One a day in Tampa Bay

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

The appearance of powerful, modern German and Japanese medium bombers in the late 1930s led the United States Army Air Corps to issue a specification on March 11, 1939, for a new, fast twin-engined medium bomber.

Two bombers were selected: the North American B-25 Mitchell, which had been under development for several years, and a more radical bomber, the Martin Model 179, which became the B-26 Marauder.

The B-26 was an exceptionally clean design with a high wing, a circular torpedo-shaped fuselage and tricycle landing gear. It was powered by two 1,900 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engines that gave it exceptional performance for a medium bomber – a maximum speed of 315 mph and a range of 1,100 miles with a 4,000 pound internal bomb load.

It carried a very heavily defensive armament for the time: two 50 caliber machine guns each in two positions – one in the tail and a powered turret on the upper rear fuselage – the first powered turret ever fitted to a U.S. aircraft. The B-26 was ordered into production before a prototype even flew. The first B-26 flew on Nov. 25, 1940, and deliveries to the U.S. Army Air Corps began in February 1941 – an incredibly short time. While not without precedent, the failure to test prototypes of the B-26 was to have significant implications.

There is no free lunch in aircraft design, and problems with the B-26 quickly began to appear. The Air Corps wanted a high maximum speed, so to achieve this the wing was very small, with a span of only 65 feet and a wing loading of more than 50 pounds per square foot – the highest of any Allied bomber of the time.

High wing loading means poor performance at slow speed, but the Air Corps had put no limitation on landing speed, so the B-26 had an extraordinarily high landing speed of 120 to 135 mph, depending on the configuration.

Additionally, because of its rotund fuselage, the Marauder’s engines were placed fairly far outboard on the wing. In this position, a single engine failure caused substantial asymmetrical thrust that induced rapid yaw and roll rates if at slow speed. The high wing loading and position of the engines meant if an engine failed immediately after the take off, the aircraft could not stay airborne.

Adding to the problem was the unreliability of the automatic pitch change mechanism on the Curtiss propellers. They were prone to a failure that resulted in an overspeeding propeller, called a “runaway prop,” which made a loud shrieking noise and could destroy the engine and/or cause the propeller blades to break off from the hub and tear into the fuselage.

The first B-26s were delivered to the 22nd Bombardment Group (Medium) based at Langley Field, and its commander was quickly killed in a B-26 accident. Then, immediately after World War II began, the 21st Bombardment Group (Medium) was activated at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., as the Operational Training Unit for the B-26.

The training course was a disaster. The wartime need for large numbers of pilots led to many students who would have washed out in earlier days making it through early training and moving on to the B-26. At the same time, the most experienced pilots and maintenance personnel were already overseas in combat.

Marginal students, inexperienced instructors and poor maintenance, which contributed to the high incidence of engine failures, combined with the difficult flying characteristics of the B-26 led to many accidents. In one 30-day period, 15 B-26s crashed and provided an informal motto for MacDill: “One a day in Tampa Bay.”

The B-26 soon received the nickname “Flying Prostitute” because its small wings offered “no visible means of support.” Beginning in 1943, there were at least four congressional investigations of the B-26 program, one led by soon-to-be-President Senator Harry Truman. While there were several recommendations to ground the B-26 or even stop production, war needs trumped this and production continued.
In response to the accidents, Martin modified the B-26 to the “big wing” B-26B, with an additional 6 feet of wingspan. Despite these modifications, the B-26B was much heavier and the new wing only slightly reduced landing and stall speeds.

The first B-26s were sent to the Southwest Pacific, but were soon withdrawn for lack of range and sent to England, where they were integrated into Eight Air Force in April 1943. At first they were used on low level missions, though there was some questions if they were fast enough. The question was resoundingly answered on their second mission, flown on May 17. Eleven B-26s were sent to a target in the Netherlands and all were shot down; only two crewmen were rescued from the North Sea.

After this disaster, the B-26 was relegated to relatively short-range, medium-altitude operations with heavy fighter escort, and it served well in that role. By 1944, the B-26s had become a mainstay of the U.S. 9th Air Force, and when the war ended, B-26s had the lowest loss rate on operational missions of any American aircraft in the European theater.

As soon as the war was over, the B-26s were quickly dropped from the inventory. Meanwhile, its seemingly less advanced stable mate, the North American B-25 Mitchell, had gone on to aviation immortality with the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo and a wide variety of successes in the Pacific, and continued to serve in the USAF until the 1950s.

For questions or comment, contact Dr. Michel at