The B-17 is truly an amazing wreck — it is, without a doubt, the largest and most-intact airplane I have ever dove.
B-17 Flying Fortress
First, a little bit about the B-17 as an airplane. The B-17 was a four-engine “heavy bomber” developed in the 1930s and primarily used by the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) during daylight bombing raids in WW II against Germany.
There is an interesting book The Bomber Mafia by Malcom Gladwell. The book details how a group of US military strategists had the idea that if you could perform precision bombing from high altitudes you could fly above anti-aircraft weapons and only bomb targets that were of strategic value and save innocent lives. A brilliant scientist developed the “Norden bombsight” to allow this precision bombing and it was truly and engineering marvel. There was only one problem: cloud cover. This “precision bombing” approach ran counter to the “scorched earth” approach led by General Curtis LeMay. If you are interested in military history, I recommend the book.
The interesting aspect is that the B-17 contained one of these highly complex (at the time) precision Norden bomb sights in the front of the airplane. I looked specifically for it on the dive but couldn’t find it.
The B-17 dropped more bombs during WW II than any other airplane. It was relatively fast, high-flying, and had a ton of defensive weapons and was known as being a “tough” aircraft — hence the nickname “Flying Fortress.” The aircraft was powered by four Pratt & Whitney R-1690 Hornet radial engines and each produced 750hp.
The B-17 had a large arsenal of guns. It contained 13 x 50 cal M2 Browing machine guns across 9 different locations:
- 2 in the front turret
- 2 on the upper turret
- 2 in the belly turrent
- 2 in the tail
- 1 in the radio compartment
- 2 on the sides of the nose (1 on each side)
- 2 staggered on the waist
It was capable of carrying up to 17,600 pounds of bombs combined internal and external. Flying Fortress indeed.
The wreck is the largest and most intact airplane that I have ever dived that is an actual wreck and not something that was purposefully sank. The history behind this specific airplane is also interesting.
The team that found this wreck ended up getting in touch with one of the surviving crew members to get a lot of the history of what happened. This airplane was basically straight off the assembly line and had arrived at the Amendola air base in Italy on 3 November 1944 and they conducted a test flight the following day and it was scheduled for the first combat flight mission on 6 November. The airplane was so new that it only had the US markings and nothing about the group or squadron or anything else.
They left for Vienna on the 6th but when they arrived it was covered in clouds which would negatively impact the ability to conduct high-altitude bombing (see note above about the Norden bombsight). They then diverted to the secondary target of Maribor which had a significant anti-aircraft defense system since it was a strategic railway junction.
After the B-17 crew dropped their bombs, they got shelled and the hydraulic system was damaged, the bomb bay door stuck open, and the left landing gear remained down. Also, one of the engines stopped and another had enough oil loss that they had to shut it down.
The crew started to high-tail it back to the base with only two engines working. During this time, the co-pilot had been badly injured and was not going to make it back alive. The aircraft was losing altitude and they diverted to the closest airfield — Vis, Croatia. At this point, another engine stopped leaving them with only one engine and they started to throw out everything they possibly could to reduce weight.
As they approached the airfield, they had to “go around” because the runway was busy with other landings. At this point, the only remaining engine stopped and they had to land somewhere as they were gliding and losing altitude quickly. Luckily, the sea was calm and the pilot was able to have a soft landing.
Instead of parachuting out, the crew had chosen to stick with the airplane and their pilot and mortally wounded co-pilot. Everybody managed to get out but the co-pilot went down with the airplane as it quickly sank to the bottom. After the plane was located and identified, a team of expert divers retrieved the body of the co-pilot and sent the remains home.
Diving the wreck
It is very close to the shoreline (~ 500 feet) and many people do their deco by swimming to the cliff and then slowly ascending up the slope.
I did two dives on the wreck and decided both times to do my deco on the line. I was alone on the first dive and calculated that it would be safer/easier even if less enjoyable than doing deco on the reef. The second dive was with Alesh and he was diving open circuit with limited gas supply; therefore, he would start his ascent before me. If we were both going up the line, it would be easier to assist if either one of us had an issue.
As I mentioned above, the wreck is very intact. The visibility on both dives was relatively limited so it was hard to get any photos from a far distance so I mainly concentrated on photographing interesting details. On both dives, I had about 20-25 minutes on the wreck and about an hour of deco and my runtimes were both about 1 hr 45 minutes.
On the second dive with Alesh, I gave him a couple Keldan 8x lights to help illuminate the airplane while I took pictures. I’ll include some of those in the Photos section.
As a reference, I’ve included the diagram from the Treasures of the Adriatic below:
In addition, similar to the B-24 that I posted about, Becky Kagan Schott built an amazing photogrammetry model of the B-17 that is a great reference:
The first photos will be of specific details and then I’ll include a gallery of the photos I took of Alesh on the wreck with the off-board lighting.
The Bomber Mafia by Malcom Gladwell
Treasures of the Adriatic book