Bombs Aboard

by Capt George C McDowell

Loading bombs into aircraft is a tricky specialty of the ordnance man, expert in handling explosives.

The newly enlarged municipal airport, four miles from its Atlantic seaboard town, is shrouded in darkness; not a light is visible anywhere. Amid this blackout bustling activity prevails on all sides. A laboring truck motor spurts and fades as its driver moves his heavy cargo of gasoline across the turfed terrain. A racing tug glides swiftly to the hangar for some forgotten piece of essential gear. Deep, muffled commands, floating through the blackness, help disturb the early morning stillness.

At the field's edges camouflaged bombers are being pulled from their hiding places by powerful tugs. Gasoline trucks squeak to a stop in front of each one as it reaches its appointed serving spot. Bomb service trucks, pulling loaded trailers, seek their preassigned planes to deliver their "eggs" to the plane loading crews.

One hour later all trucks and trailers leave the flying field. Crew chiefs begin warming up barking motors, while pilots and other members of the plane crews file from the hangar where their squadron commander has just finished last minute instructions concerning their early morning sortie. Soon the planes are down the newly-constructed metallic runway one by one, rising slowly with their heavy loads and immediately seeking to locate the designated rendezvous point before commencing their darkened trip to the target.

A fantastic picture? By no means. At countless small airports across the Atlantic as this is written, such scenes are being duplicated by both German and English Atlantic patrol squadrons. Naturally the time might be different; the whole operation even might be conducted in daylight at the greater risk of losing planes. London news broadcasts each evening indicate that for night bombing missions this loading must be done in the early twilight dusk if the entire trip is to be made at night.

Have you ever wondered how these loading operations — which require skill and speed in equal proportions — are coordinated? What kind of men compose these indispensable ground crews? What glory a man can hope to achieve who knows that when he delivers this bomb load there will just be another waiting for him? How they acquire that sureness of touch in handling high explosives, when one slip can spell disaster for many other men and thousands of dollars worth of valuable airplanes? All these questions can be answered in just two words: intelligence and training.

In 1938, while Germany was planning continuous bomb supply for her Stukas, our ordnance department was thinking of similar problems. Since our ordnance department is responsible for the manufacture, storage and issue at the airplane of all Air Forces demolition bombs, many problems are involved. In 1939, a school was started at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, MD, to train officers for this new work. After three months at Aberdeen these officers were sent to Langley Field, VA, for three months' practice applying the principles learned, as the Langley Field ordnance personnel were developing new bomb handling equipment. Succeeding classes had their course shortened to two months at each place. Langley Field courses to train enlisted men in handling this equipment also were begun. This program has progressed continuously and now is being modified further to take care of the number of men needed for such work.

Recent newspaper pictures from England have shown tractors pulling four-wheeled dollies with four bombs strapped to the center pole between two axles. The actual loading into the bay of the bomber has been for the most part by hand. Our highly industrialized nation is able to produce equipment to relieve much of the back-breaking work connected with handling bomb tonnage.

Our aviation ordnance companies have three main pieces of bomb handling equipment: bomb service trucks, bomb trailers and bomb lift trucks. The bomb service truck is a standard one-ton truck chassis with no cab, mounting a winch and crane that extends over the rear of the truck bed. The bomb trailer is a three-wheeled vehicle with lunette attachment for tow behind the bomb service truck. It is equipped with channel irons to provide rigid seats for each bomb on the trailer and with a chest to carry fuses; fin posts for bomb fins are mounted externally on these chests. Steel bomb cradles also are carried on the trailer to keep the bomb from resting on the ground after it is removed from the trailer and before it is loaded into the bomb bay. The bomb lift truck, for moving the finned and fused bomb under the airplane, is carried on the bomb service truck's bed. A modified form of the common garage hydraulic jack, it has three rubber-tired wheels and a platform hydraulically operated for raising bomb and cradle.

Despite the equipment's simplicity, much training is necessary to insure smooth operations under all operating conditions. Few men enlisting in the ordnance department have had previous experience in handling explosives. However, it can be taught to any high school graduate who applies himself and has a desire to learn. The fact that any military explosive must of necessity be safe to handle under field conditions cuts accident hazards. The rough handling a bomb might receive accidentally in the field must be remembered constantly by the designer when he is drawing the plans and specifications for the manufacturer.

An aviation ordnance man must spend his first month on infantry basic training. After that period comes training in the various special fields — ammunition, welding, automobile mechanics or any of the other specialties to be found in an aviation ordnance company. Quite naturally, not all men have to be munitions experts; there are just as many specialists ratings in other sections of the company. But the ammunition section is the one with the responsibility for delivering all bombs and machine gun ammunition to the airplanes. Obviously, bombs are the most difficult to handle because of their increased weight. Besides the inherent poundage, the explosive factor must be reckoned with in all handling operations. Team-work consequently must be developed and kept alive by constant drill for all ammunition section men.

The ammunition section basic training and operating unit in an aviation ordnance company is the bomb service crew, consisting of five men: a crew chief and four munitions workers. Experience has proved that this is the minimum number of men that can prepare a bomber's load, no matter whether the ship is a light, medium or heavy bomber. Since the plane crew must load the bombs one at a time into the plane, these men can deliver finned and fused bombs at the plane as fast as the plane crews can load them. With the new type fuses it no longer is necessary to fuse all bombs as a safety precaution before they are brought to the plane, as was the case not many years back. This new method also permits increased speed (with safety) in transporting bombs to the airplane.

Tracing the various steps in bomb delivery makes clear the training required. They are loaded onto the bomb trailers by tractor cranes and transported to this storage area. Of course the bombs come blocked up on end entirely free of the fuses or fins. These components are shipped separately, reducing the danger element involved in a freight car's bumping and jostling. For this unloading operation munition workers trained in tractor crane operation are necessary. Skill and co-ordination in handling the many levers are essential.

After the various sized bombs have been transported to the storage area, they must be segregated and placed on the proper dunnage. They also must be inspected for proper lug spacing, proper fuse threading and general condition. This field area where the bombs are stored until needed must be away from the flying field proper, but still within easy driving and transporting distance. Passable roads are essential. Separated dunnage piles, segregated according to sizes of bombs, should be placed perpendicular to these roads in order to facilitate the loading and unloading of trailers. But here again safety requirements creep in, causing bombs to be stored in many small piles, rather than a few large ones. Sand bag revetments are then placed on three sides and the whole area camouflaged if it is to be a semi-permanent location. Naturally, the total number of bombs in the area depends on the number of airplanes and the number of missions contemplated.

Many of the same men who helped bring the bombs to the storage area must be used again in delivering them to the airplane. A steel channel ramp is placed in the rear of the trailer and the bomb urged up this ramp to its proper place by crews using two-man bars. On bombs of 2,000 pounds and up, the bomb service truck's winch and crane must be used. Arriving at the airplane, the bomb service crew loosens the chains that secure the bombs en route, places the channel ramp and a cradle in position and slides the first bomb off the rear of the trailer. Two men immediately fin and fuse this bomb, while two others slide the next bomb off the trailer. As soon as the first bomb is properly put together and inspected by the crew chief it is lifted by the hydraulically actuated lift truck and pushed under the plane for loading into the bomb bay. Here again, however, the big 2,000 pound bomb requires special handling. Instead of sliding it down the ramp, a job which in itself would be beyond the physical capabilities of the crew members, the bomb service truck is detached from the trailer and backed to the trailer's side. Here the bomb is lifted from the channel and the winch locked with the bomb suspended in the air. The driver moves the truck forward slowly about 20 feet, while two crew members walk along with the bomb to keep it from swinging or turning. A cradle is placed on the ground under the bomb and the bomb gently lowered onto it. Nose and tail fuse, arming wire and fin then are placed on the bomb while it is in this position.

Before rolling the lift truck under the bomb and cradle, the crew chief inspects the entire assembly to see that the arming wire has been cut to the right length, the proper setting placed on the fuses and the fin set at the right angle for the particular type ship the bomb is to fit. After this inspection all members of the crew cooperate with the lift truck until the bomb is in place under the bomb bay, ready for hoisting by the bomber crew.

From this description of bomb delivery it might be assumed that only men of large, stocky frame are suitable for aviation ordnance company work, but such is not the case. Five small men can, by using the bomb handling equipment properly, do exactly the same work as men of larger stature, in almost the same time.

This new bomb handling equipment's development grew out of the realization that airplanes sitting on the ground partially loaded with bombs are exceptionally vulnerable to attack by enemy bombers. Any hit by an enemy bomb would cause the damage to be multiplied by our own bombs' explosion. Then too, since bombers have to be brought out from hiding to be loaded, the time interval between uncovering and taking off on a mission must be reduced to a bare minimum. For these reasons particular efforts are made to reduce this time interval as much as possible.

With the post-World War I bomb loading equipment — consisting essentially of roller conveyors made either of wood or steel — each bomb presented problems all its own as to exactly how it was to be transported from the storage area to the plane. Further, the bomb was so shaped as not to lend itself to easy handling by large groups of men. Today, after much research in the field of streamline designs, it has been found that the tear-drop shape is not of such great importance, and that cylindrical bombs (which are much easier to construct) can do the job with greater accuracy. Likewise, our new bomb handling equipment for use with these cylindrical shaped bombs has proved itself a simple method for delivering all sizes of bombs to all sizes of bombers.

This article was originally published in the November, 1942, issue of Flying magazine, vol 31, no 5, pp 56-58, 143.
The PDF of this article includes four photos of an ordnance crew and bomb-handling equipment, bombing up a B-18.
Photos are not credited.