MAS­TER­ING THE B-26

Air & Space Smithsonian - - In the Museum -

THE MARTIN B-26 MA­RAUDER pre­sented chal­lenges to flight stu­dents. The bomber’s high ap­proach and land­ing speeds, com­bined with fre­quent ac­ci­dents, pro­duced anx­i­ety, avoid­ance, and even out­right re­fusal to fly them. “It was a new beast,” re­called Richard Waidelich, a 319th Bom­bard­ment Group copi­lot who flew 34 com­bat mis­sions over south­ern Europe (he died in Fe­bru­ary). “A run­away prop could flip you over.” Says 387th Bom­bard­ment Group com­mand pi­lot David Miller, 90, who flew 58 mis­sions over north­ern Europe: “It de­manded your at­ten­tion. Even some in­struc­tors didn’t know how to fly them.”

Fol­low­ing VE Day, Miller and other pilots in his wing parked their Ma­raud­ers at a Luft­waffe base in Ger­many, re­turn­ing to France by C-47 be­fore em­bark­ing for the States.

Nearly 5,200 B-26s were man­u­fac­tured; ac­cord­ing to An­drew Boehly, cu­ra­tor of col­lec­tions at Tuc­son’s Pima Air & Space Mu­seum, just six sur­vive to­day. “Most fight­ers, light bombers, and medium bombers were scrapped where they ended the war,” he says. “Heavy bombers—b-24s and B-17s—flew ser­vice­men back to the U.S., where these too were even­tu­ally scrapped.”

A few Ma­raud­ers found sec­ond ca­reers as civil­ians. “Sev­eral were con­verted into high-speed ex­ec­u­tive air­craft,” says Boehly, “but these crashed over time. Two B-26s sur­vive to­day only be­cause Air France used them as train­ing air­frames for their [me­chan­ics] school.”

Three oth­ers are from a sin­gle mis­sion—the trans­port of some early pro­duc­tion mod­els to Alaska. Forced down on Cana­dian tun­dra, they stayed pre­served for later re­cov­ery by avi­a­tion en­trepreneurs. (One be­longs to the Fan­tasy of Flight mu­seum in Polk City, Florida.)

The cock­pit and nose of Flak-bait, the sixth (and most il­lus­tri­ous) sur­vivor, is un­der­go­ing a con­ser­va­tion treat­ment at the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum’s Steven F. Ud­var-hazy Cen­ter in Chan­tilly, Vir­ginia (see “Hun­dreds of Holes in Flak-bait,” Apr./may 2015). Flak-bait’s hun­dreds of patched flak holes bear wit­ness to 207 op­er­a­tional mis­sions over Europe—more than any other Amer­i­can air­craft that flew in World War II.

to All­muthen the fol­low­ing April, their new ob­jec­tive was to de­ter­mine if hu­man re­mains from Hun­con­scious were present. Speder and Seel were on site for the ex­pe­di­tion, and they were im­pressed by History Flight’s search pro­to­cols. It was Speder’s first col­lab­o­ra­tion with on-site ar­chae­ol­o­gists. “Search­ing in­fantry sites is dif­fer­ent than air crash sites,” he says. Once an in­fantry site is fi­nally iden­ti­fied, “you don’t have to search that widely for re­mains.” Air crash re­mains, Seel and Speder soon learned, could be ex­ten­sively scat­tered and frag­mented.

The team’s first step was to sweep the en­tire site with hand-held me­tal de­tec­tors. Then Buster was let loose to be­gin his scent-de­tec­tion work. The de­bris field, sprin­kled by fall­out from the det­o­na­tion of one or more of the bombs car­ried by Hun­con­scious, proved ex­ten­sive, nearly a fifth of a square mile. Paul Sch­wim­mer, History Flight’s land surveyor, laid out a sur­vey grid so that the lo­ca­tions of any find­ings could be pre­cisely doc­u­mented. Next, a back­hoe cleared vines, net­tles, and crater de­bris.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion was ac­com­plished in the harsh weather for which the Ar­dennes re­gion is known. “We en­coun­tered rain, fog, ice pel

lets, and snow,” says Noah. “The guys wet-screen­ing the de­bris wore heavy-duty rain gear. I thought wear­ing a leather bomber jacket would do, but I ended up con­tract­ing pneu­mo­nia.”

The team did its most la­bor-in­ten­sive work in four promis­ing patches of ground. The third patch was the spot where the laun­dry mark frag­ment had been found, but field work­ers felt greater an­tic­i­pa­tion in search­ing the fourth patch: the im­pact crater made by the wreck­age of Hun­con­scious. To en­able ex­ca­va­tion of the crater, drainage ditches were built to empty it of wa­ter. Once the crater was dry, Buster alerted nu­mer­ous times on its cen­ter. (The dog sig­nals his de­tec­tion of a tar­get scent by ly­ing down and bark­ing.)

Pro­longed and me­thod­i­cal ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dig­ging and sift­ing can be try­ing, es­pe­cially when weather con­di­tions are aw­ful or re­sults nil. Sch­wim­mer re­calls be­ing part of a team search­ing Palau for the re­mains of B-24 air­men. “Stress and frus­tra­tion nearly caused my brain to flip,” he says.

At All­muthen, though, nei­ther im­pa­tience nor frus­tra­tion in­ter­fered with

A Martin B-26 flies over France dur­ing World War II.

Near the base of a tree, rope marks the fully searched site where re­mains of Sergeant Eric Honey­man were found, along with part of his flight jacket.

History Flight’s fleet also in­cludes a U.S. Navy N2S Stear­man trainer.

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