A Piece of String: An Exercise in Problem Solving

By | August 6, 2013
Roy E. Davis

Author and Primrose resident, Roy E. Davis

Airman Roy E. Davis

Airman Roy E. Davis

Sometimes the easiest and logical solution to a critical problem can often be solved by the simplest known methods of problem solving tools. Take a simple piece of string.

In combat, the two waist gunners are responsible for protecting their side of the aircraft. As enemy aircraft flew within view of these gunners, they fired continuously until the aircraft disappeared from view. This continuous firing created a problem when the barrel of the machine gun overheated. This heat often caused the gun to malfunction and to become inoperative. In the often confusing and sometimes frantic conditions experienced in combat, their excessive firing also unintentionally damaged the wing tips of the waist gunner’s own B-17.

As the number of B-17’s returning with both wing tips severely damaged increased, a design flaw in the waist gunner’s position in the aircraft was suspected. To expect a waist gunner, as they fired on enemy aircraft, to stop short of hitting their own aircraft was unrealistic. Hence, we were assigned the task to find a solution to this serious problem.

Studying the problem with measurement and other ideas, my colleagues and I were, at first, rather stumped. We started by checking identical B-17 bombers, where wing tip damage did not exist. Upon further examination the problem seemed to be caused when the new advanced air-cooled machine guns were installed on older B-17’s. In summary, the wing tip damage was being caused when the new gun was installed on the older B-17’s. Our challenge was to determine the maximum amount of arc travel that could be permitted by the machine gun without resulting in damage to the wing tips. Our objective was to find the optimal travel of the gun and control it mechanically so the waist gunner could focus on shooting down the enemy aircraft and not be concerned with hitting their own aircraft. In one of our mechanic tool boxes was a ball of string and a means to help us find a solution. By tying the string to the front sight of the window machine gun and to the area of damage on the wing tip we were able to determine where the forward travel of the gun needed to stop.

With this information, we began designing brackets to stop the forward travel of the machine gun to prevent inflicting damage to the wing. The installation of these brackets gave us a quick fix to a serious problem. The entire problem solving process and installation of the brackets was completed in 36 hours. With the gun firing arc of travel completely under control, no new wing tip damage occurred and the problem was solved in the field by military personnel. We felt the timely and cost-effective implementation of our solution certainly contributed to the European war effort and hopefully helped save the lives of many of our airmen. As the old saying goes, the simplest ideas and methods are usually the best solution.

About the Author:
Sgt. Roy E. Davis was inducted into the USAAF on May 15, 1942. He completed basic training at Kessler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi and received technical meteorological training at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois. In August of 1942, he was shipped to the Bovington Air Force Base in Wadford, England. Mr. Davis was honorably discharged from the service in November 1945. He is a life-long resident of Anderson, Indiana, with wife, Georgianna and their three children. He now calls Primrose Retirement Community in Anderson, IN his home.

[Welcome, gentle reader. You have just finished reading the 37th installment in a series of blogs written by actual Primrose residents. Please return often to read more! — Ed]

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