"Sighted Wreck, Repaired Same"

By Miles V Cave
Aviation's British Correspondent

How mobile service units of the 8th Air Force Service Command roam England fixing damaged aircraft which "didn't quite make it."

Continuation by the 8th Air Force of its day bombing activities has vindicated Gen Ira C Eaker's theory — i.e., through bombing accuracy a smaller gross bomb tonnage can effect damage equal to that of a night "saturation" raid. At the same time, bombing by day supplements the vicious RAF onslaughts and puts the air offensive on a 24-hr basis.

But day bombing inevitably means a heavy toll of shot-up aircraft which soon become a growing liability if repairs are unable to keep step. In fact, speed of repair is a critical factor in maintaining the pace needed to crush the Nazi surely and quickly.

The mobile service unit, pioneered and developed in the European theater by Maj Gen Henry J F Miller, commanding the 8th Air Force Service Command, is providing the answer to this important requirement. It is simply a highly developed process of taking the repair shop to the wrecked plane — instead of the former time-and-trouble method of taking the plane to the repair depot.

Partly responsible for the recent buildup of AAF bomber strength in the European theater, this mobile service has been so successful that the number of units is being multiplied many times over to meet increasing requirements. In fact, the units are now organized under a sub-command know as Advance Air Service, with Col Charles M Steinmetz serving as commander at headquarters. Assignment of the repair units to various jobs is handled by a control board which makes a preliminary investigation of the damaged planes. If it is decided that the ship is repairable, then a mobile service unit moves in; otherwise all usable material and parts are salvaged.

Control headquarters maintains direct liaison with operational commands and with and advance air depot in the immediate vicinity of each combat wing. All advance depots provide complete maintenance, repair, and service facilities for the type of plane in service in their respective wings. Mobile units are allocated to all advance depots and, in addition, there are "floater" units attached to headquarters to cover remote regions when the need arises. When there are no specific jobs for these traveling units, they are kept at airfields repairing damaged planes. Being mobile, they quickly can be diverted from one squadron to another to meet urgent demands for extra service.

A typical of how the mobile service unit swings into action is contained in the story of a Flying Fortress named Tough Shit, one of the outside planes, fired at an FW-190 which was making a climbing turn. The shooting of one of our gunners — 2nd Lt Robert C Black — was deadly, probably killing the German pilot. This caused the 190 to continue in its turn, and it whammed into the starboard wing of the Tough Shit, leaving one of its 20-mm cannon buried deep in the Yankee's wing.

The Focke-Wulf then skidded over the top of the wing surface, putting out the No 3 engine, bending up the waist gun position like a pretzel, and finally gouging a big hole in the stabilizer fin.

It is safe to reckon that the Focke-Wulf was making some 380 mph. Thus the combined impact rate would be around 600 mph, and because of the FW's bulk that's a lot worse than the direct hit of a large caliber anti-aircraft shell.

The Fort's wing was torn, twisted, and crimped so that not even Boeing's most optimistic aerodynamics expert would have believed the B-17 had a chance. Logical continuation was an unsteady, steep angle dive to the nearest piece of earth. The outboard engine was running rough … and the inboard one was dead … all flying controls were sprung out of line, making maintenance of flying stability a superman job for the pilot … and other damage was considerable.

Despite all this, Pilot Edwin R Manchester, of Wilmington, DE, opened up his remaining engines and set a course for home, instructing his crew to send out flare signals calling escorting P-47s to handle six more FW-190s which were now doing all they knew how to make Tough Shit and her crew permanent casualties.

And thus the Fort came back to England — not as a lone straggler but still a very definite member of the original family. Throughout, the pilot's feats of strength and skill and the efforts of his crew equaled the amazing stamina of the B-17.

When finally the English coastline appeared, the Tough Shit started losing height. The crew decided it was asking too much to make their home airfield, so the pilot selected a potato field and belly-flopped the B-17 as gently as possible. Site of the landing was one of those small English fields which checkerboard the island and which rarely offer more than a few acres, necessitating a belly landing even if the landing gear were working. Damage was so extensive that the B-17 seemed a sure thing for repair at the main depot located over 200 mi away. Nevertheless, the central control board's technicians figured a mobile service unit could handle the project, and it gave appropriate instructions.

The control board's inspectors arrived at the location ahead of the service unit to make a complete damage report and an inventory of spares to be procured. All this is tricky work. A thorough job is required because inexpert knowledge delays the arrival of spares, replacements, and material. And if some damage is overlooked there's more delay.

Soon a number of vast trucks, resembling a miniature Atlantic convoy, was trundling down the road. Finally this caravan plowed through the surrounding hedge, and with no respect for the farmers' "Dig for Victory" potatoes, took up their positions around Tough Shit. Immediately the crew prepared to start repairs.

A complete mobile service unit consists of the following eight vehicles —

  1. Large truck and trailer equipped as machine shop with the following tool equipment: Lodge & Shipley toolmaker's lathe, Doall multipurpose saw, Landis heavy duty universal grinder, Pratt & Whitney universal mill, oxy-acetylene welding plant, tool and cutter grinder, and air compressor unit. Sheet metal tools include beating blocks, a comprehensive supply of small tools, a fitting bench with vises, etc. The truck also carries an electric generating plant to serve the machine tools plus other requirements of the whole camp.
  2. Large truck and trailer of similar design fitted out as a store for bar and sheet material, small parts, tools, etc.
  3. Large truck and trailer fitted out with a kitchen and "bedroom" providing bunks for the 19 men who make up the personnel of the unit (13 US soldiers and 6 experts of Lockheed Overseas Corp.) If hotel accommodation is available nearby it is used in preference to the bunks.
  4. Two jeeps for collecting necessary material and contacting nearby airfields.
  5. One 2½-ton truck for hauling heavy material and transporting personnel.
  6. Reconnaissance cars for transporting men from job to job.
  7. Truck with 420-gal water tank for drinking and cooking.
In addition a traveling crane is always available if required (such as in this case when the plane needed lifting to repair its landing gear, bomb doors, and lower ball turret.)

Veteran George Krousup, LOC civilian in charge of the unit and a man with an nine year background with Boeing and Lockheed, quickly had Tough Shit lifted off her belly so the inspectors could complete their under-fuselage examination. While soldiers and LOC engineers went about their routine jobs, Krousup discussed the damage inventory with visiting control officers, and his expert knowledge supplemented the military viewpoint, providing a "fix" for immediate procurement of the urgently needed parts.

The units are so well equipped and so comprehensively stocked that delays due to insufficient tooling and ill-kept stores are rare. Meanwhile, an accurate initial assessment of parts and material needed allows time for them to be rushed to the site while the technicians are still stripping damaged parts.

The mobile stores trailer carries its own stock records, and both parts and tools have to be requisitioned in duplicate so that main supply records are kept up to the minute on withdrawals and also so that the service unit, when it returns to its base, can replenish depleted stocks without resorting to a numerical check.

A couple of days after the repair unit got started on Tough Shit, officers of the Corps of Engineers arrived and surveyed the site for construction of a temporary runway so that the plane could take the air again as soon as LOC and AAF technicians had completed their job. Following the engineers report, an AAF Engineering Battalion reported to clear the field. It hewed down hedges, leveled the ground, and laid the steel mesh runway — all with mechanical precision.

In no way is the work done by mobile service units makeshift. It is as carefully and accurately carried out as if the plane were being repaired at a main base. Inspection is rigid and frequently cross-checked. Workmanship and ingenuity in making awkward repairs is excellent, meeting a completely professional standard. This shows the wisdom of infiltrating LOC experts among soldier mechanics, many of whom never saw an airplane before entering the armed forces.

After only a very short time, Tough Shit was again in the pink. It was hauled to the temporary runway, where engines were revved up and instruments and flying controls were tested and found okay. Finally all unnecessary equipment was removed (because of the short runway) and Tough Shit took off for her home field where, on arrival, she would be checked over again and test flown before tackling further missions.

Servicing of modern aircraft, with their complex equipment, presents different problems even when the operations are in the country of origin. When the planes are transported 4,000 mi across an ocean and thence disperse over a scattered area for operational purposes, servicing problems become almost impossible if speed, so necessary in this war, is reckoned.

This, then, was Service Command's big problem — a problem which was quickly solved by the mobile service unit, which is now proving so successful that it is being adopted by the RAF. No doubt its use will be extended to other theaters as fast as possible.

The mobile service unit is a young, streamlined idea, both ingenious and practical. It lives up to the highest standards of the AAF for freshness of thought, determination, enthusiasm, and progressiveness.

This article was originally published in the December, 1943 issue of Aviation magazine, volume 42, number 12, pp 124-127, 308, 311.
The original article uses the euphemism "T___ S___", with the usage "Tough S___" in one photo caption. Since it was clear what the plane's name was, I elected to use the full form. —JLM
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 14.1 MiB ] includes a photo of a formation of B-17s over France, several photos of B-17F 42-29651 (Stella) under repair in a field in England, and several photos of the equipment of a mobile service unit.
The plane described in the story appears to have been B-17F (Douglas) 42-3211 (Tough Shit).
Flight formation photo credited to International; other photos are not credited.
Aircraft ID information from http://www.military.com/HomePage/FullUnitText/0,11321,737728,00.html (Tough Shit), http://www.joebaugher.com/usaf_serials/1942_1.html (Stella).
According to Mr Baugher's records, 42-3211 (T.S.) crashlanded at Manston and was broken up for parts.