The ‘Flying Fortress’ That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber
The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - The Birth of the B-17
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress holds an iconic place in the history of American aviation. Nicknamed the "Flying Fortress" for its heavy defensive armament, the B-17 first took to the skies in 1935 and went on to fly over 640,000 sorties during World War II. This versatile bomber played a pivotal role in the Allied victory, but its origins stretch back to the early 1930s.
In 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps put out a proposal for a multi-engine bomber that could fly at 10,000 feet at speeds of up to 250 mph. Boeing had been working on a four-engine design designated the Model 299, and decided to enter it into the competition. The Model 299 prototype first flew on July 28, 1935, showcasing many innovative features for the time. These included a stressed-skin aluminum fuselage, retractable landing gear, a powered gun turret, and maneuverable nose wheel steering.
During a demonstration flight in October 1935, the Model 299 crashed due to pilot error. Despite this setback, the Army was impressed with the bomber's capabilities and ordered 13 YB-17 prototypes. Further testing proved the basic soundness of the design, and led to modifications like more powerful engines and increased fuel capacity. By 1938, the Army had ordered over 60 B-17s. Continued development fixed issues with the bomber's handling and defensive vulnerabilities.
On the eve of America's entry into World War II, the B-17 was the country's most advanced bomber. It represented a major leap forward from earlier biplane designs, with features the Army deemed essential for the strategic bombing role. These included a heavy bomb load, self-sealing fuel tanks, and a tail gun to defend against attacks from behind. The B-17 set the standard for bombers to come, pioneering design elements that are still used today.
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- The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - The Birth of the B-17
- The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - From Prototype to Production
- The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - The Flying Fortress in WWII Combat
- The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - The Versatile Bomber's Many Models
- The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - Crew Positions and Life Onboard
- The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - B-17 Defensive Firepower and Armor
- The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - The Aircraft's Impact on Allied Victory
- The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - The B-17's Post-War Legacy
The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - From Prototype to Production
From crashes and cockpits to combat, the B-17 bomber has a fascinating history from prototype to production. This section will highlight how Boeing took their Model 299 prototype and turned it into the mass-produced B-17 Flying Fortress that helped the Allies win World War II.
The Boeing Model 299 prototype that first flew in 1935 represented a huge leap forward in aircraft technology. It pioneered design elements like a stressed-skin aluminum alloy fuselage, retractable landing gear, nose wheel steering, and power gun turrets. At the time, many considered it too advanced for the Army's specifications. However, its capabilities impressed Army brass enough to order a batch of YB-17 prototypes despite the Model 299's fatal crash.
This initial order allowed Boeing to refine the design and fix issues. Engineers strengthened the bomber's structure and increased fuel capacity for longer range. The turbo superchargers on its Wright Cyclone engines boosted performance at higher altitudes. Changes also improved stability and made the B-17 easier to fly. Defensive vulnerabilities got addressed by increasing gun coverage. The YB-17 prototypes proved the bomber’s basic soundness. In 1938, satisfied with the improvements, the Army ordered over 60 B-17s.
By 1941, Boeing’s Seattle plant cranked out a complete B-17 every hour at peak production. New manufacturing techniques like sub-assemblies sped up the process. The plant could produce over 350 Flying Fortresses a month. Other companies eventually joined the production effort as wartime demand escalated. The versatility of Ed Heinemann’s basic design enabled the B-17 to be built in different models. These included radar-equipped night bombers and air-sea rescue variants. Total B-17 production by 1945 topped 12,700 planes.
The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - The Flying Fortress in WWII Combat
The B-17 Flying Fortress earned its fame and nickname in the skies over Europe and the Pacific during World War II. Its versatility and durability in combat made it one of the most important bombers flown by the U.S. Army Air Forces during the war. The B-17 flew more total missions and dropped a greater bomb tonnage than any other U.S. aircraft in the conflict.
When America entered the war in December 1941, the B-17 was its principal heavy bomber. Stationed in England, B-17s with the 8th Air Force began daylight strategic bombing raids on Occupied Europe in 1942. Early raids suffered heavy losses to German fighters and anti-aircraft fire, revealing flaws in formations, tactics, and the Flying Fortress's defense. The bombers lacked fighter escorts, since no Allied fighter could reach occupied territory and return.
Losses led to major changes in combat boxes, armament, and crew training. Additional .50-caliber machine guns improved defense in the B-17E model. The B-17F added powered turrets and chin turrets. New formations like the staggered combat box offered better protection. Bomb groups adopted the "juggling" maneuver to aid damaged bombers. Crews received more gunnery practice to boost accuracy.
These changes, combined with improved fighter escorts like the P-51 Mustang, boosted bomber crews' confidence and survival odds. In 1943-44, the 8th Air Force launched sustained strategic bombing of German industry and oil production. B-17 groups hit key targets like Regensburg ball bearing plants and Ploesti oil refineries in Romania. The bombers drew deadly enemy fire but kept flying. Battered B-17s limping back to England with dead engines, shredded airframes, and wounded crews became a common sight.
The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - The Versatile Bomber's Many Models
The B-17 Flying Fortress cemented its place in history thanks to its versatility. While the original B-17 design proved quite adaptable, Boeing, Lockheed, and other manufacturers produced a number of variants to fulfill specific missions. These different models demonstrate how crews could outfit the bombers for needs ranging from cold weather operations to combat search and rescue.
The baseline B-17E model already bristled with firepower to battle enemy fighters. The B-17F added even more guns in powered turrets, with models fielding as many as 13 .50-caliber machine guns. Later H models sported "chin" turrets for frontal defense. However, the Army Air Forces required bombers for other vital roles besides heavy bombing. Outfitting the trusty Flying Fortress airframe to meet these needs created an array of diverse variants.
Cold environments posed special challenges for bomber operations. The C-108 variant featured insulation, de-icing boots, and other winterization adaptations ideal for the frigid northern latitudes flown by Alaskan-based B-17s. Nicknamed "Attridge Specials" after the modification program’s commander, these allowed the bomber to continue operating in incredibly harsh conditions.
Long-range bomber escort and reconnaissance needs spawned F-9 and F-9A photo variants that swapped bomb bays for extra fuel tanks and cameras. B-17s even got turned into air-sea rescue planes by removing bombing gear to accommodate rafts and survival supplies. The important job of scanning the seas for downed aircrew required excellent visibility and loiter time.
The B-17 also took on duties as a transport hauler in stripped-down C-108 cargo configurations. Others became VIP passenger transports like the C-108A presidential aircraft used by Franklin Roosevelt. Some B-17s got converted into "mothership" control planes that could remotely operate up to 13 drones for dangerous target missions. The versatility of the Flying Fortress airframe enabled it to adapt to virtually any assignment required.
Of course, the need for effective strategic bombers remained paramount. To devastate Japanese shipping, some B-17s boasted a visually intimidating configuration with multiple gun turrets protruding everywhere imaginable. These inspired the nickname "porcupine bomber" given their bristling silhouette. Even radio-controlled B-17s got created to deliver enormous 22,000-lb Grand Slam bombs on German targets.
The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - Crew Positions and Life Onboard
Flying and fighting aboard a B-17 required a remarkably coordinated team effort by the bomber's 10-man crew. Each position played a vital role in keeping the plane in the air and on target. While pilots get most of the glory, every crew member's job was crucial for success and survival on missions deep into enemy territory.
Manning the controls up front, the pilot and co-pilot had to possess exceptional skill and steady nerves. They had to maintain tight formation while dodging flak and enemy fighters, often while nursing a damaged airplane hundreds of miles back home. The flight engineer monitored the B-17's array of complex systems. He troubleshooted technical problems and cranked emergency backup systems like the hydraulic hand-pump if needed.
Down in the "radio room", the radioman operated the radio, leaving coded messages and listening for vital updates. His desk bristled with radio equipment that kept crews in touch with base and other aircraft. Nearby sat the navigator, plotting the route on maps and charts. In skies filled with planes, staying on course was critical. He had to get crews over targets and back through the prevailing winds and clouds.
Manning gun turrets, the bomber's gunners endured cramped spaces but had some of the most hazardous jobs. They endured subzero cold at high altitudes with minimal protective gear. Yet their skill determined whether attackers lived or died. The tail gunner watched the rear, while waist gunners covered the sides. The ball turret gunner hung upside down, swiveling his guns to protect the bomber's vulnerable belly.
Up in the nose, the bombardier had to pick the right moment to unleash bombs on target. Using the Norden bombsight, he lined up sights then "bombs away". His accuracy decided whether factories or rail yards got destroyed or merely damaged. Below decks, the radioman doubled as the flight engineer's assistant monitoring equipment. On early models, a cook might prepare hot meals on the small stove, boosting morale during long flights.
The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - B-17 Defensive Firepower and Armor
The B-17 Flying Fortress earned its "Fortress" nickname thanks to the extensive defensive firepower and armor integrated into its design. Without heavy guns and protection, bombers venturing deep into enemy skies had dismal survival rates early in the war. The B-17 showed America it could be done.
Even initial B-17 designs incorporated defensive needs with nose, dorsal, and ventral gun turrets. The early .30 caliber guns provided limited protection that Allied airmen discovered woefully inadequate. Clever German fighter pilots like Hans-Joachim Marseille ripped into unescorted bombers. To address these vulnerabilities, Boeing and Vega engineers went back to the drawing board.
They added more and heavier .50 caliber machine guns operated by additional gunners. The redesigned B-17E model nearly doubled defensive firepower. The new B-17F mounted chin, cheek, ball, and tail turrets, creating an impressive array of fields of firepower. Waist gunners got beam ports allowing them to engage enemies attacking the sides. In all, the B-17F could direct as many as 13 heavy .50 caliber machine guns at incoming Luftwaffe fighters.
This array of firepower increased crew odds of survival exponentially. B-17 gunners could blanket attacking planes with a lethal wall of lead when formations exercised coordinated firing tactics. Still, it took extensive aerial gunnery training to enable gunners to hit the fast-moving targets. Gunners had to drill constantly to improve accuracy.
Besides firepower upgrades, Boeing strengthened the Flying Fortress's internal armor. More protective plating got added around key areas like crew stations and ammunition magazines. Flak suits issued to crew offered some protection from shrapnel. Self-sealing fuel tanks reduced fires when punctured. All these enhancements aimed to bring crews home alive.
During grueling missions over Germany when enemy fighters and flak barrages reaped a deadly toll, these improvements paid off. Crippled B-17s staggered back to England with over a hundred holes from cannon and machine gun fire. Yet onboard gunners were able to keep German fighters at bay just long enough for the tenacious Flying Fortresses to limp back for hasty repairs and replacements.
The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - The Aircraft's Impact on Allied Victory
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress earned a place in history not just for its iconic toughness, but for the pivotal role it played in enabling Allied victory. By crimping Germany’s industrial capacity and obliterating key targets, it helped bring down the Nazi war machine.
Through 1945, B-17 groups dropped 640,000 tons of bombs on European targets. Its ability to attack precise targets like factories made the B-17 a keystone of America’s daylight precision bombing strategy. The Norden bombsight technology enabled accurate strikes, if weather and flak permitted. The Allies wanted to avoid purely indiscriminate civilian bombing that characterized German night raids.
Initially, the B-17 suffered grievous losses attacking heavily defended targets unescorted. Yet improved bomber formations, fighter escorts, and revisions transformed it into a formidable weapon. When P-51 Mustangs began accompanying missions deep into Germany, B-17 losses decreased. Still, flak and fighters took a brutal toll on planes and crews throughout 1944.
The B-17 proved most devastating in massive coordinated assaults on vital industrial targets. Missions like the daring low-level raid on Ploesti oil refineries delivered serious blows. The famous Schweinfurt-Regensburg mission in August 1943 knocked out crucial ball bearing facilities. Subsequent attacks kept production curtailed for months. This and other heavy raids degraded Germany's intricate war manufacturing web.
The B-17 also devastated transportation networks like marshaling yards and bridges that ferried vital supplies. As the Allies eliminated Luftwaffe airfields and fighters, bombers could strike with near impunity. By war’s end, relentless B-17 assaults left German industry in ruins. With factories demolished and oil supplies evaporating, Nazi Germany’s collapse became inevitable.
Some criticized the B-17’s role, calling the planes “flying coffins” due to heavy losses. Yet the bomber dried up Germany’s ability to wage war. Surviving crew members took fierce pride in bringing the fight to Hitler’s doorstep. "There was no feeling in the world like knowing you played a part in Germany's downfall," recalled veteran pilot Hank Cordes decades later.
The 'Flying Fortress' That Helped Turn the Tide: A Brief History Of The Iconic Boeing B-17 Bomber - The B-17's Post-War Legacy
The B-17 Flying Fortress lives on today as one of the most iconic aircraft of World War II. After Nazi Germany's defeat, thousands of surplus B-17s returned stateside. Some entered civilian service as airliners and transport planes. Others found use as aerial firefighters before getting scrapped in the late 1950s. However, a few precious B-17s survived in flyable condition or under restoration, ensuring this plane's legacy continues inspiring new generations.
For aviation enthusiasts, getting up close to a real B-17 still evokes a sense of awe and connection to the young crews who flew them. Maurice Rowland, who tours the country's remaining B-17s, describes how seeing the bomber's sheer size and array of machine guns provides a visceral understanding of its capabilities. “It's one thing to see it in books, but to be able to walk inside, you get the feel for just how confining those spaces were,” he says.
Organizations like the Collings Foundation offer once-in-a-lifetime rides in the fully operational B-17G "Nine O Nine." Passenger Craig Dennett recalled the roar of the engines vibrating through the airframe as “like going back in time." Letting people experience flight in the heavy bomber honors the memory of those who flew them in combat. For WWII veteran Paul Rizzo, just smelling the oil and hearing the engines rumble flooded his mind with memories from decades ago. “It brought it all back instantly,” he said.
Restored B-17s also feature prominently in aviation and war history museums. Visitors can get nose-to-nose with famous planes like the "Memphis Belle," learning the bomber’s feats of engineering and stories of crews that flew it. Seeing the patchwork of flak damage and bullet holes covering a B-17 gives civilians a glimpse of the hellish conditions crews endured.