Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A Lesson From World War II Aviation History As A Metaphor For Life (Guy Friendly Post! Nothing in here about my adorable chubby cheeked toddler, herbs, or healthy desserts!)

Have you ever heard of the Memphis Belle? She was a B-17 bomber plane from early days of World War II European bombing missions. She's notable because her crew did what seemed impossible: they completed 25 missions and they all survived.

OK, that's cool, you're thinking. Flying bombing missions into Europe is dangerous stuff. That's amazing that they all survived together. Oh, but when you actually find out why it was so dangerous, that is when you begin to truly appreciate how remarkable the crew of the Memphis Belle were.

See, in the early days of bombing campaigns in Europe, being on a bomber crew was almost a matter of when you would be killed, not if you would be killed. B-17's were flying from Britain into Germany unescorted, meaning the bombers would fly in together in tight formation without any fighter planes to fend off the German air force (Luftwaffe). The Luftwaffe was waging a pretty successful bombing campaign against Britain's manufacturing centers (which is why many children were sent to the countryside like you see in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and Bedknobs and Broomsticks), and they never sent any bomber on a mission without a fighter escort. The Messerscmitt B-109 and B-110 fighters were relatively agile planes and when a pack of them found a formation of big, heavy unwieldy bomber planes, it was only too easy to pick them off. They were basically sitting ducks. Fish in a barrel. This was quite obviously a big problem.

So what did the aircraft powers-that-be do? They added more guns! Lots and lots and lots and LOTS of guns. They added so many guns that the B-17 became known as "The Flying Fortress". The idea was that with the fighters flying in tight formation with a whole lot of .50 caliber machine guns would create a crossfire that would fend off the enemy, allow the bombers to fly in and bomb German factories and then fly back to base. It sounded so good on paper.

Unfortunately, hitting a smaller, fast moving German Me-109 from a turret inside an airborne fortress proved to be extremely difficult, whereas hitting a gigantic, slow moving B-17 while zipping around the skies in said Luftwaffe fighter proved to be really easy. Bomber casualties kept mounting, many of them crewed by teenagers on their very first bombing mission. It was in this environment that the Memphis Belle miraculously completed 25 missions without losing a single man. If you have any ancestors who were killed during the first part of WWII flying bombing missions in Europe, this is why.

Obviously, something had to be done- and it couldn't be adding more guns since that wasn't working. It became apparent that the US Army Air Force was going to have to take a lesson from the Luftwaffe and get escorts for their bombers. You'd think they'd have gotten a clue sooner, before the horrendous losses of bomber crews began rising, but in their defense, extensive use of aircraft in a war was very new. The last war America had fought just over twenty years earlier was still using cavalry horses. I think they were hoping guns would be enough because USAAF at the time simply didn't have the range to fly to and from Germany. They could escort only part way at best. But it was becoming apparent that America would have to make a fighter that could go the distance. This was a time when an Allied victory seemed uncertain. It was scary. A lot of people were giving their all to prevent a psychopath from taking over the world and it was unsure whether that would be enough.

After some development work, the P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt rolled off the factories and hit the skies. These were newly equipped with special drop tanks to allow them to fly greater distances and proved to be successful in defending the bombers on their missions. An even better fighter, the P-51 Mustang followed soon after and America was finally able to start really contributing to the Allied strategic bombing campaigns. By this time, it was 1944 and as you know, victory wasn't too far off because the USAAF was finally using the right tools in the right way.

I think life is a lot like this. We're faced with a big, seemingly insurmountable problem. We keep trying things that sound good on paper,  but don't work well in practice. Often the solution is something we want to run away from rather than towards and it requires a lot of hard work and growth on our part. But once we start utilizing the right resources in the right way, success can be ours, even relatively quickly.

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