By Delbert Harris – Pilot, Flight Test, Hangars 6 and 7
Transcribed from “BAD NEWS – Journal of the BAD 2 Association” Vol. 2, No. 3 June 1979
The weather on January 13, 1944 was typical, with grey overcast and the ever-present threat of rain. As it was on nearly every day at the depot, the test flying of fighters and bombers went on with little let up.
The crew of three drove to dispersal to begin a routine test flight of a B-17. It was a routine that had become almost boring. Normally a crew of three, pilot co-pilot and crew chief would be aboard. On this day three others were along “just for the ride”. After take-off and the test procedures were completed the chief ground engineering officer asked if he could take the controls. We frequently allowed non-flying personnel this opportunity under close scrutiny.
We were flying over the low-land areas west of Manchester and near the Irish Sea north of Liverpool with a solid overcast at about 1,500 feet. The lieutenant flew straight and level for a few minutes in a northerly direction and then started a climbing turn to the right into the overcast. The B-17 was a very stable ship and he was doing a smooth job, with only the instruments as a reference. We had only voice contact with the control tower. No sophisticated RADAR, radio beams or instrument landing systems.
After a few minutes, I decided that it was time to go back to the base and I took over the controls. I reversed our procedure and instituted a slow descending turn to the left. However, I was losing altitude more rapidly than he had gained it. I also did not realize how far to the east we had drifted. As we had entered the clouds at 1,500 feet above sea level and the terrain below us at that time was almost at sea level, I expected to break out with plenty of altitude at orient myself geographically and return to Burtonwood.
My eyes roamed from instrument to instrument keeping the air speed constant at about 150 miles per hour, the rate of decent constant and the artificial horizon correctly positioned. The engineering office was still in the co-pilots sea and Lt. MacDonald, the co-pilot was on the flight deck, standing behind us. I was the only one wearing a seat belt, and it was a new one that was too tight but too stiff to loosen easily. The three enlisted men were in the bombardier’s compartment in the Plexiglas nose where they had unlimited visibility; the same unlimited visibility that prevented me from seeing the number two engine.
I glanced at the altimeter —1200 feet— and casually out the window expecting to break free of the clouds at any moment. A glance at the altimeter —1100 feet— and casually out the window. GRASS!!! I whirled the wheel hard right and pulled with all I had to pull the nose up. I can still hear the screams of the men in the nose as we slammed into the ground and almost simultaneously into the rock wall.
The wheel was wrenched from my grasp. I threw my arms over my face and all I could think was that I was going to die and I hoped that it wouldn’t hurt.
The ship screamed as she was torn apart and the fuel exploded. It finally slid to a stop and the only sound was the sound of the crackle of flames. I slowly realized that I was still alive but was trapped in the flames. I struggled but couldn’t break free. My legs were trapped. Trying to reach for the pocket knife in my hip pocket, I saw my seat belt. When I realised it my legs were free and I tried to rise to get out. Then I saw the Lt. in the co-pilots seat. The top of his head was gone and I knew he was dead. Lt. MacDonald was crumpled on the floor. The skin of the plane was torn and whole sections were missing. An area where the window had been beside my face was gone, so I crawled out. I wanted to run from the flames but I was so weak I could hardly move and I just fell into the mud of the field. As I lay there I head a moan from inside the plane. I crawled back into the cockpit and found Mac moaning but unconscious. I grabbed him under the arms and tried to pull him out. He screamed in pain but I kept trying. Outside I straddled him and pulled him along a few inches at a time. I was sure that the plane would explode at any moment. I didn’t realize that it already had. All I could see in the fog was flame. I lay in the mud beside Mac and tried to shield him with my body against the expected explosion. All was quiet except the crackle of flames. Then… voices.
Two small boys approached us cautiously. I rose up slowly, my face and clothing were covered with mud and blood. I asked, “Am I hurt badly?” They came a little closer, took a good look, then turned and ran. I thought, I must be a mess.
Then several men ran up to us and helped me to the road. The first driver at the road refused to let them load me into his car because of the mud, oil and bloody. The next car loaded me aboard and took me to an orphanage on a hill close by. There I was walked to the second story, up a winding narrow stair and seated in a horse-hair covered dentist chair. A nurse started bathing my face and my visible wounds were only superficial. These turned out to by my only injuries. Lt. MacDonald was taken to a hospital in Bolton where he remained for weeks. His body had been crushed from the waist down by the top turret that had crashed into him.
At the time of the crash I was 24 years old and had been a pilot for a year and a half. I had checked out and was proficient in B-24’s, ‘17’s, P-47’s & P-39’s plus the L-4 and several training and utility aircraft.
After the crash I refused to fly as a pilot on any aircraft that carried other crew members. I went back to test flying P-47 and P-38 fighters. Shortly thereafter I volunteered for a combat assignment and was transferred to the 353rd Fighter Group at Raydon between Colchester and Ipswich. On August 1, 1944, I was shot down while strafing the aerodrome at Le Mans, France, captured I was sent to Stalag Luft III, North Compound, which was the British compound. I was among the first yanks to be put in with RAF Officers, who helped us greatly. I escaped later, on a march out of Nurmburg and reached allied troops after seventeen days in the country.
I visited Mac a couple of weeks after the crash. A local family was extremely kind to me and took me to their home. Unfortunately I lost their names and addresses when I was shot down and would like very much to hear from them to express my thanks to them and all the others who provided so much help in our time of need.