When the Egyptian Air Force started attacking Tel Aviv on May 15, 1948, the day after Israel announced independence, the Jewish state felt the need to respond to the Egyptian air raids. In spite of the large U.S. market of World War II surplus equipment, the only heavy bomber that was readily available and could be procured was the Boeing B-17.
The B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were acquired thanks to Al Schwimmer, a World War II USAAF (United States Army Air Force) flight engineer that during the second half of 1947 purchased and delivered the surplus transport aircraft that eventually built up the Israeli Air Force Air Transport Command.
Schwimmer (the founder and first CEO of Israel Aerospace Industries) found the future Israeli bombers among the Flying Fortress aircraft already flying with the numerous start-up airlines formed after the end of WWII.
As reported by Bill Norton in his book Air War on the Edge, A History of the Israel Air Force and its aircraft since 1947, two B-17s (s/n 44-83851 and 44-83753) were acquired for 30,000 USD from Charles Winters which used them for his freight business between Florida and Puerto Rico, while two more planes were purchased from Donald H. Roberts of Tulsa. The four B-17s were legally-registered, commercially-modified and above all, they were airworthy airframes, meaning that they could fly on their own power all the way from the U.S. to Israel.
Planned route for the Flying Fortress was Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico; San Juan to Santa Maria, Azores; and Azores to Zatec Czechoslovakia, for an epic 10,600 kilometer flight of at least 38 hours duration over the Atlantic Ocean and across the Iron Curtain.
The first three B-17s took off on Jun. 11, 1948 and their ferry flight was explained by David Goldberg, who was the co-pilot of one of the three bombers. Goldberg released his impressions for Wing Magazine Volume 11, February 1981. The same story was later reported also in Shlomo Aloni & Zvi Avidror book Hammers Israel’s Long-Range Heavy Bomber Arm: The Story of 69 Squadron:
“I had flown B-24s with the 15th Air Force in Italy during the war. While making cargo runs out of Miami in the spring of 1948, I was contacted by phone and asked if I’d be interested in earning $ 1000 to ferry an airplane to Europe. I said sure. […] A few days before we were to depart I was asked if I’ d fly as co-pilot instead of pilot, since they now had found a colonel who was supposed to have had a great deal of B-17 time, and, also, his name would look better on the documents. The money was the same, so I agreed. Our flight from Miami to San Juan, Puerto Rico, was uneventful. Besides the colonel and myself we had picked up a navigator and about ten young men classified as ‘cargo handlers’.”
The rest of the ferry flight was quite a scary adventure which saw Goldberg flying the B-17 most of the time: “The colonel got roaring drunk at San Juan and stayed that way up to departure time. The next morning we have managed to pour him into the plane, and the navigator and I flew it out. From San Juan we were heading to the Azores Islands. That would take 21 hours, and we had 24 hours of fuel on board. When we were about 10 hours out the colonel was coming around to relieve me so I could get some rest. I had just fallen asleep in the back when I was awakened with a great deal of excitement and told that Cohen, the navigator, had fallen through a glassed-over section in the floor of the nose that had been put there for aerial photography. The guy was barely hanging on, and was slowly being sucked out by the slipstream. I ran back to the cockpit to get the aircraft slowed down. Col. B— had gone to pieces and was shaking like a leaf. I slowed the plane down and put it on auto-pilot and went down to help pull the navigator back in. We succeeded, but he was absolutely useless after that, and we now had to find the Azores without him.”
Incredibly Goldberg and his aircrew were able to find the Portuguese islands: “By a stroke of luck we were able to pick up the airway radio beacon from Santa Maria after 20 hours of flying – but the weather had turned bad and the ceiling was low. The island is covered with mountains, and Col. B— then announced that an instrument approach would be too risky, so he was going to ditch the plane off the coast. I said that was crazy, and that I would make the approach. He refused to get out of the left-hand seat. It was time for some drastic action. I grabbed a fire extinguisher and told him I’d crush his skull if he didn’t get out of the f—-ing seat. He left, we landed safely… And I completed the rest of the flight to Czechoslovakia alone in the cockpit!”
As already said, after reaching Santa Maria, Azores, the three B-17s were planned to fly to Zatec, Czechoslovakia, but since the American authorities were not far behind, the bombers had to move on quickly. So, with the prior consent of French officials the crews filed a flight plan for Ajaccio, Corse, but instead they landed at Zatec on June 17, where the Israeli airlift was going on in earnest.
However the American press reports had already uncovered the affair from June 16, when news circulated that several American surplus warplanes had departed from Ajaccio to Palestine: moreover, despite arrangements, the French would not confirm the arrival of the aircraft at Ajaccio and they were declared missing.
The public exposure of the three B-17s’ epic flight made the delivery of the last bomber really difficult: in fact the fourth Flying Fortress never reached Israel since, at the request of the United States, Portuguese officials impounded the aircraft indefinitely at the Azores.
However three B-17s arrived in Israel and thanks to them the Israeli Air Force was able to respond to the Egyptian bombings only two months later, when the three Flying Fortress raided Cairo: these bombers were also the first aircraft flown by the legendary 69 Squadron Hammers, that today flies another Boeing product, the powerful F-15I Ra’am (Thunder).
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