Here’s a bit of spooky fluff for your afternoon. I presented the story below at a Christmas party for some scary storytelling around a campfire. It’s a mix of fact and (mostly) fiction, but the Widowmaker was a very real plane. I hope you enjoy it!
I know a friend from church who runs a business chartering party cruises in the bay. He told me that on certain nights, out on the water, you can hear an old WW2 song by Bing Crosby. But to understand why, you have to know about a plane called the Widowmaker.
In 1940, just before the US entered World War II, the US Army aviation unit began testing a new plane: the Martin B26 Marauder. She was a medium-size bomber, using then-cutting-edge design for better maneuverability and range. New planes were sent to Macdill, then called Macdill Air Field, for crew training around 1942.
She was soon called the Widowmaker because she routinely killed trainees.
The B26 required tight speed control on takeoff and landing. If you came in too slow on your runway approach, she’d stall out and fall out of the sky. Her wing design meant that she was almost impossible to fly if an engine went out, which happened frequently.
The failure rate got so high, with planes ditching in the bay or crashing into people’s homes, that “one a day in Tampa bay” became a catchphrase. The army recovered the planes that crashed on land, but the bombers ditched in the bay were left at the bottom.
Trainees, gearing up for a test run, took to singing a Bing Crosby hit: “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer.” It annoyed the brass to no end, but they were too concerned about getting the B26 into the European theater. They let the morbid humor slide.
Enough trainees had died learning to fly the Marauder that an investigation (led by then-congressman Harry Truman) hauled in the project leader to testify. After more crashes, enough pilots could fly the b26 that she began seeing action overseas. She was invaluable to the allied victory several years later.
The army aviation unit became the Air Force, and Macdill an Air Force base.
So next time you charter a party boat, take a listen. You might hear some low-flying propeller engines, nothing like what flies out of Macdill nowadays. You might smell exhaust fumes and burning rubber. You might feel a sudden gust of wind rushing over the boat. And you might just hear, under the roar of the engines, Bing Crosby singing.
“Coming in on a wing and a prayer…”