B-17 Flying Fortress
|Manufacturer||The Boeing Company|
|Primary Role||Heavy Bomber|
|Maiden Flight||28 July 1935|
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were first seen on 28 Jul 1935 as E. Gifford Emery and Edward Curtis Wells' Boeing Model 299, flown by test pilot Les Tower. It was designed as a response to the United States Army Air Corps' 1934 demand for a multi-engined bomber, but Boeing had over-done it: the four-engined bomber was so expensive that the US Army instead went with the two-engined Douglas B-18 Bolo design. The evaluation, though tainted with a fatal accident, impressed some top brass regardless. Through a legal loophole, the USAAC ordered 13 B-17 bombers for testing on 17 Jan 1936. Between that time and the opening of the Pacific War in 1941, fewer than 200 B-17 bombers entered service with the USAAC. Some of the early production bombers went to the British Royal Air Force which began the European War without heavy bombers. In early 1940, 20 B-17 bombers were transferred to the RAF, which redesignated them as Fortress I bombers. Their first operation was against the German Kriegsmarine's port facilities at Wilhelmshaven, Germany on 8 Jul 1941, and their performance left much to be desired as bombs missed their targets and machine guns froze at the high altitude. While these early B-17 bombers were being relegated to reconnaissance and patrol roles, the experiences shared by the British crews helped Boeing tweak the design of later models; mainly, the British crews expressed the need for these bombers to carry larger bomb loads and better aiming equipment.
The United States entered the war in Dec 1941, and from the start she began building up air forces in Europe. The first 18 B-17E bombers arrived to equip the US 8th Air Force units in mid-1942, and flew their first mission against French rail yards on 17 Aug 1942. With the newly devised Norden Bombsight, this mission was much more successful than the British experience earlier in the European War.
The American direct involvement in war increased production of B-17 bombers dramatically; in fact, they are often considered the first mass-produced modern aircraft. Before the advent of long-range fighter escorts, B-17 bombers flew in box formations so that their machine guns could provide overlapping fields of fire to protect each other, though at a sacrifice of rigidity of flight paths, which led to increased dangers from ground-based anti-aircraft guns. These bombers, after many rounds of improvements, were now known for their durability. Many stories were told where major sections of the bombers, such as the tail fin, nearly destroyed but the crews still made their ways home safely.
A typical crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber consisted of 10 men. The commanding officer was the piot, and the executive officer was the co-pilot; these two officers received equal training, and their difference in status was largely only due to the luck of the draw. The bombardier was also an officer, manning the chin turret during flight but taking control of the entire bomber during the actual bomb run, even flying the aircraft at that time, via the connection between his Norden bomb sight and the auto-pilot system. The navigator, another officer, kept the aircraft path during the flight and manned the cheek guns when attacked. The flight engineer, a non-commissioned officer, was trained in the basic mechanics of the entire aircraft, and manned the top turret when attacked. The radio operation, a non-commissioned officer, handled communications and served as the first aid giver when necessary. Finally, the four remaining crew member, all non-commissioned officers, manned the ball turret, left waist gun, right waist gun, and the tail gun; although these bombers were durable, to call them "fortresses" was a exaggeration, thus the gunners served an important role in the defense of these actually vulnerable bombers.
During WW2, 26 B-17 bomber groups served in Britain and 6 groups served in Italy. Beginning in 1943, they began a carpet bombing campaign against German industrial targets. Initially an alarming number of B-17 bombers were lost, but as the war went on, the depleting capabilities of German air defense made the bombing campaigns more effective. Many accused the Western Allies of conducting terror bombing during WW2, and many of the alleged terror bombing missions were conducted with B-17 bombers. On 15 Feb 1945, as part of the aerial operation against the German city of Dresden, 311 B-17 bombers dropped 771 tons of bombs, contributing to the killing of 25,000 people committed by both American and British bombers.
Some B-17 bombers crash-landed or were forced down on German soil, and about 40 of them were put into service by the German Luftwaffe. They were designated Do 200 and were used in reconnaissance operations. A few of them kept their Allied markings and were sent to infiltrate Allied B-17 formations to report their position and altitude; initially successful, Allied airmen soon developed methods to challenge unidentified aircraft that tried to join their formations.
Several B-17 bombers were also taken by the Soviets who flew them in combat missions despite having little experience with them. Soviet opinion toward the B-17 design was generally favorable. Some remained in Soviet service until 1948.
Five bomber groups of the US 5th Air Force operated B-17 bombers in the Pacific Theater, with a peak of 168 bombers in Sep 1942. After some time of ineffective high altitude bombing, some of the B-17 bombers adopted "skip bombing", a technique usually practiced by medium bombers rather than heavy bombers. When skip bombing, the aircraft flew at very low altitudes over water; as the bombs were released, they struck the water at a shallow angle and bounced into the sides of targeted ships. The technique of skip bombing scored several sinkings.
When WW2 ended, a total of 12,700 B-17 bombers were built. Peak US Army Air Forces inventory, in Aug 1944, was 4,574 worldwide. Besides Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed (via subsidiary Vega) also contributed to that total. After the war General Carl Spaatz commented that "[w]ithout the B-17, we might have lost the war."
After the war, some B-17 bombers made their way to Israel via the black market, some were acquired by collectors in form of museums, while most of them were melted down for scrap. The most famous of the surviving B-17 bomber at the time of this writing is arguably the 25-mission veteran of European Theater "Memphis Belle", which is now at National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio, United States for restoration and display in the near future.
B-17 Flying Fortress Timeline
|28 Jul 1935||The company-funded Boeing Model 299 prototype aircraft (later B-17 Flying Fortress), piloted by Leslie R. Tower, made its maiden flight from Boeing Field, Seattle, United States.|
|7 May 1941||The first of the B-17 Flying Fortress bombers in Britain arrived at RAF Watton.|
|8 Jul 1941||British B-17 bombers were deployed on a combat mission for the first time as three of them were ordered to attack Wilhelmshaven, Germany.|
|30 Sep 1941||The RAF withdrew B-17 bombers from service.|
|1 Jul 1942||B-17E Flying Fortress bomber "Jarring Jenny" landed at Prestwick, Scotland, United Kingdom having flown the 3,000 miles from Maine, United States via Greenland and Iceland. It was the first of hundreds of sister aircraft to be flown to Great Britain to form the US Eighth Air Force.|
|14 Aug 1942||The B-17E Flying Fortress aircraft "Chief Seattle from the Pacific North West" was launched from Port Moresby, Australian Papua for a reconnaissance mission over Rabaul, New Britain, but the aircraft became missing shortly after launch and was never found. This aircraft was paid for by donations from civilians of the state of Washington in northwestern United States.|
|13 May 1943||B-17 bomber 'Hell's Angels' of US 303rd Bomb Group became the first aircraft to complete 25 combat missions.|
|19 May 1943||US B-17F bomber 'Memphis Belle' became the second aircraft to complete 25 combat missions after attacking Kiel, Germany.|
|20 Apr 1944||No. 214 Squadron RAF (of No. 100 group based at RAF Oulton at Aylsham, England, United Kingdom), established in Nov 1943, flew the first operational sortie with their Fortress Mk. III (SD) aircraft. These were extensively modified B-17G aircraft fitted out with electronic countermeasures and radar jamming devices. This Squadron would fly more than 1,000 sorties up to May 1945 losing just eight aircraft on operations.|
|Machinery||4 Wright R-1820-97 'Cyclone' turbosupercharged radial engines rated at 1,200 hp each|
|Armament||13xBrowning M-2 12.7mm machine guns, 8,000kg of bombs (usually 3,600kg for short range missions or 2,000kg for long range missions)|
|Wing Area||131.92 m˛|
|Weight, Empty||16,391 kg|
|Weight, Loaded||24,495 kg|
|Weight, Maximum||29,710 kg|
|Speed, Maximum||462 km/h|
|Speed, Cruising||293 km/h|
|Rate of Climb||4.60 m/s|
|Service Ceiling||10,850 m|
|Range, Normal||3,219 km|
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