For me personally, the sight of a giant airplane wreck in one piece deep under the sea is what ultimate exploration is all about.
This B17 wreck at Island Vis is one of the best-preserved WW2 airplane wrecks in the world. It even has all the propellers on all four engines. I also dived on another one at 100m also close to the island, but that one is with its belly up and I did not have my camera with me, so no photos. There is another one discovered last year at almost 120m further out into the sea that I hope to visit and write about it.
Back then, this was a brand-new plane. But, it went down after its first combat mission and just 3 days after it was sourced. Now it lies down at 70m beneath the surface and it looks like it just landed there.
Due to its depth and therefore challenging diving conditions, it is hard to get down to it easily and take things off it, so it has been very well preserved. A proper “time capsule”.
It is Croatian historian and underwater photographer Danijel Frka that assembled the whole story of this wreck after it has been found by Slovenian divers and Borut Furlan, another underwater photographer back in 2001.
For more underwater wreck photos, take a look at my Wrecks gallery.
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is a four-engine heavy bomber developed in the 1930s for the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC). From its introduction in 1938, the B-17 Flying Fortress evolved through numerous design advances, becoming the third-most-produced bomber of all time.
Fast and high-flying for a bomber of its era, the B-17 was used primarily in the European Theatre of Operations and dropped more bombs than any other aircraft during World War II.
Shortly after entering use in 1938 it became favored by flight crews due to its sturdy build and heavy defensive armament more than earning the nickname Flying Fortress. Many pilots who flew both the B-17 and the B-24 preferred the B-17 for its greater stability and ease of flying in formation.
Model E was a major redesign with the fuselage being extended by 3m and with a much larger vertical tail-fin. Next to this, a horizontal stabilizer was added, a gunner’s position was added in the new tail, Sperry electrically powered manned dorsal gun turret just behind the cockpit was added, another Sperry similarly powered manned ventral ball turret just aft of the bomb bay replaced the relatively hard-to-use remotely operated turret.
With model F it was when production took off and some 3.500 pieces were produced.
By the time the definitive B-17G appeared which was also the final version, the number of guns had increased from 7 to 13. Model G was produced in about 8.500 pieces.
B-17 and other bombers were used to bomb from high altitudes with the aid of the then-secret Norden bombsight which was for that time equivalent of computer.
The B-17 was primarily employed by the USAAF in the daylight strategic bombing campaign of World War II against German industrial and military targets.
A 1943 survey found that over half the bombers shot down by the Germans had left the protection of the main formation. To address this problem, the United States developed the bomb-group formation, which evolved into the staggered combat box formation in which all the B-17s could safely cover any others in their formation with their machine guns. This made the formation of bombers a dangerous target to engage by enemy fighters.
Island Vis and World War II
Island Vis is one of the few distant but still inhabited islands in Croatia. It has two small towns, Vis and Komiza. There are also a few small villages. Most of the dive centers are in Komiza.
During World War II, the island Vis was from 1943 to 1944 the main location from where Josip Broz Tito, the leader of the Yugoslav Partisans was running the show. Before that, it was occupied by Italians and then later liberated by the Partisans assisted by the Allies. From April 1944, a small, but secret, landing strip has been engineered that was used for emergency landings of USAF bombers which is the main reason why there are so many aircraft wrecks around the island.
The Last Mission
The full name of this B-17 is US Bomber Boeing B-17G, S/N 44–6630 from 340 Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group.
The last mission of this B-17G, which was also its first one, was a bombing run over Vienna in Austria on November 6th, 1944. The plane arrived at the airport just 3 days earlier on November 3rd.
Cloudy conditions made a change of plans and the group hit Maribor in Slovenia as their secondary target. As soon as bombs were dropped, the plane was hit by German Air Defence, and one engine was gone. The hit also heavily injured the co-pilot who soon died. Soon, the second engine was gone as well. With a damaged hydraulic system and 2 working engines, the pilot took the direction toward island Vis, which was the closest Allied airport in an attempt to land there. On their way there, the third engine stopped also and now the crew was throwing all extras out to make the plane lighter.
When they got to Vis, they were instructed to circle which was standard practice for damaged bombers. They would make two passes over the airfield, baling out half their crew on each pass, and then leaving the aircraft to crash where it would, usually into the sea. For those landing in the water, Partisan, British, or American vessels would head to their rescue, but for those who went down in their aircraft, rescues were seldom.
While circling the airfield the last engine got lost and the plane had to land immediately. They glided toward the coast and the pilot decided to land on the sea. He managed to land it less than 50 meters from the coast near the village of Rukavac. The landing on the sea was smooth.
This allowed the crew to evacuate in inflatable rafts. After some minutes on the surface, the plane sank to the bottom mostly intact. It sank not far away from the coast but took the body of the co-pilot with it to the sea bottom.
What is fascinating in this story is that B-17 successfully landed on the sea and stayed floating for some time before it went down in one piece. Like somebody planned to set up an artificial reef. They say it is because of those big, wide, and low-positioned wings which allowed the plane to skim on the surface and not break into it.
Since the plane is very deep, with the bottom around 70m, this location is available only for experienced divers. The dive has to be planned well since this is beyond “normal” diving. It is not so far away from the coast, so some of the dives end up ascending and doing deco along the coast and not in the blue.
Typically one is going down and up along the line. On my first dive here back in 2018 I had a very short bottom dive to minimize the deco stop. This meant that I had to prepare well and have a complete vision of what I wanted to accomplish. Later as I moved onto CCR I was able to prolong my stay there easily to 30–40min.
On that first dive in 2018, I decided that I don’t want to take strobes with me and instead, I should focus just on ambient light and just a few shots that I have imagined upfront in my mind. Having just a few desired shots, I was able to focus only on them and there was no need to be creative down under and think what to do.
On later dives, since I could stay longer I focus on other aspects of the wreck. Having a DPV also helped to go around faster.
Crew Recovery Mission
I heard that DPAA (Defence Prisoner Of War / Missing In Action Accounting Agency) also had a recovery project in 2021 with a similar team they used for Tulsamerican earlier in 2017.
The goal would be the recovery and identification of the remains of the co-pilot whose body stayed inside the plane inside the nose turret that got crashed during the landing on the sea.
1. This is the best underwater wreck of B-17 in terms of completeness and overall structural integrity.
2. B-17 dropped more bombs than any other aircraft during World War II.
3. To protect Norden bombsight’s advantages, the Norden was granted the utmost secrecy well into the war, and was part of a production effort on a similar scale to the Manhattan Project: the overall cost (both R&D and production) was $1.1 billion, as much as 2/3 of the latter or over a quarter of the production cost of all B-17 bombers.
4. Under combat conditions, the Norden did not achieve its expected precision
5. The Sperry Corporation designed ventral versions that became the most common version; thus, the term “ball turret” generally indicates these versions.
6. The Sperry ball turret was very small to reduce drag and was typically operated by the smallest man on the crew. To enter the turret, the turret was moved until the guns were pointed straight down. The gunner placed his feet in the heel rests and occupied his cramped station. He would put on a safety strap and close and lock the turret door. There was no room inside for a parachute, which was left in the cabin above the turret. A few gunners wore a chest parachute.
7. Island Vis has more B-17 wrecks waiting to be discovered or explored.
8. Island Vis has B-24 wrecks as well, discovered and explored or waiting to be discovered or explored.
9. During World War II, after crash-landing or being forced down, approximately 40 B-17s were captured and refurbished by Germany, with about a dozen put back into the air. They were used to determine the B-17’s vulnerabilities and to train German interceptor pilots in attack tactics.
10. The B-17 Flying Fortress became symbolic of the United States of America’s air power. In a 1943 Consolidated run poll on 2.500 people in cities where Consolidated advertisements had been run in newspapers, 73% had heard of the B-24 and 90% knew of the B-17.
11. Many pilots who flew both the B-17 and the B-24 preferred the B-17 for its greater stability and ease in formation flying. During the war, the largest offensive bombing force, the Eighth Air Force, had an open preference for the B-17.
12. 46 planes survive in complete form, nine of which are airworthy, and 39 of which reside in the United States.
13. B-17 Flying Fortress G-BEDF Sally B is the last remaining airworthy B-17 in Europe
All underwater photos used in this article were created by me on one of my trips to Island Vis between 2018 and 2021. Land photos are from during my visit to IWM Duxford in 2012 and San Diego Air & Space Museum in 2022.
I would love to express a word of gratitude to B-24 Diving Center in Komiza on Island Vis that helped me to get to this amazing wreck and take photos of it.
My tools of the trade under the water now are Nikon D850 DSLR camera with Nikkor 8–15mm f/4.0 fisheye and Nikkor AF-S 16–35mm f/4.0G lenses inside Sea & Sea underwater housing with Inon z330 underwater strobes.
Above the footer, I am a fan of the Fujifilm X-Pro2 camera in combination with the Fujinon XF 23mm f/1.4 R lens along with my iPhone.
This article is also published on Medium.