The dramatic landing of an American Flying Fortress bomber on Fintra Beach shortly after 6:00 p.m. on the evening of February 20th, 1944, was one of the more dramatic episodes of World War II in Killybegs.
The plane, with a crew of ten, was forced to crash land when it ran out of fuel after a dramatic flight from Newfoundland during which the on-board instruments were put out of action and two of the aircraft’s four engines failed.
The aircraft was one of several new B-17G planes being delivered to Prestwick in Scotland from Kearney, Nebraska, but pilot, Frederick Rowan, recalled years later that there were problems from the start. Problems with oil pressure to one of the engines caused a delay of three weeks at Gander Air Force Base in Newfoundland before the trans-Atlantic journey got under way at 2:00 a.m. on February 20th.
Two hours out, one engine failed as they tried to over-fly a storm. “Had anyone been clairvoyant, we would have returned to Gander but, having had a long delay at Gander (23) we decided to continue the flight.”
Now on reduced power, the plane had to fly through the storm. “Within the next five minutes, several dramatic completely unexpected things occurred”, said Rowan. “The first was a jolt, like lightning struck us, and we were suddenly in a spin, losing altitude rapidly…The flight indicator and other instruments were also completely useless. The Flight indicator was locked perpendicular and I had no idea if we were actually spinning to the right or left. I did know if we got into a flat spin, we would not get out of it.”
He succeeded in getting out of the spin but only to find his radio compass and his magnetic compass were showing a 90degrese variation. Which was right? He split the difference and flew at a 45degree angle between the two courses until, about dawn, he got a weak radio signal from Prestwick and a strong radio signal from Iceland. “This proved we were flying north east and necessary corrections had to be made to hit the beam and fly on to our destination.
“Then the final unexpected thing happened – engine number two had a sudden drop in oil pressure and that left us half way across the ocean with only two engines functioning, off course, and uncertain as to how far we were from Prestwick.”
By the time the coast of Donegal came into view, fuel was critically low. After weighing up their options and looking at available landing sites, they decided to come in low over the sea, hit the water to slow down and try to make it to the beach.
Recalls pilot Rowan: “We circled out wide and, after the crew was in crash position, we proceeded in at about 10-20 feet altitude towards the beach ahead. As we got close to the water, one last unexpected surprise awaited us. There were huge green-gray rocks above and below the water and also on the beach ahead, any one of which, if it hit our aircraft, could rip the plane apart and easily cause injury or loss of life.”
“At this point, we were nearing the beach and had to land. I told my co-pilot to open his escape window by several inches so he could get to his lifeboat. I did the same, as the rocks seemed everywhere and could easily jam our escape hatch.”
“We approached the beach at about 110-120 m.p.h. and had to land the plane quickly. We were too low to pull up without the possibility of hitting hills to our right, left or straight-ahead.”
“As one large rock appeared ahead, I pulled the plane upward about five feet – one rock was on the beach dead ahead. This was it. So I hit the water and hoped for the best. There were no hidden rocks under the water and a very smooth landing resulted. Regarding the life rafts, the one on my right worked fine – the other one didn’t, but we were all soon safely ashore and well received by our temporary Irish hosts.”
Local people, who had seen the aircraft-circling overhead before landing, hurried to the beach where they were delighted to see that no one was hurt. They brought the crew to Fintra House and gave them a warm Killybegs welcome. “Late that evening, most if not all of my crew spent a wonderful night enjoying the entertainment and companionship of the fine citizens of Killybegs”, said Fred Rowan. “Unfortunately, I was embroiled in contacting my U.S. Ambassador in Dublin as well as filing reports to various agencies – intelligence, etc., so I missed out on all the festivities.”
The following day, the Irish Army, which had a base in Killybegs during the War, brought the Americans to the Border and handed them over to the British authorities. The ill-fated Flying Fortress was blown up by Army Engineers a few days later.
According to a British report, “the crew could observe fires that had been built on shore by some Irishmen. The crew had only one life raft and five men climbed abroad and the other five hung on to the sides. Reaching land, they were provided hospitality and warmth in a large summer home (hotel). … After a pleasant recuperation, the crew ‘escaped’ from the Irish Republic and reported to the 359BS on 17 March 1944.”