The Last Flight

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 at island Vis is one of the best-preserved WW2 airplane wrecks in the world. It even has all the propellers on all the engines.

Back then, this was a brand new plane and it went down after its first combat mission. Now it lies deep down at 70m beneath the sea and it looks like it landed untouched. Due to its depth and therefore challenging diving conditions, meaning it is hard to get down to it and take things off, it has been very well preserved.

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.

Flying Fortress

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. 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 in formation flying.

The full name of this B-17 is US Bomber Boeing B-17G, №44–6630 from 340 Bomb Squadron, 97th Bomb Group.


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, island Vis was during 1943–44 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 Allies. From 1944, a small, but secret, landing strip has been engineered that was used for emergency landings of USAF bombers which are the main reason why there are so many aircraft wrecks around the island.

The Last Mission

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. The last mission of this B-17, which was as well it’s first one, was a bombing run over Austria in November 1944. On November 6th, 1944, this B-17 was hit by German Air Defense over Slovenia and with a damaged hydraulic system and engines took the direction toward island Vis, which was the closest Allied airport in an attempt to land there. While circling the airfield the last engine got lost and the plane had to land immediately.

The pilot decided to land on the sea and managed to land less than 50 meters from the coast near the village of Rukavac. This allowed the crew to evacuate in inflatable rafts. After some minutes on the surface, the plane sank to the bottom mostly intact.

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 setting 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.

B-24 is a completely opposite case of B-17, where it would break in half after touching the water and the front part would rotate while sinking and is pretty much always upside down.

The Dive

Since the plane is very deep, with the bottom around 70m, this location is available only for experienced divers. 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.

We were going down and up along the line with a very short bottom dive in order to minimize the deco stop. This meant that I had to prepare well and have a complete vision of what I want to accomplish.

I have 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 of 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.

Interesting Facts

1. This is the best underwater wreck of B-17 in terms of completeness and overall structural integrity.

2. Island Vis has more B-17 wrecks waiting to be discovered or explored.

3. Island Vis has B-24 wrecks as well, discovered and explored or waiting to be discovered or explored.

4. During World War II, after crash-landing or being forced down, approximately 40 B-17s were captured and refurbished, with about a dozen put back into the air.

5. 46 planes survive in complete form, nine of which are airworthy, and 39 of which reside in the United States.

References