THE MAGNETIC SUMP PLUGS
Most units of Uncle Sam's World War II military forces tackled their assigned tasks without reservation. Our 40th Bomb Group followed this pattern while training for combat in the new B-29 Superfortress at Pratt, Kansas, in 1943-1944. When the group was combat ready, we were told that our main problems overseas would be primitive living and working conditions, limited supplies, bad weather, perilous flights over mountains, and Japanese offensive and defensive opposition. In 1944, we moved to Chakulia, India, our permanent base for operations against the Japanese Empire from the China-Burma-India Theater.
During the many long flights between refueling stops on the trip from Kansas to India, the B-29 showed what the real problem would be overseas. The real problem would be the R-3350 aircraft engine. Many Pilots had to shut down a malfunctioning engine in-flight, and fly to the next stop on three engines. After corrective maintenance, they would takeoff, and occasionally have to shut down the same or a different engine on the next flight. Many planes had to have an engine replaced at a refueling stop
Fortunately, the R-3350 engine had a design feature crew chiefs used to locate the source of certain engine malfunctions. Two magnetic sump plugs were installed in each engine -- one in the nose section and one in the accessory section. These magnetic plugs collected pieces of metal from the oil supply to provide evidence of an existing or potential internal engine failure. Crew chiefs learned to check these plugs after every flight.
When Colonel William "Butch" Blanchard became the 40th Bomb Group Commander, he maintained a record of engine failures and combat mission aborts due to an engine failure. Captain Charles Taylor, a veteran Pilot in our 45th Bomb Squadron, experienced such a string of engine failures and aborts, that we called him "snake bit." Colonel Blanchard took note of Captain Taylor's record, and decided that the Captain was afraid to fly a B-29.
The next time Captain Taylor had to shut down an engine during a combat mission, he radioed that he was returning to Chakulia. When the plane was taxied into its hard stand, Colonel Blanchard was sitting in his jeep nearby. The Colonel was dressed in a flight suit and had a stern look on his face. He was waiting for Captain Taylor to exit the plane. After giving Captain Taylor a terse lecture for aborting another mission, Colonel Blanchard said that there was nothing wrong with the engine. He ordered the ground crew to unfeather the propeller, refuel the plane, and prepare it for an immediate test flight. He said he would fly the B-29 and prove that there was nothing wrong with the engine. He stood under the plane's wingtip and watched the refueling operation.
Captain Taylor received another rebuke when he approached Colonel Blanchard to describe the failed engine's symptoms. Flight Officer Pete Petras, the crew's Flight Engineer, listened carefully while his Pilot was lectured then accused of aborting a combat mission without cause. When Colonel Blanchard ordered the plane to be prepared for a test hop, Flight Officer Petras and a mechanic quickly pulled both magnetic sump plugs from the failed engine. In his oil-splattered flight suit, Pete Petras walked up to the Colonel, opened his oily hands and displayed two magnetic sump plugs that had collected metal fragments.
Colonel Blanchard stared at the plugs. While talking condescendingly, Flight Engineer Petras identified filings from a bearing, part of a piston ring, and pieces of a connecting rod. In a polite but firm voice, he said, "Colonel, these plugs prove that the engine failed. The engine must be replaced before this B-29 can fly again." The evidence convinced Colonel Blanchard that the abort was justified. He got into his jeep and drove away from the hard stand.
That was the last time anyone heard criticism of Captain Charles Taylor's crew. The crew completed its combat tour with an outstanding record, and by VJ Day, it had become one of the most highly decorated crews in the 40th Bomb Group.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *