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Bomber Armor

Dear Tom and Ray,

I really enjoy solving the Puzzler and always look forward to discovering if I solved it correctly. But I have to tell you that the answer to the Puzzler regarding armor on the RAF planes was completely bogus. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the most bogus answer ever, this answer rated an 87.3, and that factors in a +/- 3-point margin of error.

I reasoned that the correct answer was under the engines because if the engines were shot the planes couldn’t fly. The day you gave the answer I was at the Hill Aerospace Museum near Ogden, Utah. The Museum exhibits more than 90 military aircraft, missiles, and aerospace vehicles including a Wright 1903 Flyer, C130, B52, B29 Superfortress, P38 Lightning, P51 Mustang, etc. You get the picture. I thought ‘this is perfect. I’ll ask these guys at the museum what the answer is and see if I got it right.’ One volunteer thought it was the “titanium bathtub” developed for fighters during the Viet Nam war to protect the pilot. But that couldn’t be the answer since that was post World War II. None of the half-dozen volunteers I asked knew the answer. Knowing my wife was waiting for me I started to leave when I saw this veteran telling his family all about what he did on a B17 Flying Fortress. He was a gunner in one of those turrets along the side of the aircraft. It was amazing watching him tell what must have been his children, grandchildren and maybe even great-grandchildren how he was shot down and spent time as a POW. I thought surely he would know where they placed the armor. When he paused, I introduced myself, told him of the Puzzler and asked him where he thought they would have placed the armor. I was completely deflated when he said “I don’t know.”

After wandering around trying to find the answer with no success, I met my wife in the lobby and we walked back to the car. I couldn’t stand not knowing, so I pulled up your website and was blown away with the answer. You said the answer to where they put the armor on the planes was “… to armor-plate the un-hit areas that the returning planes had in common.” Leading up to this answer you even offered that clearly they could not put armor on the propellers, but this answer qualifies the propellers for armor.

This has got to be the most bogus answer ever thrust on your listeners. To illustrate my argument, I am going to call your logic the Magliozzi Theorem. Your answer of ‘putting the armor where the holes were not’ is analogous to ‘the right answer is where the wrong answer is not.’

Let’s examine how this theorem will jeopardize every fabric our of society, particularly education:

  1. A first grader is taking a test and one of the questions is “how much is 8 + 6?” The student hasn’t studied and he has run out of fingers to do the counting. So he invokes the Magliozzi Theorem and writes down ‘the answer is not 2’ deducing that since the answer can’t be 2, then this is as good as the correct answer.
  2. How about pharmaceuticals. A company tests several formulas for a new drug and is conducting a trial on humans. One control group that was taking a particular formula all die. The CEO jumps up at the meeting and declares all of the other formulas are good and apply for FDA approval. The FDA asks for the data and the scientist invoke the Magliozzi Theorem and conclude “well we know it’s not the formula that killed people, so this must be it.”
  3. And now the most damaging argument of all; past puzzlers. Take virtually any Puzzler and apply Magliozzi Theorem. How about “Road Trip Trigonometry?” After the explanation, the question was “Who drove the most – and how many more miles did that person drive?” I could submit an answer of ‘the one who drove the most is not the one who drove the least and he drove at least one more mile.”

You have only one course of action that you must take; you must go back and tell your listeners exactly where they put the armor.

Very respectfully submitted,
North Carolina

With respect to Tom and Ray who are no longer listening in, very interesting.

Sorry Joe, you’re wrong, T&R are right. Their answer makes perfect sense to me, this is my favorite puzzler (they’ve done it before). What is so hard to understand? The planes that got back with bullet holes obviously were shot in non-critical areas, so the areas without bullet holes represent critical areas to protect. Planes shot in those areas didn’t make it back. Easy-peasy.

…and it was broadcast so many years ago that it is hardly worthwhile making a retraction even if they did concede that they were wrong.

I concur w/T&R, this is an excellent puzzler and to solve it requires thinking differently than most puzzles require. In the example you give about a student taking a test, that is not the same technique.

Here’s a better test-taking analogy. A student finds a pile of 20 multiple choice question tests in the garbage. 10 questions, each with four possible answers. He notices all of the tests got 0 out of 10. All failing grades, not a single correct answer. Coincidentally, he realizes this is the very test he’s taking the next day in class. Is there a way he can benefit, given that all of the answers are wrong?

Of course, he now has a list of assorted wrong answer. For example on question 1, there are 10 A’s, 10 B’s. So he knows the answer is either C or D. For question 2, there are 10 A’s, 9 B’s, and 1 C. So he knows the answer is D. etc etc.

Your theorem implies knowing the wrong answer has no value. But as you can see, knowing the wrong answer is often just as good as knowing the right answer.

Joe, Tom & Ray retired long ago.

Armor plating aircraft? One does not armor plate aircraft. Armor is heavy. It costs fuel to transport. It reduces mission effectiveness by reducing range and payload. Bombers are protected by altitude, speed, maneuverability, camouflage, and… in the old days… armament. In my day (Viet Nam) Electronic Countermeasures (ECM), chaff, and rear gatling guns (remotely controlled on the G and H models, controlled by a gunner in the empennage on the D models… C models were pretty much phased out at that point). I’m told that current versions of the H models, the only BUFFs still in service, no longer have the gatling gun. During WWII, in which my dad served repairing B25s, they of course had tail and turret gunners.

A bomber is not as easy to shoot down with conventional projectiles as one might imagine. I’ve seen (and been on) bombers that came back shot up pretty badly, and they still returned. We lost fifteen B52s during Operation Linebacker II, from December 18 to December 29, 1972, the bombing of Hanoi, in which I participated. Almost all were from SAMs. Armor plating would have made the planes even less maneuverable than they were and would be useless as a defense against SAMs.

Having lived with and on bombers for four years of my life, I consider the entire puzzler of where armor was put on bombers to be an interesting thought experiment, but with zero basis in truth and little knowledge of bombers. Unless I see factual information from a reputable military source, I will continue to consider the idea that bombers were armor plated to be a myth.

I suspect that the B17 gunner you asked had no idea because it never happened.

Sorry to burst anybody’s bubble. If someone here has actually flown in active service on a bomber with armor plate, please write. I’d be interested to hear from you.

The only armor plating I know of was near the pilot on some fighters. Fuel tanks often had rubber lining to reduce sensitivity to bullets. Some ground attack planes did have some armor to protect against ground fire. Japanese planes didn’t have these measures and were more easily shot down as a result.

I agree, the OP thought the question was historical, instead of a logic puzzle.

"Some ground attack planes did have some armor to protect against ground fire. "

The A-10 “Warthog”–which is used for low-altitude support of ground troops and for killing tanks and other armored vehicles–does have over 1,000 lbs of titanium armor, but I think that this plane is unique in that respect.

Henry “Smokey” Yunick flew a B-17 in WWII.
In his autobiography he talks about some very personal armor he installed himself:

“A friend of mine was hit by flak from below. It came through the seat and blew his b@lls into such bad shape they had to remove ’em. Before the next mission I had a 50 pound piece of armor for my seat. I drug that plate along with me and put it in the bottom of my seat from then on. In those days, the possibility of a life without sex was a fate more horrible to contemplate than death.”

He also mentions removing armor plate from a B-25 to increase performance.
This was his “personal” plane he used for transport “side jobs” in North Africa.

In Stephen Amborse’s bio of George McGovern’s days as a WWII B-24 bomber pilot, he mentions how the planes were dispatched horribly overloaded, per the manufacturer’s instructions. He quoted McGovern as saying (from memory; probably paraphrased); "Yes, they were overloaded, but what would you leave behind? The fuel to get home? The ammo? You have to take the bombs or there’s no point in going."

So, yes, I doubt there was much actual armor-plating going on. I, too, have heard the stories about sitting atop an iron skillet and the like, but not putting slabs of iron on a plane. Heck, think about how damn hard it was to get armor on HMMWVs against IEDs in Iraq!

My info is about WWII planes. For example, the P-39 Airacobra was designed as a tank buster because of its through-the-prop 37mm cannon and the heavy armor around the pilot. Per wiki:
“The Airacobra was one of the first production fighters to be conceived as a “weapons system”; in this case the aircraft was designed around the 37mm T9 cannon. This weapon, which was designed in 1934 by the American Armament Corporation, a division of Oldsmobile, fired a 1.3 lb projectile capable of piercing 0.8 in of armor at 500 yd with armor-piercing rounds. The 200 lb, 90 inch long weapon had to be rigidly mounted and fire parallel to and close to the centerline of the new fighter. It would be impossible to mount the weapon in the fuselage, firing through the propeller shaft as could be done with smaller 20mm cannon. Weight, balance and visibility problems meant that the cockpit could not be placed farther back in the fuselage, behind the engine and cannon. The solution adopted was to mount the cannon in the forward fuselage and the engine in the center fuselage, directly behind the pilot’s seat.”

edit- I found out the Russians loved it as an air-to-air fighter, used by some of their top aces. It was rarely used by them against tanks, because the US would send Russia the armor-piercing rounds. The myth of the tank busting Russian P-39 came from mis-translations, it seems.

So it was the A-10 of its era, it seems.

the same mountainbike I agree with you 100%. If aircraft have any armor it is for crew protection and more often worn by the crew rather than installed on the aircraft. The first time I saw the puzzler “story” was over 30 years ago in an aviation magazine. It was presented as an example of odd (to us Yankees) British humour.

Speaking of Russians and tank busters, the most-produced combat aircraft in history was the Russian Ilyushin IL-2, a ground attack aircraft nicknamed the “Flying Tank.” It was deployed with great success against German tank formations. So the IL-2 was actually the A-10 of its era, not the P-39.

The IL-2 was specifically designed as a heavily armored ground attack plane, whereas the P-39 was designed as a fighter and thus was not burdened with as much armor as the IL-2, which carried a 700 kg armored shell around the crew, engine, and fuel tanks.

"Thanks to the heavy armor protection, the Il-2 could take a great deal of punishment and proved difficult for both ground and aircraft fire to shoot down. One Il-2 in particular was reported to have returned safely to base despite receiving more than 600 direct hits and having all its control surfaces completely shredded as well as numerous holes in its main armor and other structural damage. "

"The armored tub, ranging from 5–12 mm (0.2-0.5 in) in thickness and enveloping the engine and the cockpit, could deflect all small arms fire and glancing blows from larger-caliber ammunition. There are reports of the armored windscreen surviving direct hits from 20 mm (0.79 in) rounds. Unfortunately, the rear gunners did not have the benefit of all-around armor protection, especially from the rear and to the sides and suffered about four times more casualties than the pilots. "

The Germans had several nicknames for it. My favorite is “Zementbomber (Concrete bomber)”, presumably becuase it was so heavily armored.

Nevertheless, TSM is correct that American heavy bombers were typically not armored because they were designed to fly high above flak and to carry as much bomb load and fuel as possible. It was the ground attack planes like the IL-2, and later the A-10, that were heavily armored.

Other fighter-bombers were also armored, like the Hurricane (well, ‘armoured’ in Brit-speak):
“Hurricane Mk IIB conversion armed with two 40 mm anti-tank autocannons in a gondola-style pod, one under each wing and a single Browning machine gun in each wing loaded with tracers for aiming purposes. The first aircraft flew on 18 September 1941 and deliveries started in 1942. Serial built aircraft had additional armour for the pilot, radiator and engine, and were armed with a Rolls-Royce gun with 12 rounds, later changed to the 40 mm Vickers S gun with 15 rounds. The outer wing attachments were strengthened so that 4G could be pulled at a weight of 8,540 lb The weight of guns and armour protection marginally impacted the aircraft’s performance. These Hurricanes were nicknamed “Flying Can Openers”, perhaps a play on the No. 6 Squadron’s logo which flew the Hurricane starting in 1941.”

I think OP is missing the point on the puzzlers: they’re designed to encourage novel, “outside the box” thinking to solve a puzzle. They aren’t really noted for historical accuracy. There’s a “willing suspension of disbelief” that’s necessary here, much like the fracas we had with the “prisoners and the light switches” a while ago.

I mean, you wouldn’t go to a production of West Side Story and complain, “BOOOOGUS! There’s no way you’re gonna break into a song and dance routine in the middle of a knife fight!” (Although, in fairness, I don’t know OP personally, so perhaps he does…)

If anyone’s curious about the ‘tank buster’ aircraft of WWII, here’s a good article (summary - most statistics were exaggerated by 10X or so, the aircraft didn’t do much to tanks, lots to supply vehicles).