Share This Article

What’s in a name? Everything, if it seems to invite disaster.

Almost as long as there have been airplanes, pilots have given them names. Aviators have often found pride and comfort in personalizing their aircraft, especially during wartime. To World War II airmen and ground crews, for example, their assigned aircraft was often far more than just a collection of parts with a U.S. Army Air Forces serial number. Given a proper name, it assumed a character and personality: It was Piccadilly Lilly, Flak Bait, Special Delivery, Dog Breath, Tinker Toy, My Gal Sal, Shoo Shoo Baby, Memphis Belle…or Skylark. It became part of their family, a familiar refuge as well as transportation to, and hopefully home from, a fearsome aerial battleground.

Though many airplanes were beloved by their crews, a few others gained a reputation for being cursed—sometimes as maintenance-intensive “hangar queens,” or worse, unlucky in combat. As former B-17 gunner/flight engineer John Comer pointed out in his book Combat Crew, aircraft that were supposedly jinxed could weigh heavily on the minds of airmen assigned to fly in them. “Men in combat tend to become superstitious,” he wrote. “They go to great lengths to avoid whatever they suspect as being unlucky. They cling to lucky charms and some clothing that they have always worn on missions, or to anything they associate with luck.” For some, being assigned to fly in jinxed aircraft was seen as a nightmare come true, an omen of their own possible doom. Sometimes too an aircraft name became feared, as troublesome legends were passed from crew to crew.

One example was Tinker Toy, a B-17 assigned to the Eighth Air Force’s 381st Bomb Group. According to Comer, many men trembled when they heard they were scheduled to fly in Tinker Toy, absolutely convinced that bad things would happen because the bomber had time and again served as a magnet for enemy fighters and anti-aircraft artillery. Maybe they were right. On one mission, Tinker Toy’s pilot was decapitated by a 20mm anti-aircraft shell. Despite being wounded, the copilot managed to fly the “cursed” bomber back to England. The fact that this B-17 had to be repaired so many times served to perpetuate its unfortunate reputation. In 1943 it was rammed by a German fighter and went down over Bremen, Germany, killing most of its crew.

Among ill-fated names, however, Skylark deserves a special place in the annals of infamy. The bad luck associated with this moniker was more pervasive, more deadly, since several different aircraft given the name strangely met the same fate.

The story dates as far back as May 1910, when James C. Mars’ Curtiss biplane was christened by his wife before he took off to make the first-ever manned flights in Arkansas. She reportedly broke a bottle of wine over its engine and announced, “I christen the Skylark; may she fly long and high.” Just a month later Skylark crashed in Topeka, Kan. Fortunately Mars survived that mishap, and the biplane was eventually rebuilt.

Thanks to a popular song written in 1942 by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael, quite a few airplanes would be named Skylark in WWII. “Skylark” appeared on pop charts multiple times during the war years, performed by Glenn Miller, Harry James, Dinah Shore and Bing Crosby. The lyrics were inspiring:

Oh skylark
I don’t know if you can find these things
But my heart is riding on your wings
So if you see them anywhere
Won’t you lead me there

The legend of doomed Skylarks really begins with a twin-engine B-26 Marauder medium bomber, serial no. 41-17917, assigned to the 17th Bomb Group and piloted by 2nd Lt. Conrad Kreps. This Skylark, with six men aboard, was shot out of the sky by antiaircraft artillery in January 1943, crashing just west of Gabes, Tunisia, and killing one crewman. Kreps returned to duty after that incident, but he was killed five days later in another aircraft.

A year later, in January 1944, a 96th Bomb Group B-17 named Skylark, no. 42-30859, collided with another Flying Fortress following a raid on Frankfurt. This Skylark had originally been designated as the squadron lead ship, but during preflight its pilot, 1st Lt. Louis C. Kandl, discovered a mechanical problem that resulted in a late takeoff. When Skylark finally joined the long bomber stream, it filled a slot toward the rear of the formation. After completing the bomb run, another B-17 that had been hit veered off course while the group was under attack by enemy fighters, plowing into Skylark and killing eight of the 10 crewmen. Both bombers crashed near Hermeskeil, Germany. In an eerie foreshadowing of the accident that would take his life, copilot 2nd Lt. Brandon J. Britt had written in his diary, “I think we have something in our ship that attracts flak.”

Other Skylarks would suffer similar fates. During March 1943, B-17 no. 42-5378, from the 306th Bomb Group, was shot down near Lorient, France. This Skylark’s aircraft commander, 1st Lt. Earl C. Tunnel, and five crewmen became POWs, while three others were killed. Just one man, 1st Lt. Robert Biggs, managed to evade enemy forces and escape.

In April 1944, another B-26 dubbed Skylark, no. 42-43293 from the Sardinia-based 17th Bomb Group, was hit in the left engine by flak during a raid on Bucine, Italy. Although the plane had no hydraulic systems pressure or elevator control, the crew managed to dump their bombload, and the aircraft commander, Lieutenant Charles E. Dougan, belly-landed at Alto, a Spitfire field on Corsica. The crewmen survived the ordeal, but the Marauder was a write-off.

That August, a pair of enemy fighters shot down yet another Skylark, B-17 no. 42-97204 from the 384th Bomb Group, piloted by 2nd Lt. Harry W. Rainey Jr., following a raid on Anklam, Germany. Its 10 crewmen bailed out safely, though all but one landed in a military camp housing SS troops. The tail gunner, Staff Sgt. Norman H. Gordon, was shot and killed shortly after landing inside the base. Only waist gunner Staff Sgt. Alfred Knowlton, who landed outside the camp, managed to evade capture.

Even after an aircraft’s name was changed from Skylark, on at least one occasion it seemingly could not escape its doom. Eighth Air Force B-24H Liberator no. 41-29192, known as Skylark while assigned to the 389th Bomb Group, was renamed The Sky Shark after being transferred to the 392nd Bomb Group. Piloted by 2nd Lt. Robert K. White, the bomber was heavily damaged by enemy fighters during a February 1944 raid on a Messerschmitt plant in Gotha, Germany. Ten airmen bailed out successfully, and all but one became POWs. Technical Sergeant Richard W. Wenzlaff, the radio operator, was later listed as killed in action.

Bombers weren’t the only ill-fated Skylarks in the European and Mediterranean theaters. In 1944 two fighters named Skylark from the 55th Fighter Group that were based in England crashed. The first to be lost, in January, was P-38 Lightning no. 42-67080, with pilot 1st Lt. Herbert T. Winter Jr. listed as KIA. Later that year, 1st Lt. Robert K. Harbeck was killed when his Skylark, P-51 Mustang no. 44-14204, went down.

The curse even seemed to extend beyond aircraft. The minesweeper USS Skylark (AM-63) ran into two Japanese mines off Okinawa in March 1945. The first mine exploded on its port side, setting the ship on fire. The minesweeper’s crewmen fought valiantly to save their vessel, but it was doomed after it struck a second mine. Five sailors were killed in the two blasts aboard this oceangoing Skylark, which sank just 15 minutes later.

Of the many thousands of aircraft churned out on assembly lines during WWII, a surprisingly high percentage of those dubbed Skylark met with destruction. But despite the travails they endured, not all Skylark crewmen believed their airplane was cursed. The crew of the aforementioned B-26 Skylark forced to belly-land on Corsica in April 1944 considered themselves lucky to have suffered no fatalities. “We were extremely fortunate that neither of us received major wounds,” recalled Charles Dougan, the pilot in command. “The copilot and I picked Plexiglas splinters out of our bodies for several weeks afterward.”

In the end, it’s perhaps most important that the Skylark story is viewed in the context of the overarching chronicle of combat aviation. So many young men who went off to war searched for meaning in the conflict. And so many forfeited their lives far from home while reaching for the skies.


Ron Eschmann is retired from the U.S. military and currently works in Washington, D.C. Additional reading: Combat Crew, by John Comer; Untold Valor, by Rob Morris; and Bombers, by Philip Kaplan.

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.