The B-17 was a legendary aircraft among aircrews during World War II. Because of the amount of damage the planes could withstand, they earned the nickname of the Flying Fortress. The extra armor on the Fortress not only protected the plane from enemy fire in battle–if something did go wrong, the B-17 was better-protected in a crash-landing.
December 14, 1942 started out like any other day for Lt. Ealon S. Hocutt. That day, Hocutt had his crew plus Lt. Charles B. Downer’s crew on his plane, as he was ferrying them to Milne Bay. After packing 20 people into B-17 #550, the plane took off in calm weather from Seven Mile Drome and climbed approximately 500 feet when trouble began: the #4 engine went dead. To compromise for the loss of power, Hocutt increased power to the remaining engines only to have the #2 engine cut out, followed by the #1 engine.
The B-17 began to descend rapidly on the single working engine and Hocutt looked for a place to land. He glided over Bootless Bay, touching down on the water at 140 miles per hour. The drag created by the ball turret underneath the fuselage split open the bottom of the plane as it skidded to a halt. All things considered, it was a smooth landing, thanks to Hocutt’s skill at the controls and the good weather.
The crews escaped with just two injured men, one on the head, and the other in the leg. The rest of the crew scrambled to get their injured crewmembers into life rafts before the plane sank, but the touchdown must have damaged the lift raft release; they didn’t inflate on impact or from the inside release hatch. Fortunately, the manual release hatch on the outside of the plane worked just fine. Each life raft carried an injured man as well as a few crewmembers and they safely rowed to shore.
Wary of sharks, Hocutt and the rest of the airmen that didn’t row to shore sat on the B-17’s wings and decided to wait for a friendly ship rather than risk a few-hundred yard swim to dry land. As they sat, something very unusual happened. The plane, which had been sinking, suddenly stopped. In fact, #550 had settled on a coral reef, where it remained for over a year.
As for the men waiting to get off the B-17, Australians at a nearby gun emplacement had seen the incident. They reported it to a rescue boat, which arrived at dusk.
This exciting story can be found in Ken’s Men Against the Empire, Volume I. Order your copy now!