A FEW MOMENTS OF STARK TERROR
An early aviation writer described flying as: Hours of interminable boredom, interspersed with brief periods of stark terror. B-29 bomber aircrews thought this profound statement applied to combat missions they flew against the Japanese Empire in World War II. The hours of boredom would be the time they spent flying to a target area and return to their home base. The terror would be the flak, fighters, aerial bombs, and searchlights they met while on a bomb run. That kind of terror was expected near a target, but occasionally terror occurred quite unexpectedly during the boredom phase of a mission.
On December 7, 1944, about 4:00 a.m., our B-29 crew was cruising at 14,000 feet altitude near Sian, China on a mission against the Japanese Arsenal at Mukden, Manchuria. The plane was on autopilot, the sky was clear, and stars were shining brightly in the black of night -- we were in the boring, sleepy phase of the mission. Without warning, and far from the bomb run, stark terror struck.
Our plane suddenly swerved sharply to the left, the nose pitched down, and the autopilot disengaged. My Copilot and I struggled with the controls to level the wings and pull the nose up. Severe vibrations racked the plane as it pitched and rolled as if we were in the violent clutches of a severe thunderstorm. At times, the Pilot's instrument panel was shaking so violently that the dials became a blur even though the cockpit lights were turned up to full bright in the dark cabin.
An interphone check revealed all crew members were strapped in their positions. The Gunners scanned the plane's wings and tail surfaces and reported that everything looked normal. The turbulence and vibrations were so severe that I considered ordering the crew to bailout. Then I realized the plane was shaking so violently that no one could possibly move to an exit.
Without warning, the turbulence and vibrations stopped. I made another interphone check, and was relieved to learn that everyone was O.K. Much equipment had been scattered around in each compartment, but there was no visible damage inside the plane. The exterior of the plane appeared to be normal. Our Navigator told us that these Few Moments of Terror lasted less than five minutes. It seemed that we had our share of terror for one mission, but we realized that we still had to make a bomb run against the Arsenal at Mukden. Fortunately, the bomb run and the remainder of the mission were flown as briefed, and were not especially eventful. The bombing results were good.
At the mission debriefing, we described to Intelligence Officers the violent, clear air turbulence we experienced, and although they recorded our comments, they seemed to be skeptical. Other B-29s that were in the area at the time of our experience, did not suffer the same phenomena. The next day we returned to our base in India, and while flying over the Hump, we put our plane through a complete flight control check. It passed just fine.
Several weeks after the Mukden mission, reports of a terrible earthquake that had occurred near the Yellow River, west of Sian, China, reached Chungking. Survivors described an astounding loss of life and catastrophic damage in the area. They said the earthquake occurred at approximately 4:00 a.m. on December 7, 1944, -- the exact time and date that we experienced violent clear air turbulence on the way to Mukden. When our crew learned of the report, we concluded that sudden upheavals of the earth's surface directly beneath us sent the shock waves through the air that tossed our plane around. Of course, we could never prove our theory.
I believe our theory was substantiated years later in the 1950s when a DC-7 airliner encountered severe clear air turbulence while flying at 20,000 feet near Arequippa, Peru. Several passengers were seriously injured and the plane was heavily damaged. After the pilot made an emergency landing at a nearby airport, he was told that he had flown directly over a great earthquake in the Andes Mountains. Once again, an in flight incident could have been caused by shock waves rising from the earth's surface during an earthquake.
* From Ira V. Matthews' Eighty-one War Stories. *