B-24 Lady Be Good Mission
Joseph Portney, Navsense & Navworld.com
LITTON SYSTEMS, INC., Guidance & Control Systems Division,
Woodland Hills, CA 91367

 

 


BIOGRAPHY

Joe Portney, former Air Force navigator in B-26 and B-47 bombers, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1952.  He worked for 38 years for Litton Guidance & Control Systems as an engineer and later as a manager.  He participated in three historic flights over the North Pole, testing state-of-the-art Litton inertial navigation systems.  He was the editor of the Litton Avionics Newsletter and the author of numerous papers on navigation.  He was president of The Institute of Navigation (1989 – 1990).  He was the recipient of the Weems Award (1994) for continuing contributions to the art and science of navigation. 

ABSTRACT

In April 1943, the B-24 Lady Be Good (LBG) takes off with a group of 24 other B-24’s from Soluch Air Base (just south of Benghazi, Libya) bound for Naples harbor for a high altitude bomb raid.  The crew is on its first combat mission.  The navigator, who just completed twenty weeks of navigation training, would face his greatest challenge in directing the LBG back to home base after an aborted bomb run.  On the inbound leg, the crew of the LBG would depend upon a non-directional high frequency direction finding station at Benina Tower in Benghazi to guide them safely home.  Tragically Lt. Dp Hays, the navigator, took a reciprocal bearing off the back of the station.  This led the LBG to overfly its base at Soluch, continuing deep over the scorching Libyan desert.  The nine-man crew bail out as the LBG spends its fuel and crashes in the desert.  Fifteen years later, a British petroleum exploration team discover the wreckage of the LBG preserved in its desert crucible with all but one of the crew skeletal remains located.  The navigator’s log is recovered and reveals no dead reckoning (DR) entries on the inbound leg explaining why the reciprocal bearing from Benina Air Tower was accepted.  The navigator was simply lost.  This paper demonstrates how the ambiguity of the reciprocal bearing could have been resolved and the tragedy of the ill-fated Lady Be Good could have been averted.

B-24 Lady Be Good Mission

Crew members of the LBG: 1st Lieutenant William J. Hatton, pilot; 2nd Lieutenant Robert F. Toner, copilot; 2nd Lieutenant Dp Hays, navigator; 2nd Lieutenant John S. Woravka, bombardier; Technical Sergeant Harold J. Ripslinger, flight engineer; Technical Sergeant Robert E. LaMotte, radio operator; Staff Sergeant Guy E. Shelly, gunner/assistant flight engineer; Staff Sergeant Vernon L. Moore, gunner/assistant radio operator; Staff Sergeant Samuel R. Adams, gunner.  Navigation was achieved by dead reckoning (using elapsed time and distance between fixes to determine speed, and with known heading and deduced winds projecting position), pilotage (using visible landmarks), radio, and celestial.  Celestial navigation was solely used for ferrying to the theater.  Limited outward visibility in the B-24 hampered dead reckoning and pilotage.  Navigators at this time were trained in 15 to 20 weeks.

The Lady Be Good, a WWII B-24 bomber of the USAAF 376th Bomber Group, is about to experience its first and last combat mission—a daylight bombing raid of Naples harbor.  The delayed takeoff and insufficient winds force the LBG to arrive at the target area after sunset.  The LBG returns homeward in the dark, chased by a stronger tailwind than predicted and cloud layers below interfering with pilotage.  Relying solely on DR, Lt. Hays, navigator, does not realize that the LBG already crossed the Mediterranean and passed over its home base at Soluch, Libya. 

Lt. Hatton, pilot, makes an emergency request (breaking radio silence) for an inbound bearing from Benina Tower’s high frequency direction finding (HF/DF) equipment serving Benghazi 30 miles north of Soluch.  The equipment could only detect a bearing and its reciprocal and not its sense.  The tower reports that the LBG is on an inbound magnetic bearing of 330°.  This reciprocal bearing, accepted by the LBG, will etch this event in aviation history and reinforce the belief by Hays and Hatton that they are still over the Mediterranean.  This meant that the LBG’s inbound bearing of 330° from Benina Tower could just as well have been an outbound bearing of 150° from Benina Tower.  The LBG continued on its perilous journey.  The crew bailed out as the LBG began to lose engines from fuel starvation.  How could the navigator resolve this ambiguity of the radial bearing (at the expense of extending the break in silence) and prevent this tragedy (Figure 1).

Figure 1 .  Benina Tower HF/DF

The navigator would know Benina Tower was:

a.        South, if the LBG turned right and the reported bearing lines increased in value.

b.       North, if the LBG orbited clockwise and the reported bearing lines would initially decrease in value.

c.        North, if the LBG turned left and the reported bearing lines decreased in value.

d.       North, if the LBG orbited counterclockwise and the reported bearing lines would initially increase in value.

The answer is c.

Figure 2 shows the Benina Tower HF/DF radial pattern and illustrates how the ambiguity of the bearing is resolved.

The LBG was flying on a magnetic heading of approximately 150°.  When Benina Tower provided the LBG with an inbound magnetic bearing of 330°, the B-24 was already south of the tower.  The navigator was lost (we shall find) and simply accepted the reported inbound bearing believing that the B-24 was still north of Benina Tower.  Since the bearing line had two possible values 180° apart, the navigator had to judge which side of the radio direction finding (RDF) station he was on (inbound or outbound) based on his DR position. 

The erroneous interpretation of the reported bearing is often referred to as obtaining the reciprocal direction

Figure 2.  Benina Tower HF/DF
(Resolving Ambiguity)

from the backside of the station since 150° (330° – 180°) was valid for the outbound bearing from Benina Tower and would place the Lady Be Good south of Benina Tower.  Tragically, the Lady Be Good continued on for 1 hour and 48 minutes before the crew bailed out at 2:00 a.m., April 5, 1943.  The LBG crashed 25 nmi south of the bailout point.  The LBG was the only aircraft that failed to return from the bombing mission—lost on its first combat mission.

Fifteen years later, in 1958, during an aerial survey the Lady Be Good became an archeological find when a British oil exploration team spotted its crash site 351 nmi southeast of Soluch Air Base.  This led to follow-up investigations by American teams that pieced together the saga of the Lady Be Good which was believed to have fallen into the Mediterranean.  The reconstruction of the events of the mission also revealed that the LBG was heard over Soluch Air Base shortly before midnight April 4, 1943.  The investigation revealed that the crew of the LBG made an extraordinary and valiant effort to survive under impossible odds.  The essential instruments for navigation on the crashed LBG: magnetic compass, automatic direction finder (ADF) and long range radios were all found to be functional after more than fifteen years.

Postscript

The navigator’s log recovered at the crash site of the Lady Be Good is now part of an exhibit at the Air Museum at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.  The exhibit reveals that the navigator failed to make any entries on the inbound leg indicating that he was lost.