Did you hear the one about the B-17 "Ghost Bomber" that landed itself as World War II raged in the European theater?
The American airplane touched down at an Allied base in Cortonburg, Belgium, with no one aboard!
On November 23, 1944, a Royal Air Force unit saw the 35,000-pound U.S. Army Air Forces Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber as it headed straight toward three of their anti-aircraft gun positions at high speed. It looked like the plane was in trouble and would plow directly into them.
The landing gear were down. Observers figured that the aircraft was damaged and maybe some crew members were wounded. The big bird was plummeting from the sky. The soldiers on the ground braced for the impending impact.
The B-17G Flying Fortress grazed the three anti-aircraft guns and landed with enough force to bounce and tilt sideways. One wing smashed into the earth, breaking off its propellers and hurling them into the air.
The bomber came to rest about 100 feet away from the gun position. The three undamaged engines on the aircraft were still running and quite loud. Witnesses waited expectantly for crew members to open a door and clamber out - but that didn't happen.
There had been no emergency distress call before the B-17 showed up. After some time passed with no occupants emerging from the crashed plane, onlookers knew something was amiss.
After approximately 20 minutes, a very nervous and highly cautious British Major, John V. Crisp, approached the bomber for a closer look. He saw no human movement or any sign of life. The major was not an airman so it took him a bit of searching outside the plane to find the doorway.
The B-17's entry hatch was located below the fuselage. With some dread of what he might find inside (including mangled bodies, some alive, some dead), he entered the still-running plane.
Major Crisp found no bodies, dead or alive. He found signs of recent occupation: half-eaten chocolate bars! The British officer noted that "evidence of fairly recent occupation was everywhere."
Also significant was Crisp's discovery that there were twelve unused parachute packs aboard.
As the only investigator of the mysterious ghost plane searched through the bomber and into the cockpit, he saw nothing suspicious - other than the complete absence of humans. Major Crisp wondered how the plane piloted and landed itself?
Despite his lack of aviation experience, Major Crisp managed to turn off the operational engines. He found some scribbled notes in the plane's log, including one that read simply "Bad Flak."
The creepy event became known as the "Phantom Fortress" incident.
Oddly, the ghost bomber had no name. Once superior officers were notified of the unsettling episode, they called for a thorough inquiry.
Investigators who arrived on the scene found the plane's serial number. Commanders of the 8th Air Force used it to identify the plane as belonging to the 91st Bomber Group, a group of B-17Gs that operated out of East Anglia, England.
The plane had departed with its crew. So where were they?
Another clue surfaced: the cover to the Sperry bombsite was removed. This was standard procedure when a fighter plane was making a bombing run.
In time, the ten crew members were located at an airbase in Belgium. All were very much alive and in good health.
According to the crew, the bomb rack had developed a technical problem. When they veered off from the main group to fix the matter, enemy fire further damaged the rack and knocked out one of the planes' engines.
During the German air attack, the wounded B-17's bomb bay took a direct hit. For reasons still unknown, the impact didn't trigger the onboard arsenal. A 4,000-pound bomb load was typical for long missions. The pilot, Lieutenant Harold R. DeBolt said:
"I'll be darned if I know why the bombs didn't explode."
At that point, the crew made for England. When a second engine started to fail, Lt. DeBolt realized the crippled bomber wouldn't make it across the Channel and redirected to Brussels, Belgium. En route, DeBolt ordered his compatriots to ditch all loose equipment and supplies to lighten the load and keep the B-17 aloft.
The Phantom continued to flounder so DeBolt put the plane on autopilot and bailed out after the rest of his crew near Brussels. The men watched their plane fly away until a dense cloud obscured their view.
The Phantom Fortress proceeded on half engine power and crash-landed itself miles from where its crew jumped out.
Subsequent official investigations shed doubt on the crew's story. For one thing, Major Crisp and the ground soldiers noted no flak damage from enemy fire, as reported.
Then, there was the matter of the unused parachutes. How did the jumpers make it back to earth safely? The official report never answered this question.
Also unresolved was the Phantom’s unprecedented, unmanned crash landing. The best guess was dumb luck:
"The bomber, losing altitude at the right speed and angle for a descent, happened to crash land in a way as only such a legendarily sturdy bomber could theoretically do."
The auto-piloted landing of the Phantom Flying Fortress remains an intriguing and legendary mystery in the annals of aviation history to this day.