Landing a B-17 without its gear lowered is a problem because of the Sperry ball turret, which would prevent a smooth belly landing. For emergencies such as this, crews were supposed to carry special tools to drop ball turret. However, on this April day, the Bond crew did not have those tools on board and the story of how they got them, unfastened the ball turret, and made a successful landing became an article for the Public Relations Officer and was picked up in state side papers and by "Stars and Stripes".
How it all started - this is the statement of the pilot, Leslie Bond, taken from Accident Report No. 44-4-8-520.
"On April 8, 1944 while acting as pilot on ship 42-97214, B-17G, the landing great failed to retract electrically on take-off and was cranked up manually. On returning from the mission I tried to lower the gear electrically, but it would not lower. The engineer [S/Sgt Clyman] cranked the left gear down and tried to lower the right but it would not lower. When we came over the field and the squadron peeled off to land. I flew on out from the base and climbed to 4,000 feet and circled over the field and contacted the tower for instructions. I was asked if we had tools aboard with which to salve the ball turret. We did not have any, so the tower to me to stand by and Colonel Hall came up in an A-20 with a tool kit on a rope and tried to lower it to us. The bag broke before we were able to get it. He then returned to the base and got a longer rope and more tools. He lowered the tools to us and the engineer got them through the radio hatch. We then flew out to the channel and dropped the ball turret, returned to the field and made a crash landing on the runway."
The Engineering Officer, Capt Edgar C. Kurner added the following: "Investigation revealed shaft had sheared on retracting motor clutch housing. Unsatisfactory Report has been submitted on design of landing gear motor shaft. Damage to aircraft was negligible."
Lt. Col. Conway S. Hall (534th BS C.O.) tells how after the first attempt he landed to get a longer rope and an aircraft capable of flying better formation with the B-17. The aircraft he returned in was B-17E #41-9043 "Little Rock-ette". This aircraft was used as the group's auxiliary aircraft, it was stripped of armor and weapons. Without the excess weight, it was quite fast. The aircraft is shown here. The nose and engine nacelles were painted red with a red stripe that runs along the fuselage past the wings and terminates near the waist.
Lt. Col. Hall also tells how he flew in formation 50 feet above and slightly ahead of the "Carolina Queen" while someone else lowered the bag of tools. "I instructed the pilot [Lt. Bond] to keep looking straight ahead during this maneuver and not to look at me. Afterwards, we made sure every aircraft in the squadron had those tools aboard!"
Which aircraft was first flown seems to be in question. Lt. Bond and other sources indicate it was a Douglas A-20 Havoc, but Col. Hall recalled at the 1999 Houston Reunion that it was a Vultee A-35 that he had "liberated". Both aircraft were auxiliary birds at Ridgewell. To his credit these events did take place 56 years ago. I intend to interview him again to gather more of his recollections.
This picture of Conway Hall was taken at the 381st BGMA 1999 Reunion in Houston, Texas.
From Neal Clyman's hometown paper in Bloomfield, Iowa.
...Lt. Col. Hall, Little Rock, Ark., took off in another Fortress with the required tools and a rope to drop them into the hatch of the disabled bomber circling the field. The first try failed because the rope was too short. Sgt. Clyman got hold of it once, but it nearly jerked him out of the "Carolina Queen."
The next time, Hall used a three hundred foot rope and weighted the tools with a sandbag. Clyman, tying himself to his own bomber, hooked the tools while another gunner cut the rope with a knife.
The pilot of the crippled Fortress then flew the plane out over the North sea and the ball turret was dropped, which then permitted the "Carolina Queen," to make a successful crash landing.
"Snagging those tools was just like threading a needle in midair," members of the Fortress crew agreed.
"Mr. And Mrs. Clyman first learned of their son's heroic exploit from a radio broadcast which was also heard by several other Bloomfield acquaintances of the local airman. Accounts of the episode involving Sergeant Clyman have also appeared in several newspapers throughout the nation."
Dropping the Ball Turret in Flight (taken from the B-17 technical orders)
When preparing to bring the B-17 in for an emergency wheels-up landing it is desirable to drop the ball turret in order to minimize damage to the fuselage when it hits the ground.
It is both safer and easier to release only the ball itself, leaving the supporting yoke intact. Only 2 tools--a crescent wrench and a hammer--are needed to do the job. Two men can accomplish it in approximately 20 minutes.
(1) Turn the guns aft and down.
(2) Remove the azimuth gear case by taking out four bolts which hold it.
(3) Remove the safety retaining hooks with a socket wrench if available, or by breaking them off with a hammer.
(4) If there is time, disconnect the electrical plug and the oxygen line.
(5) Drop the turret by removing the twelve yoke connection nuts. The turret may land up on the fire cut-off cam, but a swift kick from the aft side of the ball will dislodge it.
NOTE: If time permits, salvage the computing sight before dropping the turret. Removal of the sight may add approximately 20 minutes to the time, making total time necessary for the operation about 40 minutes.
To remove the sight, disconnect the three flexible drive cables at the left, right and far sides of the sight. Disconnect the electrical plug. Free the sight by removing the sight retaining rod.
Remember these 3 rules for making emergency landings to minimize structural damage:
1. When landing the B-17 with wheels retracted, drop the ball turret.
2. When belly-landing a B-17 in which a chin turret is installed, retract the tailwheel also.
3. With 3/4 flaps down.
The AAF version titled "Better Late Than Never" is quoted here:
51925 USAF - BETTER LATE THAN NEVER - Five hours after the other ships in the group had returned from a bombing mission over Oldenberg, Germany, April 8, 1944, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress "Carolina Queen" pilot[ed] by Lt. Leslie A. Bond of Chickasha, Okla., came sliding home in a flawless belly landing. Unable to lower the ship’s wheels to normal landing position, Lt. Bond was compelled to circle about until what is believed to be the first successful tool-passing job in the ATO was accomplished. Lt. Col. Conway S. Hall of North Little Rock, Ark., deputy group commander, piloted the Fortress from which special tools used to jettison "Carolina Queen’s" ball turret, were passed by cable to a crewman standing in the radio hatch of the latter ship. Patterned after the successful aerial refueling stunts of the old endurance fliers the wartime version was enacted. With tools so unusually provided "Carolina Queen" ball turret was able to be loosened and finally dropped over the English Channel. Lt. Bond returned to base and brought his ship in for a perfect landing, made easier on both pilot and plane by absence of obstructing fuselage straining under turret. Only damage was bent propeller and skinned under-carriage and it will be in the air very shortly.
Actual photos of the Carolina Queen coming in for the belly landing:
Photos of Lt. Col. Hall and the Bond crew on "Carolina Queen's" wing:
Front row (L-R): 1) Lt. Col. Conway S. Hall (534th BS CO, eventual CO of 381st BG - not a crew member), 2) 2nd Lt Leslie A. Bond - pilot, 3) 2nd Lt. Gerald O. Hilton - bombardier, 4) S/Sgt. Anthony A. Caserta - ball turret gunner.
Back row (L-R): 5) S/Sgt Neal V. Clyman - engineer & top turret gunner, 6) S/Sgt. William R. Jones Jr. - radio operator holding a white bag, 7) 2nd Lt. Charles E. Brumback - navigator, 8) Sgt. Robert K. Batchelder - tail gunner, 9) Sgt. Earl Ornduff - right waist gunner, 10) Sgt. A.C. Derrington - left waist gunner, 11) 2nd. Lt. Wilbur M. Mason - co-pilot.