by Tom Hall
all rights reserved
The other day, I was playing on the Internet when I stumbled across the following words in a review of a plastic model of the Martin B-26: "Though early versions were considered `widow makers' because of the high landing speed of the B-26, the Marauder went on to have one of the lowest loss rates of any of the USAAF's medium bombers." This is pretty much a standard impression of the early Martin B-26. Never mind that high landing speed didn't wreck a single B-26 in the first year of its flights.*
In explaining the cover of American Aviation Historical Society Journal for Spring, 1992, the editorial staff seemed to ignore the gist of my article inside, which was a survey of early B-26 accidents. They said, "Called the widow-maker because of the number of fatal accidents during its teething period,." In saying this, AAHS must have considered the teething period to go beyond accelerated service testing and early combats with the first variant of B-26.
It is time to put to rest the myths that the earliest variant of Martin B-26 had accidents due to high landing speeds and many fatal accidents. It didn't. This fact can best be seen by reviewing accident records for the plane, which I did for the AAHS article mentioned above. The problem with reviewing them is that it takes some time and money, and requires the help of a pilot and engineer to understand them. I got that help from Col. Walter Maiersperger, an Engineering Officer with the 22nd BG at the time. The accident reports don't tell everything, but they tell enough. They tell that no two accidents were exactly alike, and that very few were fatal. It was over eighteen months after the first flight of the plane in November 1940 that successive fatal accidents with later variants of the plane began to put the future of the B-26 in doubt.
In March of 1941, the 22nd Bombardment Group was based at Langley Field, Virginia. It sent 26 officers and men to Patterson Field, Ohio to begin accelerated service testing. They experienced some hard landings which wrinkled the skin on the rear fuselages of at least one of the three test planes. Martin wanted the planes back to reinforce the fuselages, and the 22nd BG took them back by the end of their temporary duty. The third B-26, 40-1363, was heavily damaged in a landing accident as it arrived at the Middle River plant. The plane stalled just as it came over the runway, a sure sign that its landing speed was not fast enough. Pilot Captain Irv Selby and co-pilot First Lieutenant Hadley Saehlenou were not necessarily in the wrong, however. There was no manual for the plane yet; they and the others in the 22nd BG detachment at Patterson had just been helping to develop one. It would be ready the following month, the damaged plane much later.
So new it doesn't even have its dorsal turret, Marauder #40-1363 greets another misty morning at Patterson Field, Ohio in March 1941. The plane was there to begin accelerated service testing. Although factory personnel had already learned a great deal about the performance of the new Martin B-26, the 22nd BG and 18th RS continued the evaluation and helped to develop the first flying manual for it. The 22nd BG and 18th RS had no fatal accidents in months of service testing the B-26.
The Glenn L. Martin Company had entrusted the general design of this plane to a man still in his twenties, Peyton Magruder. In spite of his youth, Magruder must have had not only a knack for style and aerodynamics, but also some wisdom about people. In a letter to a researcher years later, he admitted to having indulged in some wishful thinking about the landing speed of the plane. He thought that a landing speed of three digits would frighten the Army pilots, and tried to keep the landing speed under 100 mph when he designed the plane. However, his creation turned out to be nearly a ton over the estimated empty weight of 19,250 pounds. That meant that the landing speed in the nineties that he had hoped for was impossible. Pilot Selby and at least one pilot in the 18th Reconnaissance Squadron found this out the hard way, dropping planes onto the runways at Middle River and Langley Field for lack of speed. They were probably obeying Martin's instructions on landing technique, though. With the publication of its April 11, 1941 manual, Martin became somewhat more realistic about the landing speed. That speed was unprecedented. The pilots would just have to deal with it.
The older ones often couldn't't. They were used to much slower, more docile planes. Some, like Major Signa Gilkey at Patterson Field and Major William Lee in the 22nd BG grumbled about various aspects of the new plane, and because they had rank their complaints may have carried a little weight. There is no evidence, though, that their epithets included the term "widow-maker". Lee likened flying the B-26 to "sitting on a pissed-off bumble bee." Magruder threw good psychology out the window by telling younger pilots that the new bomber was a "hot potato". Months later, Lieutenant Barrie Burnside affectionately named a plane he often flew "Martin's Miscarriage".
Fortunately for the US Army Air Corps, the youngest pilots were not as turned off by the new plane as the older ones. In the period from May through December 1941, accidents due to stalls in the landing approach were nearly eliminated in the 22nd BG and its affiliated 18th RS. One exception was a landing at night in which the pilot had difficulty estimating the altitude. Damage in that accident was representative of a minor miscalculation: worked fuselage rivets, wrinkled fuselage skin, and a damaged propeller. Nothing fatal.
There were fatal accidents with the first 201 B-26s, the variant known simply as "B-26", not "B-26A". The first was at the factory during an acceptance flight. It occurred shortly after takeoff in June 1941. The second was in November 1941 and hurt a different Bombardment Group. The plane apparently lost its vertical stabilizer and rudder in mid-air, but the cause remains unknown. Then, with the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was pandemonium and a great deal more risk-taking, some of it unwise. Early in December 1941 the 22nd BG lost its Commanding Officer, Major Mark Lewis, when he failed to address a malfunctioning engine and attempted takeoff, anyway. His plane did not get far. Days later, another plane flew into a mountain near Los Angeles with the loss of everyone aboard. It might be fair to blame some of these accidents on the plane if we knew more about them, but hubris played a part in at least two of them. A few more fatal accidents with the B-26 in the 22nd BG and 18th RS followed, but increasingly they were the result of the hardships of war, lack of good maps and replacement parts, and bad weather. Comparing losses in remote parts of the world to those at training facilities in the United States is comparing apples to oranges because of the better conditions at home.
B-26 #40-1405 was one of about ten which the 22nd BG and 18th RS took to Ellington Field, Texas for maneuvers in September 1941. At times the weather was awful but when the B-26s could be flown, they did well.
With the 22nd BG and 18th RS deployed to Australia and the 38th and 42nd BGs also heading to the Pacific Theater, many of the most experienced fliers of the Martin B-26 were not available to help teach the hundreds of other aircrews that would be needed for Europe and North Africa. As those crews trained at Barksdale and MacDill Fields, usually in newer variants of B-26, the death toll mounted from accidents and the B-26 program was threatened. The fact that dozens of 22nd BG and 18th RS aircrews had already been trained without a lot of them being sacrificed in the process was overlooked. And it continues to be, evidently. Members of the 22nd BG returned from their tours of duty in Australia in 1943 and went to work training aircrews who would serve on the other side of the Atlantic. More important than their relatively modest tallies of Japanese aircraft and ships, the greatest achievement of the 22nd BG with the Martin B-26 may actually have been in Europe. Without getting the B-26 program off to a good start and helping with the training of aircrews later, there might very well not have been a B-26 over France or Belgium or Italy.
* High landing speed produced by an over-speeding propeller contributed to the destruction of a 22nd BG B-26 in the California desert in 12/41. There were no deaths in the accident.