A LOAD OF CLEAR ICE
In late April 1944, our crew flew a B-29 tanker over the Hump (Himalayas) from Chakulia, India to our forward base A-l, near Hsinching, China. Crew Chief T/Sgt. Billy Nelson had given his plane the nose art name Hump Happy Pappy. It had been stripped of its radar, guns, gun turrets, armor plate, and deicer boots, and fitted with bomb shackles and bomb bay fuel tanks. All this was done to make a tanker/cargo airplane out of a combat model B-29. Its mission was to carry a maximum load of fuel and bombs from India to A-1 in China. Combat model B-29s would use the fuel and bombs during air strikes against the Japanese empire.
On this April mission, we had flown past the highest mountains on the route when we encountered weather conditions at 19,000 feet altitude that caused thick, clear ice to collect on the plane's exterior surfaces. The ice added weight to the plane and disrupted the normal air flow over its wings and tail surfaces. Soon, the ice accumulated to such a thickness that we could not maintain level flight with the engines running at normal power setting. We set climb power on all engines and still we could not hold level flight at 19,000 feet. Northwest of our route, mountains jutted above 16,000 feet. We had to remain on course, and not lose much altitude.
As we approached the turning point at the Ipin homer beacon, we continued to lose altitude. Our concern was not improved by the loud banging of clumps of ice being thrown from the inboard props against the forward fuselage. We flew over Ipin at 17,000 feet and turned northwest toward A-1 on a route with a minimum safe altitude of 12,000 feet. Our flight plan called for us to descend to 14,000 feet, so we turned off the autopilot, reduced engine power, and began a slow descent into a layer of broken clouds. Heavy ice still covered our nose windows, but by looking out our side windows, we could see through breaks in the clouds often enough to verify our position check points along the Min River Valley.
Copilot Bob Winters was at the controls during the descent. Eventually, we entered a layer of clouds and light rain that started to melt the clear ice. Suddenly, a severe vibration shook the plane, and the bank and turn indications oscillated wildly as the B-29 rolled to the left in a steep turn. The artificial horizon tumbled thus becoming useless as a flight attitude reference. Bob Winters called for me to help apply pressure on the flight controls as the B-29 turned nearly on its wingtip. Together, by applying full right rudder and aileron, we brought the plane to level flight and to a north heading.
The tail gunner reported that ice had released from the right wing and struck the tail surfaces. Since ice remained on the left wing, the resulting imbalance had caused us to turn to the left. Trim tabs were used to stabilize the plane. In a few minutes, we encountered heavy rain, and once again the plane shuddered from severe vibrations. This time, ice fell from the left wing. After that, the B-29 flew normally, so the engine power was reduced to cruise settings. The ice soon melted off the nose section, and everything was back to normal.
The remaining flight to A-1, and a landing there, were normal. Inspection of the external surfaces of our plane disclosed considerable damage to the leading edges of the tail, and some damage to the forward fuselage from the ice thrown off the propellers. After repairs were made to Hump Happy Pappy, we flew it back to India.
When we considered the possible effects if that heavy load of ice had covered our plane when we were over higher mountains, it became clear that we would have been forced to bail out. We were fortunate that Copilot Bob Winters was an exceptionally good instrument pilot with great strength. He managed to keep the plane from rolling over onto its back until I joined him on the flight controls. Not until the warm rain melted the ice from our left wing, were we out of danger on that perilous crossing of the Himalayas in Hump Happy Pappy.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *