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The B-17 Flying Fortress

On the 8th of August 1934 the US Army Air Corps issued a circular proposal that called for a bomber with a maximum speed of 250 mph (402 km/h), it must operate at 10,000 feet (3,048 m) and have a range of 2,000 miles (3,218 km). Designs would be company funded and submitted for testing within the year. The winner would get a production run of 220 aircraft. On the brink of bankruptcy the Boeing Aircraft Company took the challenge. In a bold move, Boeing under the visionary leadership of Edward C. Wells committed most of its capital and manpower to the project they called model 299.

Later that month Boeing began building a radical all metal four engined aircraft. The plane would be fitted with an array of machine guns and an internal weapons bay. It was a bold design that far exceeded the requirements of the proposal.

On the 28th of July 1935 just eleven months after the competition had started Boeing's model 299 rolled out of the company's factory in Seattle becoming the US military's first all metal four engined bomber. Boeing's legendary aircraft was born but the all important contract was still to be won. Alongside Boeing's offering the Army Air Corps also evaluated two rival twin engined designs, Martins B-12 and Douglas's DB-1.

On the morning of the 30th of October during evaluation at Wright Field, Ohio the Boeing prototype bomber stalled after take-off & crashed. However, the cause of the Model 299 crash was determined to be pilot error--the pilot took off with the elevator lock still engaged.

Boeing's model 299 was disqualified from the competition and the company lost the contract. The Douglas DB-1 was chosen and 133 of the bombers were ordered. But despite the crash model 299 had impressed the Air Corps. The Army leadership was convinced the aircraft had the potential to fill the long-range bomber requirement and ordered 13 service test aircraft (Boeing Model 299B) as Y1B-17 in 1936. The Y1 (instead of Y) indicates a funding source outside of the normal fiscal year procurement. The designation changed to YB-17 on 20th November 1936 before the first aircraft flew.

The Second Bomb Group based at Langley Field, Virginia took delivery of the first YB-17 on 1st March 1937. General Andrews (Commander of the Army's General Head Quarters Air Force) wanted heavy bomber techniques developed as quickly as possible so all but one of the 13 YB-17s ordered were assigned to the 2nd BG. The thirteenth YB-17 was the only aircraft actually used for extensive flight-testing. It was assigned to the Material Division at Wright Field, Ohio.

The B-17 was a low-wing monoplane that combined aerodynamic features of the XB-15 giant bomber, still in the design stage, and the Model 247 transport. The B-17 was the first Boeing military aircraft with a flight deck instead of an open cockpit and was armed with bombs and five .30-caliber machine guns mounted in clear "blisters."

B-17's had surprising little protective armour. Besides the armoured seat backs, only the metal surrounding the waist gun cutouts and the bulkhead dividing the top turret gunner's compartment from the bomb bay were reinforced with steel plate. The firewall dividing the cockpit from the navigator's station was slightly reinforced but the nose section did not even have a steel deck for the bombardier.

It was not the order Boeing had hoped for but it was a start. Modifications to the aircraft followed and in February 1937 the Air Corps ordered ten more aircraft. These YB-17's were fitted with superchargers and had a ceiling of 30,000 ft (9,144 m).

In September of 1939 as war broke out in Europe Douglas's bombers were taking too long to get off the production line and were underpowered. Boeing's YB-17 was the only operational heavy bomber the Air Corps had and their total number was only 30. New YB-17's would now be fitted with power-operated turrets above & below the fuselage. Two more sets of twin guns were added to the tail & radio operator's positions. In March 1941 B-17's were being transformed from an advanced prototype to a full powered bomber ready for war. Under the terms of it's Lend Lease agreement America sent 20 of these Fortress YB-17's to Britain for use by the Royal Air Force.

Baptism by fire with the RAF

The B-17's first delivery flight ended in disaster. At high altitude in the skies over England the bomber experienced a power failure and crashed.

The first B-17's saw combat in 1941, when Britain's Royal Air Force took delivery of several B-17C's (known as the Fortress I in the RAF) for high-altitude missions. Twenty B-17C's were set aside for delivery to the RAF in May 1941. A single squadron was nominated to operate the aircraft - No.90 - which was to re-form at Polebrook in Northamptonshire.

After a short period, three Fortresses made their debut in a raid on Wilhelmshaven on the 8th of July 1941. The raid was unsuccessful. All of the guns froze and the bombs were dropped wide of the target. Further missions saw the aircraft operated in daylight at altitudes up to 30,000 ft (9,144 m) to evade enemy fighters, but often flew alone. On a later mission eight Fortresses were shot down. Consequently, success was very limited and many sorties had to be aborted as equipment (especially the guns) often froze at the higher altitudes.

Within two months, the Fortresses had transferred to the Middle East and Coastal Command. As World War II intensified, the bombers needed additional armament and armour.

Two and a half years later, in February 1944, Fortresses again returned to the Bomber Command order of battle when No.214 Squadron began operations with B-17G's (known as the Fortress III in the RAF) from Sculthorpe in East Anglia. The defensive firepower of the aircraft was a great improvement on the earlier Fortress with powered gun turrets in place of the manually operated positions of the earlier aircraft. No.214 Squadron, along with a second Fortress squadron, No.223 based at Oulthorpe, formed part of No.100 (Bomber Support) Group and their aircraft were fitted with a large number of electronic countermeasures to jam enemy radar sites.

Both squadrons were disbanded in July 1945, but a few Fortress IIIs remained with the RAF and were used as meteorological reconnaissance aircraft.

B-17 Submarine Hunters

A B-17B serving with the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron of the 2nd Bomb Group based in Newfoundland attacked a U-boat on 27th October 1941. Although the U-boat was undamaged in the attack, this incident was the first in which bombs were dropped in anger by the U.S. Army Air Force in action against German forces. Since the United States was officially not at war with Germany at the time, the incident was not reported in the press. It wasn't until the 27th of January 1943 that American pilots flew into Germany for the first time, raiding the U-Boat construction yards at Wilhelmshaven.

Mass Production

The B-17E, the first mass-produced model Flying Fortress, carried nine machine guns and a 4,000-pound (1814.4 kilo) bomb load. It was several tons heavier than the prototypes and bristled with armament. It was the first Boeing aeroplane with the distinctive — and enormous — tail for improved control and stability during high-altitude bombing. Each version was more heavily armed.

In the Pacific, the planes earned a deadly reputation with the Japanese, who dubbed them "four-engine fighters." The Fortresses were also legendary for their ability to stay in the air after taking brutal poundings. They sometimes limped back to their bases with large chunks of the fuselage shot off.

Boeing plants built a total of 6,981 B-17's in various models, and another 5,745 were built under a nation-wide collaborative effort by Douglas and Lockheed (Vega). The B-17G, was produced in larger quantities (8,680) than any previous model and is considered the definitive "Flying Fort." With its 13 .50-caliber machine guns -- chin, top, ball and tail turrets; waist and cheek guns -- the B-17G was indeed an aeroplane that earned the respect of its combatants. Of the total number of Flying Fortress produced, 4,735 were lost during combat missions. The Flying Fortress accounted for 40% of all bombing carried out by American aircraft during WWII. Final delivery of the B-17 was in April 1945.

Only a few B-17's survive today; most were scrapped at the end of the war. Some of the last Flying Fortresses met their end as target drones in the 1960's — destroyed by Boeing Bomarc missiles.

The Flying Fortresses' in the above photos "Miss Angela" & "Piccadilly Lilly II " are B-17G's. The "Piccadilly Lilly II " (#44-83684), flew with the US Air Force until the mid 1950's. After she was surplused the plane appeared in quite a few movies and TV productions. It has not flown since 1975.

An index of surviving Flying Fortresses can be found at

Back Box Formation

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