1946. What preceded the crash

B17 n.43-39338B-17G “Flying Fortress”, serial number 43-39338, in service with the European Air Transport Service (EATS), left its home base in Wiesbaden, Germany in the early afternoon of October 30, bound for Capodichino, (Naples), slightly over 5 hours flight away.

 

It carried eight crewmen and one passenger :

Colonel Ford L. Fair (Command Pilot) >

Colonel Hudson H. Upham (Command Pilot) >

Missing Air Crew ReportMajor Lawrence L. Cobb (Co-pilot) >

2nd Lt. Alfred D. Ramirez (Navigator) >

M/Sgt John E. Gilbert (Engineer) >

S/Sgt William A. Hilton (Asst. Engineer) >

S/Sgt Zoltan J. Dobovich (Radio Operator) >

T/Sgt William S. Cassell (Asst. Radio Operator) >

 

The darkness of the winter evening and low clouds required instrument flight and the plane landed safely. Its successive destination was scheduled to be Bovingdon, England, a military airport to the southwest of London, with a departure planned for the early hours of November 1.

Both Col Fair and Col. Upham were Command Pilots and experienced weather pilots. They requested a weather report from Capodichino AA Base weather station in the afternoon of October 31 and received the following: “A low pressure centered in the Tyrrenian Sea is causing overrunning warm moist unstable air just North of point of departure with severe thunderstorm activity between Rome and Poretta (Bastia, Corsica).” Further information was given as: “a cold front to the West of Capodichino, in the Tyrrenian sea, nearly on Sardinia, precludes a flight to the West of Sardinia then North to Istres.” Information was given that the weather from Poretta to Istres and North to Bovingdon was not prohibitive for flight. At 23.30 Italian local time October 31 1946, the actual briefing for the flight occurred with M/Sgt Kable, the forecaster on duty at that time. The weather picture given earlier in the day had materialized as predicted. The presence of severe thunderstorms over the Tyrrenian Sea and the adjacent Italian mainland had been verified by a debriefing of two arriving pilots who announced that the route was covered with heavy rain showers, turbulence and much lightning.

The response of the B-17 pilots to these reports by arriving pilots was that, due to the long-distance aspect of their flight, it was believed they could climb to the comparative safety of 15,000 feet MSL whereas due to the short distance of the Rome – Capodichino and Marcianise – Rome flights by the arriving pilots (where the adverse weather had been encountered), it would not have been practical for them to climb to such a high level.

M/Sgt Kable forecasted that at the proposed flight level of 15000 ft MSL and along a flight path leading directly from Capodichino to a point midway between Poretta, Corsica and Pisa, Italy, it would be possible to remain out of most clouds. It was added that there would be much lightning and a new moon to aid the pilots in ascertaining the position of dangerously built-up clouds on course at 15,000 ft. The forecasters emphasized the presence of icing and turbulence in all clouds between 7000 ft and 15,000 ft MSL. It was stated by Capt. Steigner that “As much as it is permitted of weather personnel, both this Officer and the M/Sgt attempted to infer that the weather was such that we were not happy to see the flight go at all.”

All possible routes were discussed in detail and the final decision of the pilots was to fly at 15,000 ft MSL directly to a point between Pisa, Italy and Poretta, Corsica. After picking up the Pisa radio range, they then had decided to fly directly on course to Istres, France, from there to Lyon, France and on via Paris to Bovingdon, England.

Capt. Steigner further affirmed that “The exceptionally fine professional attitude of both pilots reflected by their questions and final conclusions reached in an unhurried and most deliberate manner, allayed the initial apprehension of this officer to the extent that upon their final departure, he had no doubt that the flight would be successful. M/Sgt Kable however, made the statement after their leaving that, if he had known the pilots personally, or if they had been of lower rank, or possessed lower pilot priority, he would have told them, the flight was most foolhardy.” Lt. Gordon had by this time joined the briefing and had spoken to Maj. Cobb, the co-pilot. Having heard about the bad weather forecast over Corsica, and believing that the conditions would make the flight unsafe, Lt. Gordon decided that he would prefer not to continue with the B-17, but would take a civilian flight the following day. This decision was communicated to Col. Upham, and Lt. Gordon removed his baggage from the aircraft while Col. Fair undertook a detailed external inspection of the aircraft.

Col. Upham cleared himself to fly without a countersignature and the aircraft departed Capodichino AA Base, Naples, Italy, on an IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) clearance for Bovingdon, England by way of Gorgona Island, Istres, Lyon and Paris at 0054Z, (01.54 local time) November 1 1946. Capodichino tower gave the aircraft take-off instructions and a normal take-off was made. The aircraft contacted the tower five minutes after take-off for a radio check. Contact was made again a short time later and position was reported as “fifteen miles out; request clearance from tower frequency”. Capodichino tower granted tower clearance and no further known contacts were made with the aircraft by any station.Piano di volo

French military sources estimated that the flight path must have taken the aircraft over Mont Cenis avoiding the higher ground of Gran Paradiso to the East and the Haute Tarantaise to the West before impacting at an altitude of 12,000 feet near the top of the Aiguille des Glaciers, on the south-west shoulder of Mont Blanc, some 8 miles to the south-west of the Mont Blanc peak itself. At the point of collision, the plane was some 92 miles east of the route shown in its declared flight plan.

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