The mysterious incident of the plane that flew itself

When a B-17, like this one, landed perfectly at an RAF airbase in Belgium, there was no one aboard.

Believe it or not, there were several B-17s flying themselves in WWII due to one odd circumstance or another.

I was recently encouraged to watch an eerie film starring Orson Welles, Mr. Arkadin.  This odd movie that had somehow escaped my attention earlier in life opens with big drama, a small plane is moving determinedly, but low in the air, over a beach.  It is then that the voiceover artist announces that the plane is flying itself, that no one is on board, including a pilot.

As I was pondering just this scenario that I had recently viewed, imagine my surprise, when I noticed a similar incident from the historical past whiz by in my newsfeed.  I scrolled back to see if I had read the headline correctly.

In November of 1944, an RAF airbase crew near Liege, Belgium saw a B-17 bomber coming into their base position.  It was a three-point landing but a little clumsy, with a wing dragging into the earth.  The wheels were down and locked, it bounced a few times, and came rolling to a stop.  Three of the props were still whirling.

When RAF Major John V. Crisp and his crew went aboard to check out the plane that had made the rough landing, they found no one aboard.  In fact parachutes, still packed, were unused.  Crisp stopped the running engines and continued to look around.  He found the bomber’s log and in the open book the last entry was “Bad Flak.”

There were some fur-collared flying jackets scattered about, and some candy bar wrappers and crumbs were nearby.

Crisp and crew made note of the phantom flier’s serial number and checked to find the crew was safe, back at their base in England.   They had been picked up by British infantrymen.  The explanation was this:  The B-17 Flying Fortress had taken a direct hit to the bomb bay while on a mission from Brussels, Belgium to hit Merseburg, Germany’s oil targets. 

American pilot, Harold R. DeBolt, was astonished that the plane would still fly.  They were hit twice by German anti-aircraft fire and there was a giant flash of light in the bomb bay.  When the plane kept functioning, DeBolt ordered his men to start tossing things inside the craft to lighten the load.  He then ordered them to bail, and they did.

DeBolt remained in the plane a few moments deciding what to do next.  He knew the injured plane could not cross the English Channel.  He headed it toward Belgium and put it on automatic pilot.  He then jumped himself.

There were many questions about the incident and the US 8th Air Force Service Command sent a crew to investigate.  The bailers had reported that when they jumped there were only two working engines.  The RAF witnesses on the ground said that three were running when it landed. 

Crisp had also reported that the plane was not that badly damaged, but it was determined that he and his investigators had not been trained well enough to accurately determine sources of damage:  was it from enemy air fire, or was it from a rough landing?

Many mysteries still remain.  Why were there a correct number of packed chutes still on board the plane?  The only answer offered was that the plane possibly carried spare sets of chutes.

Believe it or not, there were several B-17s flying themselves in WWII due to one odd circumstance or another—there were many odd circumstances in that war.

The plane originally manned by Harold R DeBolt and his crew is the only one that landed itself, fairly well intact.

A paper filed about the incident says: Salvaged-Lt. Harold R. DeBolt-9 Crewmen Returned to Duty.

Sara Marie Hogg is the author of It Rises from the Pee Dee. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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  • Jackie Taylor Zortman

    That’s an astounding bit of information, Caleb. I’ve shared this with my son who loves reading about WWII.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      It is a fascinating piece of history, Jackie. Sara can come up with some strange, bizarre, and wonderful blogs for every Saturday.

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