In 2009 a dream came true when I was a passenger aboard a B-17 flying from Appleton Airport over AirVenture at Wittman Regional Airport.
The office of the B-17
The rather spartan and cramped interior
A rainy day view from the nose gunner's position of Wittman Airport, the home of the EAA's National Convention.
During the flight we were allowed to explore the aircrafts interior. However the rear gunner's position that is only accessible through a narrow tunnel in which a number of passengers in the past have gotten stuck was out of bounds. The same applied to the machine gun gondola housing on the lower fuselage that in the case of hydraulic failure cannot be retracted leaving the occupants, in the case of a belly landing, in a rather perilous situation to say the least.
It was raining when we took off and rained until we landed. Looking out the windows one could easily imagine flying on a bombing raid from the UK to somewhere over Germany. It was only then that I appreciated the bravery and sheer doggedness of the young crews as they flew raid after raid in close formations for hours on end braving the elements, enemy fighter aircraft, flack and the ever present danger of mechanical failure.
Bristling with multiple machine gun installations, hence the name 'Flying Fortress' the B-17 with a service ceiling greater than any of its Allied contemporaries, dropped more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft in World War II. Of the 1.5 million tonnes of bombs dropped on Germany and its occupied territories by U.S. aircraft, 640,000 tonnes were dropped from B-17s.
Martin-B-10B. Photo commons.wikimedia.org
On 8 August 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) issued a request for proposals for a multi-engine bomber to replace the Martin B-10. The request envisaged an aircraft that would carry a "useful bombload" at an altitude of 10,000 feet (3 km) for ten hours with a top speed of at least 200 miles per hour (320 km/h) and a range of approximately 2,000 miles (3,200 km).
Douglas B-18A Photo US Air Force/commons.wikimedia.org
Boeing, Douglas and Martin responded. Boeing submitted its 229 a private venture based on its 247 transports and XB-15 bomber, Douglas proposed its DB-1 and Martin its 146. A fly-off was held and Boeing's entry outperformed both competitors and exceeded the air corps' performance specifications. Disaster struck when the 299 crashed and since the competition could not be completed Boeing was legally disqualified from consideration for the contract and the Douglas's entry was ordered by the USAAC.
Boeing 299. Photo Boeing
However, the USAAC was so impressed by the prototype's performance that, through a legal loophole, thirteen 299s were ordered for further evaluation. Between 1 March and 4 August 1937, twelve of the thirteen Y1B-17s were delivered to the 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field. This batch received the military serial B-17 designation and incorporated a number of significant changes from the Model 299 including more powerful Wright R-1820-39 Cyclone engines replacing the original Pratt & Whitney power plants.
Further operational tests were so successful ten more were ordered. This batch designated B-17B included improvements to the flaps and rudder as well as the installation of a plexiglass nose. In July 1940 Boeing's confidence in the B-17, that it had developed at its own expense, was rewarded by an order of 512 of its revolutionary B-17s that eventually went on to serve in every World War II combat zone and of which, by the time production ended in May 1945, 12,731 had been built by Boeing, Douglas and Vega.
A B-17 in Coast Guard service. Photo commons.wikimedia.org
Development of the B-17 continued throughout its production live. The B-17C changed from three bulged, oval shaped machine gun blisters to two flush, oval-shaped machine gun window openings and a single "bathtub" machine gun gondola housing on the lower fuselage. B-17E, the first model primarily focused on offensive warfare, had a much larger rear fuselage extended by 10 feet (3 metres) with a gunners position to the new tail and a dorsal turret just aft of the cockpit as well as a new ball turret just aft of the bomb bay.
By the time the final version the B-17G that had a remotely operated chin turret went into production the number of guns had been increased from seven to thirteen and the designs of the gun stations were finalised. A total of 8,860 17Gs were built when production ceased on 28 July 1945.
A B-17 somewhere over Europe after losing a wing. Photo National Museum of the USAF/commons.wikimedia.org
The B-17 began operations in World War II with the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1941 but early models proved to be unsuitable for combat use over Europa. It was the B-17E that was first successfully used by the USAAF. On 12 May 1942 the US established the 97th Bomb Group in the UK and on 17 August 1942 the first USAAF heavy bomber daylight raid over Europa took place. The raid conducted in good visibility and escorted by four RAF Spitfire squadrons was a success. From then on The B-17's complemented the RAF Bomber Command's night-time area bombing with day time raids in the Combined Bomber Offensive to help secure air superiority over the cities, factories and battlefields of Western Europe.
Photo www.nationalmuseum.af.mil /commons.wikimedia.org
However, it was not until the advent of long-range fighter escorts in particular the North American P-51 Mustang resulting in the degradation of the Luftwaffe as an effective interceptor force that the B-17 became strategically potent.
Operations in the Pacific Theatre started when twelve B-17s on 7 December that were en route to reinforce the Philippines flew into Pearl Harbour from Hamilton Field, California, arriving, unbeknownst to them, during the attack. The Fortress's came under fire from Japanese fighter aircraft. Ten survived, one having made a crash-landing, the crew escaped without injury. B-17s were used in early battles of the Pacific with little success; flying at altitudes high enough to be out of reach of Japanese Zero fighters only about 1% of their bombs landed on target. B-17 combat operations in the Pacific theatre came to an end after a little over a year.
Despite almost been cut in half Lt. Charles 'Cliff' Cutforth none the less safely got his B-17 home. Photo © www.nationalmuseum.af.mil
The B-17 was noted for its ability to absorb battle damage, still reach its target and bring its crew home safely. Its toughness was compensation for its shorter range and lighter bomb load compared to the B-24 and British Avro Lancaster heavy bombers. This durability, together with the large operational numbers in the Eighth Air Force and the fame achieved by the Memphis Belle, made the B-17 a key bomber aircraft of the war. Other factors such as combat effectiveness and political issues also contributed to the B-17's success.