Boeing B-17 G Flying Fortress A- A A+

Boeing B-17 G Flying Fortress, near island Vis        

  • ROLE: Heavy Bomber       
  • MAKE: Boeing B-17G, No. 44-6630   
  • NATIONAL ORIGIN: United States, 340 Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group.     
  • DIMENSIONS: Length = 22.677 m (74,4 ft), interval of the wings = 31.633 m (103,78 ft), weight = 24,948 kg (55 lb).     
  • WEAPONS: 12-13 x 12.7 mm Browning, 7893 kg (17401,12 lb) bombs.       
  • ENGINES: 4 x Wright R-1820-97 of 1217 hp.       
  • SPEED: cruise = 293 km / h, max = 462 km / h.       
  • DATE CRASHED: 6th November 1944       
  • CAUSE: Air defence weapons       
  • LOCATION: Island of Vis - Cape Polivalo.        
  • COORDINATES: 43 ˚ 01.033 'N, 16 ˚ 13.078' E.
  • DIFFICULTY LOCATING: The location is near the coast (about 150 m (492,12 ft), but without the aid of instruments (GPS) positions are hard to find.    
  • Maximum depth: 72 m (236,22 ft).       
  • Minimum depth: 65 m (213,25 ft).         
  • HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE: Exists. The site is within the protected zone. Diving is allowed only through authorized dive centres’.        
  • OTHER: Due to the depth it’s considered as technical diving. Adequate preparation is required.       
  • CURRENT: 4 Mostly weak.       
  • ACCESS: 2 accessible only by boat. The location is about 150 m (492,12 ft) from shore side.·         
  • VISIBILITY: 4 very good, occasionally excellent.       
  • LIVING WORLD: 5 on and around the wreck there are many varieties and species of fish.        
  • KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS: 2 diving category must be qualified for technical diving.


History

When Borut Furlan, Slovenian well-known underwater photographer, announced that Slovenian divers in the sea near the island of Vis found an unspoiled American "flying fortress" Boeing B-17G, the news caused a sensation in diving circles. It is, in fact, the only currently known intact plane from World War II, which was discovered in our waters. But when it was recognised that the plane was located at a depth of 72 metres (236,22 ft), many were disappointed to see that it is unavailable to most of today's recreational divers.



I was lucky that I had the chance to dive twice on the mysterious "flying fortress" whose history is known only by tales from the old fisherman who live in Rukavac, a village on the southern coast of the island. He was still a child in the summer of 1944 when the airfield on Vis started landing Allied heavy bombers.

Turning to the tasks of bombing occupied Europe, they often clashed with the German fighters and heavy anti-aircraft defence, the damaged 4 cylinder engines only hope was landing at the airport Vis. Many planes were so badly damaged that they were not able to land on short airfields at Vis so their crews would parachute and the stricken planes would have fallen into the sea. Today, the excess seabed is rich in the remains of the aircraft and fishing nets are often caught up in some of these residues.

We tried to explore the history of the newly discovered flying fortress. Using today's limitless possibilities of the Internet, we came into contact with the American Association of "Heavy Bombers" which brings together veteran aviators, and explores the history of the war. Our discovery caused great excitement, and after following up a detailed description of our aircraft on the seabed in a short time they found the Bombers crew. One of them, Archer Merre C. Sieling discovered the whole history of our "flying fortress".

The all-new, shiny bomber Boeing B-17G serial number 44-6630 arrived at the base of Amendola Italy 3rd November 1944. The next day Right-side shooter Sieling flew as a crew member for the one and a half hour flight in the airport zone, to try out the new plane. When Sieling viewed the next task list, he noticed that the same crew where assigned for the combat flight for 6th November 1944. The plane was so new that in addition to the U.S. national insignia symbols of the Group and Squadron to which he belonged had also been painted on the hull. The task that awaited them on the 6th was the November bombing of Vienna.

According to the memory of Sieling Emerson and the pilots, they did it. The eleven crewmen who flew on that fateful flight were:

  • Pilot: Irving G. Emerson
  • Co-pilot: Ernest N. Vienneau
  • Navigator: Bruce MacFarland
  • Bomber: unknown, borrowed from the other crew
  • Shooter, the upper dome: John O. Young
  • Radio operator: Robert Shanayda
  • Shooter, Lower Dome: unknown, borrowed from the other crew
  • Right-side shooter: Merre Sieling
  • The left side shooter: Rhoda Vernon
  • Shooter, tail turret: Billie Clayton
  • Photographer: unknown traveller


Acceded formations of bombers flying to the target passed peacefully. Vienna was completely covered by clouds and the formation of leaders led them to the backup target - Maribor. Maribor was a significant railway junction and, therefore, was well defended by anti-aircraft defense. In the sky above objectives were met by dense clouds of explosions decorated by anti-aircraft defences.

Shortly after dropping the bombs, the plane got hit. It caused a sustaining damage to the hydraulic system, bomb doors to remain open and the left wheel was pulled out of the undercarriage. Engine number three stopped and the arms of the propeller turned so it provided less air resistance. The number two engine began losing oil and it soon had to be stopped. The blast had also seriously wounded co-pilot Ernest Vienneau.



With only two right engines, their only goal was to return by the shortest route to the base. The pilot called Sielinga over the intercom to help the injured co-pilot. Sieling, with great difficulty, moved to the front of the aircraft, crossing the open bomb door space, over a narrow metal bridge.

When he got to the cockpit, he pulled the injured co-pilot from his seat. It was not until he saw that Vienneau was mortally wounded he realised that he would not survive his injuries. The plane lost altitude and the pilot requested a course towards the nearest airfield. The Navigator proposed the island of Vis. On the way to the destination, the third motor stopped as well so the crew did everything possible to get rid of excess cargo and facilitate flight.

When the pilot asked the crew whether they wanted to jump, they all refused because of the injured Co-Pilot. When they got to the island of Vis, Sieling again moved to the rear of the aircraft over the open Bomb doors and settled in the radio booth. There all the crew squeezed together waiting for their fate of an emergency landing. When they started the decent course to Vis airport access road, red signal rockets were fired telling the stricken Bomber to - "Go Around" - a sign that the runway was in use and the order that they should make a circumnavigate the airport.

With one chassis leg folded and only one engine running the heavy bomber slowly started to shift. In the midst of veering off to the left the engines available created a deathly silence the only sound that could be heard was that of the air which circulated around the wings. There was no choice – the Bomber had to be immediately put down!

They came over the shore in a steep pitch and the pilot tried to immediately straighten the plane to make a sea surface landing. In the radio booth, all the crew snugged together lessen the blow on impact. The landing on the quiet sea surface was slight, with no major shocks.

When the plane stopped, Sieling opened the top cover of the cab and pulled himself through the hole in the back of the plane. He then helped drag the rest of the crew out of the aircraft. To his right was a rubber raft that was torn up, probably damaged by a piece of a shell burst and could not be inflated. Even so they boarded the raft and moved away from the plane, which has continued to float for about twenty minutes.

The Bomber eventually sank near the coast taking the body of their co-pilot. Soon they approached the fishermen and a British patrol boat which rescued the crew and transported them to the island. A day or two later the crew of an American plane flew for Amendola, Italy where they continued to perform their military duties.

Condition of the wreck and diving

The Boeing B-17G now lies on a flat sandy bottom at a depth of 72 metres (236,22 ft). A depth that requires a very demanding technical dive and it calls for adequate preparation and security measures. Position of the sinking is about 150 metres (492,12 ft) from Cape Polivalo on the southern coast of the island, at the exit of the Bay of Rukavac.



The area is open to the south, so southern and eastern winds here create large waves tha­­t prevent diving. As the plane is not very elevated from the seabed, it is very difficult to find even with a more precise graphical depth finder. Anchoring is also a problem due to large depths and strong currents. But once you dive on the exact location and view the plane, your effort will be rewarded many times over.

Already at a depth of about 40 to 45 metres you can see the outline of a large bomber in these clear waters. The Aircraft is resting on its left foot landing gear and tail wheel, while the right wing is lying on the sand. The nose was crushed when it struck the seabed, but the cockpit and the rest of the craft are completely intact. This is the most exciting part of the airplane.

The side cockpit windows are open and the glass from the ceiling window is missing. Through these openings we can clearly see the interior - the instrument panel, the various levers and knobs, steering "wheels", the pilot and co-pilot seats. Everything is in place as at the time the plane sank. The cockpit is missing a few instruments – we do not know whether it was knocked out of the reservoir, or it has been stolen by some careless diver.

The dorsal turret with machine guns, all the shells and covered flexi glass have become completely opaque. Behind her on the trunk are two side storage for rubber rafts, which are automatically opened for landing on water. Now they are opened and the lids are missing. Around them constantly swims different flock of fishes. Diving on the tail you come to the opening of the radio cabin. Browning machine gun 12.7 mm (0,5”), which was once handled by the radio operator stand is on it.

Further past the tail to the side window is a stand for the machine gun, but none were fitted. They must have been rejected by the crew in order to facilitate the aircraft. At the tail of the plane is a dome with two machine guns. The side window was knocked out and through the hole you can see inside it - hindsight and machine guns control knobs. Sheltered under the wing is a large grouper, which came before the divers, so slowly and cautiously it takes refuge in the shadow of the wings.

In the squashed nose section you may see two machine guns which were handled by the navigator and bomber and in the sand lies the remain parts of a parachute. Motors with propellers on the wings are completely covered with algae and shells that hang like bunches of grapes. Below the left wing we see the big wheel chassis, half immersed in a layer of sand, and shells of dead mussels.

Expeditions will be unforgettable to divers; it is a shame that the down time for divers on open-circuit breathing, because of the depth, is limited to only ten to fifteen minutes. Of course, there are advantages to rebreathe divers whose normal methods give much more time on the wreck.

NOTE: B-17 is considered a war grave and is located in a protected area therefore permitted diving only through authorized dive centres, Vis has a few centres which sanction this. It is strictly forbidden extraction of objects that can be found in or around the plane.

Author of text and photos: Danijel Frka

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