Cumberland Times-News

Local News

December 2, 2013

Looking Back: Crewless bomber flies over Allegany County

The 1,200-horsepower engines of the B-17 roared as it flew over Cumberland and then Ridgeley on the evening of Nov. 21, 1943, but no one was on board the 27-ton bomber. The plane, which had flown 80 miles on its own, was losing altitude. It barely cleared slamming into Dan’s Mountain and around 7 p.m. it crashed near Midland.

“The bomber’s crew of five men bailed out when engine trouble developed over the Alleghenies near Cherry Tree, Pa., eighty miles away, and all landed safely at least ten minutes before the craft, guided by its automatic pilot, finally pancaked on the knoll, two miles from Midland,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported.

The B-17 was developed by Boeing in the 1930s and called the Flying Fortress. The planes were more than 74 feet long and had a wingspan of nearly 104 feet. They played a prominent role in the bombing of Germany during World War II.

The flight had been a routine trip to an air base in Dayton, Ohio, when the No. 4 engine developed problems. According to a 1999 article in The Glades Star, the pilot, Lt. Donald Crist, had the bomber flying in a large circular pattern at 7,000 feet for half an hour while he tried to restart the engine. Not only were his efforts unsuccessful, but ice started forming on the wings.

According to The Glades Star, Crist ordered the three enlisted men to bail out. He set the auto-pilot and then he and his co-pilot parachuted out of the plane at 1,200 feet.

“The three enlisted men landed in a large field within walking distance of one another. The two officers who bailed out a minute or so later landed in a wooded area and their parachutes got caught in tree limbs,” according to The Glades Star.

With the auto-pilot set, the plane flew another 80 miles before crashing into a mountain on Squirrel Hollow Road about two miles from Midland just over the Garrett County line.

“The wings were sheared off by the terrific impact, and the motors were dislodged from the fuselage, but only the tail section was damaged by fire,” the Cumberland Evening Times reported.

The Midland Volunteer Fire Department was quickly dispatched to put out any fires. Troopers Joseph White and Ira Unger soon followed. They notified a local army recruiter, Tech. Sgt. Clarence Biehn, who notified the Army Air Force before heading out to the site.

By morning, internal security men from the Middletown, Pa., air base had the area cordoned off as they tried to salvage the wreck. Crist also showed up with one of his crewmen to search the wreckage for any personal effects.

Arthur Rees of Grantsville was a young boy at the time of the crash. He was interviewed for The Glades Star article and said that he and his friends tried to hike out to the crash site. “However, all we really got to see was where the tops of the trees had been broken off as it flew into the hillside. That was as close as we could get because there were guards there and no one was allowed to get any nearer.”

He said that some people must have gotten in before the area was closed off and taken cockpit instruments as souvenirs. Authorities spent the next week asking people if they had the instruments or knew someone who did to turn them in.

While many people remember the B-52 bomber that crashed in Garrett County in 1964, this bomber crash has been largely forgotten.

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