, and range of the enemy fighter, the bomber's gunner is not able to do any effective shooting.
He has another problem too. Unless he is firing dead ahead or astern of his line of flight the trajectory of his bullets will retain the forward motion of his plane. In practice, therefore, he allows for this and aims at an imaginary target area where he thinks the enemy plane will be when the bullets reach it. With the old ring sight, skill in this kind of shooting was a matter of long and constant practice. A gunner in a plane flying at 300 miles per hour on a straight course, making a deflection shot at a plane flying parallel to him, has a simple task. He aims ahead of the target allowing for the forward motion of the plane, and if his allowance of lead ahead is sufficient the enemy will fly into the bullets. But supposing the attacking fighter is coming in close at high speed. To score a hit he must aim behind the fighter, because his bullets have a forward (sideways) speed of 300 miles per hour which means that they will travel on a short diagonal course. To make such a shot with the ring sight demands superb judgment and split-second timing.
The Sperry computing sight makes aerial gunnery almost foolproof . All that the gunner has to do is to frame the enemy plane between two cross hairs on a ground-glass screen. This automatically gives the range of the enemy plane. Holding the plane in the screen he follows it across the sky. The instrument immediately calculates the speed and course, and corrects the sighting mechanism, so that with the enemy plane full in his sight the gunner only has to press the trigger. The use of this sight has been of inestimable benefit to United States combat crews, an instance of its effectiveness being the January, 1943, raid on Kiel in which ninety-five enemy fighters were destroyed.
Since the beginning of the war the U.S.A.A.F. have steadily increased their record of shooting down enemy planes from bombers.
Each combat crew member is a trained gunner. He is shown how to use his gun, how to keep it in repair, and is given ample opportunity to practice shooting. In combat he is disciplined as to the field of fire, or area of sky allotted to him. He must not under any circumstances attempt to shoot outside that field. If the "bandit," as the flying doughboys call the German fighters, passes out of view, he tips off the man into whose sights the plane is going. When attacked by enemy fighters the plane crew goes into action as one man. Every word spoken by any crewman is heard by the others. The gunner in the top turret usually acts as lookout to the front, the tail gunner to the rear. They report the position of enemy planes on the clock system. If the tail gunner reports a bandit at "four o'clock" that means to the starboard side of the plane at an angle corresponding to the position of the figure four on the dial of the clock.
During the action the pilot or co-pilot keeps in constant touch with the men on the interphone, for two reasons—morale and security . After every swooping attack by a fighter, the pilot will inquire, "Everyone O.K.? Answer in sequence." Each gunner then reports damage to himself or to the machine, his success or otherwise in beating off the enemy.
When a big bomber is attacked by enemy fighters many minor injuries can be inflicted without the pilot or co-pilot being aware of them. The tail gunner may have been rendered unconscious by having an oxygen lead severed. The waist gunner may have been clipped by a bullet, the control conduits damaged, a fragment of stressed skin may be ripped from the tail. Everything must be checked and reported immediately. In the case of wounds crew members give first aid on the spot. If the wounded man occupies a vital position, he is removed to the waist of the machine, and another takes his place.
In the early days of action over the roof of Hitler's fortress Europe, United States combat crews suffered many crew losses through enemy machine-gun fire and flak. Bombers often made their way home with crew members dead or dying, although the machine itself was little damaged. The United States Materiel Command quickly applied itself to the problem of giving the maximum protection to bomber personnel, and today the men who man the Forts and Liberators wear armor-plated flak suits, somewhat resembling the armor worn by the knights of medieval times. These suits made of steel plates and mesh covered with fabric will stop shell splinters and bullets. They have already saved many valuable lives. They add weight to the machine, of course, but the authorities consider the extra cargo well worth while.
The suits are so constructed that in the event of the wearer having to bail out, they can be easily discarded. Two types of steel helmet are used by bomber crews, one with a visor for the gunners, and a simplified one for the pilot and co-pilot. Both follow closely the design of the ancient helmets worn by the pikemen in the days of Good Queen Bess.
In actual fighting equipment the United States bomber is second to none. It has blazed a trail through the battleskies and demonstrated for all time that daylight bombing can be made a practical and efficient military arm. It has proved that bombers can defend themselves against fighter planes; it has, in fact, to quote Flight, the leading British aeronautical magazine, "wiped the noses of the fighter planes." Heavy bombers are the long-range heavy artillery of an army.
They are designed to carry heavy loads of bombs, usually at high altitude, to attack enemy industrial centers, rail junctions, and ports. They are used for strategic bombing, as compared with the tactical bombings of medium and light bombers.
American heavies differ largely from British in the matter of load and range. The British built their four-engined Lancasters, Halifaxes , and Stirlings for a certain specific purpose, to carry the heaviest possible bomb load over a maximum round trip of 600 to 700 miles, which means that the entire German industrial area is within range of British-based planes. As most of their raids were to be undertaken at night, they concentrated on useful load above everything else, with speed and range a secondary consideration. The Lancaster can carry eight tons of bombs to Berlin. The American B-17 Flying Fortress can carry a much lesser load of bombs twice as far as the Lancaster, at 30,000 feet, and at much greater speed.
The Liberator, the most modern bomber design in use by any air force, as we shall see later, can carry a greater weight of bombs over the same distance as the Fortress. If used for short-range work such as the Lancaster, it can carry up to ten tons of explosives at a greater speed than the British heavy.
As a weapon of war the bomber is unique. It can go places that are denied to surface battleships, tanks, and armies. It has sunk battleships and battered fortifications. It has smashed oil wells, and devastated docks and industrial installations; it has rescued men from seemingly impossible situations, and has carried thousands of seriously wounded from the shadow of certain death to the reality of life under expert medical care.
When you see that big bomber rumbling overhead through the trackless skyways you may like to think of its past, and its future.
It was born in the brain of man, committed to paper, and made into a model or mock-up. Thousands of men and women, and hundreds of industries have united to bring it to reality. People who made your kitchenware, your piano, your electric toaster, your sister 's girdle, mother's silk stockings, and even dad's pipe cleaner have united to provide materials for this mighty weapon. Into it have been put many devices that will benefit you in the future, electronics , plastics, radio and television. Its engines burn a gasoline that will make your automobile run more economically and with greater power. See it, perhaps, as a proving ground for the future as well as a weapon of victory.