Published on November 25, 2012
On this date in aviation history, November 25, 1940, the Martin B-26 Marauder made its first flight. A radical design, it was a sleek, bullet-shaped medium bomber that had powerful engines and an extremely small wing. Relying on speed, it was offered to the US Army Air Corps as the ideal solution for tactical bombing. Yet it also proved diabolically difficult to fly, particularly on one engine — the natural result of high wing loading. The aerodynamically optimized design offered its pilots little margin for error. While Martin claimed that the plane was perfectly safe in the hands of experienced skilled pilots, with the pace of pilot training, it was soon put into the hands of new trainees. What followed, predictably, was a disastrous series of crashes that nearly resulted in the cancellation of the aircraft contract and gave rise to the term, “One a day in Tampa Bay”. From this inauspicious start, however, the plane would rise to become one of the most effective bombers in history.
Accidents and Solutions
With intensive twin-engine bomber transition training under way at Tampa, Florida, the US Army Air Corps was losing B-26s and flight crews at an astonishing rate. While the phrase, “One a day…” was overstated, it wasn’t by much. In the worst month, the Air Corps logged 15 crashes in just one 30 day period. The situation got so bad that the pilots took to giving the plane nicknames that highlighted their view of the plane’s deficiencies — “Martin Murderer”, “Flying Coffin”, “Widowmaker”, “B-Dash-Crash” were but a few. In addition, sexist terms were applied to the plane (which was a result of the tradition that planes are referred to by feminine pronouns — as “she”). These derogatory names included, “Flying Prostitute” and “Baltimore Whore”, both names reflecting that the plane was “so fast” and had “no visible means of support”, Baltimore being highlighted as that was where the plane was built.
The situation got so bad that the US Congress held hearings before the Senate Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program. The head of the Glenn L. Martin Company, Glenn Martin himself, was called to testify. He faced no less than Senator (later Vice President and then President!) Harry S. Truman who demanded to know why the wings couldn’t be lengthened for greater stability and safety. Glenn Martin replied with the usual aerodynamic explanations but then ended with the flat statement that anyway, the contract was already awarded so he had no incentive to fix the problem. Sen. Truman, in classic form, leaned forward and noted that the contract could be cancelled then just as well. Glenn Martin went back to Baltimore and immediately had the modifications done.
Operations and Successes
The Martin B-26 Marauder was assigned in large numbers to the 9th Air Force and deployed to England where it flew from dozens of bases against targets in France and Germany. As well, it served in virtually every other theatre of World War II, including being based in North Africa, flying in the Pacific and with multiple other air forces, including the RAF and Free French forces. Still, it was in Europe in the hands of the USAAF that the Marauder had its finest hour, facing the intensive and deadly Luftwaffe air defenses, including the Luftwaffe’s expert anti-aircraft artillery units that fields the 88 mm guns that were both highly accurate and well manned.
At first, the 9th AF crews followed USAAC/USAAF policy and flew at low altitudes on their raids into France. The idea was that from lower altitude, the bombers could target tactical targets with near pinpoint accuracy. Instead, what it meant was that the Luftwaffe flak was even more accurate and deadly. The B-26 bomb groups suffered extraordinary casualties. In some units, as many as half of the planes were shot out of the sky in just their first few weeks of combat. After that, an evaluation of tactics revealed that higher altitudes meant higher survivability and losses dropped dramatically. The small bullet-shaped plane with its tiny wings proved that much harder to hit than the B-17s and B-24s that flew daylight missions. It was simply a question of the size of the plane — the larger the plane, the more flak shrapnel it would collect on a typical mission.
At the end of the war, the final evaluation reports were clear — the Martin B-26 Marauder, despite its terrible training record, had proven to be the most effective, most survivable plane of the war. If pilots could master it in training, they had the best possible chance of surviving their full tour at war. The speed and small size of the Marauders made them a difficult target for the Luftwaffe. In the end, that proved to be the tactical trump card that helped prepared the way for the landings at D-Day.
One More Bit of Aviation History
After World War II, despite the bombers stellar combat record, it was retired from the USAAF. Thousands of the planes were scrapped and went to the smelters. Other aircraft, like the Douglas A-26 Invader, were preserved in USAAF and later USAF inventories where the tactically-focused medium bomber concept continued to prove its worth. Whereas the Martin B-26 Marauder had seen the end of its operational days, the last Douglas A-26 Invaders (renamed B-26s by the early 1950s) were retired only after the Vietnam War, fully 30 years later. One wonders just how well the Martin B-26 Marauder would have fared had it been kept in inventory into the Korean War. Quite likely, it would have proven to be the workhorse of Korean War tactical bombing.
Today’s Aviation Trivia Question
The nose of the Martin B-26 Marauder “Flak Bait” is on display at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC. Why is that plane featured there and what was its claim to fame?