Date: Sat, 7 Sep 1996 22:35:24 +1608
From: "Donald M. Lance" engdl[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]SHOWME.MISSOURI.EDU
Subject: Re: wing and a prayer
I think your assessment of the origin of "on a wing and a prayer" is
accurate, but I doubt that it originated before WWII. In WWII, it was not
unusual for a plane, especially a bomber, to return to its airfield with
much of one wing blown off. Photos of planes in this state are truly
amazing. Flak, which consisted mostly of anti-aircraft shells, was often the
cause of this. The shells had proximity fuses and if one exploded very near
a plane, it could easily take off big chunks of a wing. WWI is an unlikely
source; anti-aircraft barrages consisted mostly of small arms fire and while
bullets can put a lot of holes in an aircraft, it is unlikely that they
would take off a wing. Barnstorming seems even less likely a source, since
any more-than-minor accident was usually fatal. WWII yielded aircraft that
looked incapable of flight, so when these things came in, it looked like
they were supported on one side by a wing and on the other by the hopes and
prayers of the crew.
I still think it's possible for the expression to have originated in
earlier days -- and that its use as we know it and relate to it derives
from WW2 images. If the motor went out on an old single-wing aircraft, it
could glide down to a field, road, or airport. On early planes the wing
was attached to the body, whereas later aircraft have right and left wings.
Biplanes had two wings (planes) attached to the body of the craft, one
above and one below.