In Their Own Voices: B-17s in IFR

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Last spring, I bought a Kindle e-reader from Amazon. It is a cursed thing. Why, at the mere push of a button and for $10, you can instantly have any of hundreds of thousands of titles in about 30 seconds. I've been pushing the button. A lot. I was once a voracious reader of books and now I am again—and also out about $50 a month.

One effect of owning a Kindle is that you are very likely to read books you would otherwise not have sought out. Two examples for me are Half A Wing, Three Engines and a Prayer by Brian O'Neill and First Light: The True Story of the Boy Who Became a Man in the War Torn Skies Above Britain by Geoffrey Wellum. Now if I had seen either of these titles in a print ad on the remainder shelf, I'd have immediately dismissed them as poorly written remembrances of which there are hundreds. The titles alone are wordy, amateurish and off-putting. But the books certainly aren't.

The thing about a Kindle is that you can download a sample chapter and take a test drive. Both of these titles proved more than worthy of buying. O'Neill's Three Engines deals in detail with the 8th Air Force's European bombing campaign beginning in late 1942. It's a riveting story, but while reading it, I found myself wondering how these pilots—most of them with fewer than 300 hours—managed to navigate four-engine bombers through the notoriously bad East Anglian weather. They were routinely dispatched and recovered in weather most of wouldn't dream of flying in, with only rudimentary navaids, crude radar and minimal instruments.

Wouldn't it be fascinating to hear some of these pilots tell the tale in their own words? That's what my colleague Jeff Van West did in this week's podcast, which is worth a listen. His interview with B-17 pilot Jim Nolan fills in these blanks, as does an additional interview with an airline pilot who flew the line during the immediate post-war years. It's a privilege to hear these guys tell their stories in their own voices.

Of the two books mentioned here, the one I found utterly gripping was Wellum's First Light. The product of a proper British education, Wellum is a good writer, witty and commanding of detail. Further, the period between May and September 1940 is considered by many to be the zenith of fighter-on-fighter aerial combat. Wellum got through that and another year of war over Europe before he was 19. How could it not make a compelling story?

Comments (14)

I completely agree with your comments about 'First Light'. Amazing how he captured his feelings so many years after the events described. It has an honored place on my aviation bookshelf alongside favorites by Gann, St. Ex, Bach, Lindbergh, etc. Any more recommendations?

Posted by: David Looper | December 15, 2009 1:32 PM    Report this comment

One other, actually: Dumb But Lucky: Confessions of a P-51 Fighter Pilot in World War II, by Richard K. Curtis. It has much in common with Wellum's experience. Wellum was snatched from intermediate training and posted directly to a Spitfire squadron in the middle of Dunkerque. His CO said "I have no time for you," pointed at a Spitfire and said go learn how to fly it. Don't dare break it. (He did.) Curtis was similarly posted to a P-51 unit, having bypassed stateside training. Like Wellum,he learned the Mustang OJT style. Many others sent to war without advanced training didn't survive the experience.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 15, 2009 8:19 PM    Report this comment


I was 25 and one of the old guys agewise when posted to RVN. Most of my fellow Warrant Officer pilots were 18 - 19 at that time, fresh out of flight school, as was I. We flew in all kinds of WX and conditions, and I think pretty much well considering how many hours we flew everyday. We didn't have "full instrument" tickets back then, only "tactical tickets" which we learned at Ft. Rucker. Enough to pretty much keep the dirty side down was about it. I have some idea for what it was like for my WWII comrades flying back then. On my last flight to go back to the world I flew a Huey down to Nha Trang to drop it off for heavy maintenance and caught a C-130 hop to Saigon for the "freedom" bird back home. Hope this finds you, yours and the AvWeb staff well and happy. Merry Christmas to all, Doc

Posted by: John Willingham | December 16, 2009 2:20 AM    Report this comment

'First Light' is one of the best aviation books ever written. It not only puts you in the cockpit, but also in his mind and body. You just can't put it down till you finish it and then you want to read it again! It's facinating.
Two other super books are 'My Secret War' by Richard Drury(if you're lucky enuf to find it). He puts you "in" the Skyraider(Sandys) in Laos. Riveting and true. And 'A Dawn Like Thunder' by Robert Mrazek. The true story of "both" sections of Torpedo Squadron Eight during the Battle of Midway. You can't put this one down either, because you become a part of it, whether in the air, on the carrier 'Hornet' or on the ground.

Posted by: Nelson Eskey | December 16, 2009 8:16 AM    Report this comment

I don't know why "First Light" isn't better known on this side of the pond. I was lucky enough to stumble upon it and buy it while visiting Duxford. Absolutely outstanding book. I couldn't put it down. Along with the incredible flying tales, it gives you an idea of what it must have felt like to live in Britain when "Britain stood alone."

Posted by: DOUGLAS GARROU | December 16, 2009 9:21 AM    Report this comment

Strangely enough, I was also recently wondering about how they got all those B-17s up and down in IMC. Fortunately, I am a friend of Dick Johnson, a former B-17 pilot and author of the book "Twenty Five Milk Runs (And a few Others)", and had the opportunity to ask him that very question just a few weeks ago. Apparently each plane took off independently, climbed at exactly 500 feet-per-minute, and flew 3-minute legs followed by 90-degree left turns until they broke out on top and joined up in formation. Since many airfields were close by, they were also launching planes so it was necessary to keep these "climbing boxes" tight to avoid conflict with other groups. On the rare occasions when they had to fly into clouds as a formation, the procedure was to stay close enough to see the other planes! For enroute navigation, there were a few planes in the formation that had radar and everybody formed and bombed on them. This all sounds pretty scary to me considering the overall inexperience of these crews and Dick confirmed that it was - and mid-air collisions did happen occasionally.

BTW, Dick is still an active pilot so I recently asked the EAA folks who coordinate the schedule for "Aluminum Overcast" if they were interested in the publicity involved in putting a "real" B-17 pilot back in the cockpit. They weren't and quoted FAA rules and lawyer-speak as explanation. What a shame to miss this unique opportunity.

Posted by: Glen Coombs | December 16, 2009 4:04 PM    Report this comment

having read books on the B-17 for the last 35 years, may I humbly recommend "Flying Forts" by Martin Caiden. I would put up with any book ever written regarding B-17's. Merry Christmas to all!!

Posted by: john mcenaney | December 16, 2009 6:42 PM    Report this comment

Posted for Mike Meister by Paul Bertorelli

I was pleased to see you mention Brian's book "Half a Wing..". It is truly an excellent book about the 8th AF and the 303rd Bomb Group. I had the good fortune of personally knowing Merlin Miller who was the tail gunner in Bob Hullar's crew. He and Brian gave a talk at the National Museum of the USAF in 1995 regarding the book which was originally published in the early 1990s.

Merlin and I would visit regularly and talk about the missions described in the book. One day, during a discussion, it hit me that Merlin did not have to read to book to discuss the missions - he lived them! I have the utmost respect for Merlin and men like him who faced incredible danger and harsh conditions so that we might enjoy the freedoms we have today. Sadly Merlin passed on a few years ago but his memory and deeds still live on with me and my family.

Best regards, Mike Meister

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 17, 2009 4:42 AM    Report this comment

Moved from another thread:

His memory and the memory of all his brothers in army lives on in those of us who remember them and their sacrifice.

Thank you all veterans!

Mike Hand

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | December 17, 2009 4:47 AM    Report this comment

Paul, another less known but wonderful British wartime book is the "The Last Enemy" by Richard Hillary. He was an Oxford educated Spitfire pilot who was shot down and horribly burned during the Battle of Britain. He wrote lyrically and philosophically about his life before and after the accident. Although severly handicapped, he returned to active flying duty but was tragically killed several months later. A classic.

Posted by: Peter Millard | December 17, 2009 7:42 AM    Report this comment

Wholly agree about 'First Light' - a terrific book. Only slight reservation is that it was written so long after the events described (1980s, I think?).

The problem with 'The Last Enemy' is that Hillary fictionalized the memoir without saying so (biographies of Hillary have pointed this out). So you're not sure which bits are true.
I often used to compete in single venue car rallies at Charterhall (a former RAF airfield in the Scottish borders), and never went there without thinking of Richard Hillary, who died in a training accident there.

Posted by: Ceri Reid | December 17, 2009 12:15 PM    Report this comment

If you like books by B-17 pilots, especially those who flew in combat in 1943, I would be remiss if I did not also mention "Staying Alive" by Major Carl Fyler, who flew 24 and a half missions with the 303rd HBG, and spent the rest of the European conflict at Stalag Luft 1. He covered his experience from December of 1941 through VJ day, and did not hold back on the grim parts.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | December 17, 2009 1:26 PM    Report this comment

First Light (Abridged Nonfiction) is available in audiobook format from the iTunes Store for $9.95. Audiobook is 2 hr 43 min.

Posted by: Ian Herron | December 17, 2009 10:47 PM    Report this comment

I've read "Half a Wing, Three Engines...", great book - look forward to finding "First Light" now. Such an incredible era. Unfortunately it seems that what we gain in technology comes at the cost of character and skill. Now it seems we are on the path of developing "aircraft system managers" who are basically along for the ride as opposed to "pilots" who were intimately connected to the success or failure of their assigned missions.

Posted by: james esper | December 23, 2009 10:41 AM    Report this comment

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