A Brief History
On July 28, 1935, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress first took flight, starting a career that many claim as the greatest bomber aircraft of all time. Of course, the Avro Lancaster crowd has something to say about that, and the eternal B-52, descendant of the Flying Fortress, will probably serve for 100 years before it is retired. Even the proponents of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator question the title going to the B-17, but among the men that flew them, the B-17 was and will always be the greatest.
When the giant (for its day) Boeing bomber first flew, it was as fast or faster (287 mph) than the fighter planes available at the time. Of course, by the time the bomber was operational (April 1938) fighter technology had progressed to the point that the newest fighters could easily catch the Flying Forts. Fighters were also being armed with much heavier armament than the typical pre-war brace of rifle caliber machine guns, with more and heavier guns taking their place, including automatic cannons. The unprecedented heavy defensive armament (which gave the plane its name) of a dozen .50 caliber machine guns (later 13) was deemed plenty good enough to fend off fighter attacks and no escorting fighters were believed needed. This belief proved incorrect in real combat.
Able to precisely aim and drop bombs like no bomber before it, the B-17 used its Norden bombsight to actually fly the bomber and automatically drop the bombs at the appropriate time. No other plane had ever demonstrated that sort of high altitude accuracy. Unfortunately for aircrews, heavy clouds on a regular basis and fierce fighter defenses made high altitude bombing an area rather than specific spot proposition. Ships maneuvering at sea also proved to be virtually impossible to hit from high (20-30,000 feet) altitude.
The B-17 shone like a diamond in the sun when it came to surviving battle damage, proving itself to be one of the toughest bombers in history, if not the toughest. Self-sealing fuel tanks, multiple engines (Wright Cyclone Radials), armor plating in key areas, crewmen wearing “flak” jackets (and electrically heated suits) and the ability to take terrific damage and stay airborne made the plane a legend, and earned the appreciation of its 10 man crews.
Produced from 1936 to 1945, over 12,700 of these lumbering Fortresses were built, and the last was in service as late as 1968. Able to reach an altitude of 35,000 feet and carry 6000 pounds of bombs for 2000 miles (or as much as 15,000 pounds of bombs for a short distance), the B-17 served in all theaters of World War II, but is best known for its daylight raids over Germany, one of the most hazardous duties for any American service member.
Obviously, such a great plane is the subject of numerous cultural references, with the 1990 film Memphis Belle being one of the best known.
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For more information, please see…
Freeman, Roger and Rikyu Watanabe. B 17: Flying Fortress. Crown Publishers, 1984.
Jablonski, Edward. Flying Fortress. Doubleday, 1968.
Szlagor, Tomasz. B-17 Flying Fortress in Combat Over Europe (SMI Library). Kagero, 2014.