Jack Seidner: Piloting on a prayer

November 7, 2005 

Not since his bar mitzvah had Jack Seidner uttered one of the holiest prayers in Judaism.

But he couldn't think of anything else while falling toward the Gulf of Mexico in a disabled bomber.

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is one," the staff sergeant whispered as his B-17 Flying Fortress plummeted with half of its engines dead.

Seidner, now 85 and a retired carpet salesman in State College, was an aerial engineer on a training flight in 1945 when he and the pilot noticed flames shooting from the outer left engine.

The pilot acted quickly, signaling the co-pilot to stop, or "feather," the propeller to keep the blades from windmilling and possibly wrenching the engine apart. Instead, the adjacent No. 2 engine accidentally was shut down.

Down went the bomber. Seidner began praying.

"There are no atheists at 20,000 feet with an engine on fire," he said.

His life, he said, began flashing before him.

A native of the Bronx in New York, he had enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940.

"Things were tough as far as occupations, and aviation being new, I thought I'd venture into that," he said.

He graduated from technical school and became an instructor, teaching aircraft and engine mechanics at Chanute Field, just south of Chicago, and Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss.

At Chanute, he met members of the famous Flying Tigers, fighter pilots who fought as paid volunteers against the Japanese in China. The Army had sent some back for ground training.

He later taught another celebrated group of aviators, the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black fighter pilots.

"They were smart young men," Seidner said. "They were college graduates; they really made good military men."

But, underscoring the racism some of the black pilots faced, not all their instructors felt the same.

"Some of the fellows didn't want to teach them," Seidner recalled.

Eventually, Seidner decided to pursue flying. The training went smoothly -- until his first solo flight. His instructor, landing the dual cockpit Stearman biplane, told Seidner to take it up himself.

To his surprise while taxiing down the runway, Seidner discovered that his seat in the open cockpit was too high. Wind buffeted his face, and he struggled for control.

"I wrapped my legs around the joystick to lower the seat, and the plane is going like a wounded duck," he said. "I finally managed to get up to the 500-feet level."

In 1944, the Army decided it had enough pilots, and Seidner chose to become an aerial engineer. Training on B-17s out of Tampa Bay, Fla., he stood behind the flight deck, responsible for the top gun turret but ready to assume the controls in case of an emergency.

When the high-altitude practice flight went awry, his knowledge may have saved him.

With his voice muffled by his oxygen mask, Seidner finally chopped the co-pilot's back to get his attention and pointed to the switch for restarting the No. 2 engine.

It worked.

Like an anvil, the bomber had dropped nearly two miles. Seidner had worried whether his parachute -- if he could bail out -- would open and, of all things, whether his shoes would stay on.

"But I did know the gulf was right below us, and it was coming up fast," he said.

No longer free-falling, the bomber's pilot extinguished the burning engine by dipping and pulling up enough to snuff out the fire.

Seidner, who worked for 43 years and raised two sons after his 1945 discharge, counts himself fortunate -- to have averted a plunge into the sea, to have missed the combat raids that sent many bomber crews to their doom.

But after returning from his close call, he had no such luck.

"The commanding officer of the field came out. He approached the plane, and we crewmen were thinking, 'Oh boy, we're going to get the rest of the day off,' " Seidner said. "But it didn't happen that way. He pointed to another B-17 and said, 'Get back in there and take her up for another two hours.' "

Chris Rosenblum can be reached at 231-4620.

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