A Short History of the B-17

B17Blog

The B-17 is one of history’s most significant aircraft for its role in the European and Pacific theater during World War II. It’s an iconic plane in the Boeing pantheon and has the statistics to prove it: the B-17 dropped more bombs in Europe than any other plane and was a deciding factor in the Allied victory. But what makes the B-17 so special?

First Public Appearance

The B-17’s reputation for indestructibility is the result of testing, innovative engineering and all-aluminum materials. The B-17 was based on the prototype Boeing model 299, one of the first all-metal aircraft designs (Junkers made many all-metal planes in WWI). It was on the drawing board in 1933 and was finally introduced in 1935.

Its first public appearance in Seattle was a huge event, and all the media attention resulted in the B-17’s intimidating name. When Boeing rolled out the prototype, a Seattle Times Reporter saw it bristling with machine gun emplacements and commented that it looked like a flying fortress. Boeing was always on the lookout for good marketing, so it trademarked the name Flying Fortress.

Production History

Over the next six years, Boeing received enough small orders that kept the production line going. By the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, there were only about 100 B-17s in service and Boeing had to start meeting high war-time demands. Eventually, over 12,000 B-17s were built.

At the peak of this amazing production effort, 16 B-17s rolled off the assembly line per day at Boeing’s Plant 2 in Seattle. Much of this labor was done by women who filled jobs after men left for war. But even with this workforce, Boeing couldn’t keep up with demand. So, some B-17s were built by Lockheed Vega and Douglas in Southern California.

Reliable Construction

Even after being bombarded with bullets and other ordnance, B-17s were known to make it back to their airfields to fly another day. Pilots who flew B-17s swore its tough design and construction kept their crews safe.

The B-17 has a service ceiling of up to 25,000 feet; but, for engines to operate efficiently at 25,000 feet, it became necessary to add a supercharger to the aircraft. GE (General Electric) built a powerful turbo supercharger to compress outside air that was then fed back into the engine, giving the B-17 even more power at high altitudes. 

Crew Configuration

The B-17 could hold a crew of ten. The pilot, co-pilot, bombardier and navigator, as commissioned officers, were seated at the front of the plane, with the navigator positioned at a desk below the cockpit. The bombardier sat forward of the navigator in the glass nose of the airplane, and the flight engineer sat in a jump seat behind the pilot and copilot. The flight engineer was the only enlisted man, or non-commissioned officer, in the cockpit.

There were 5 gunners in the back of the plane, all enlisted men who were non-commissioned officers (NCO’s) during their mission. During takeoff, they all sat in the radio room behind the bomb bay—the strongest part of the aircraft where the wings intersect with the fuselage.

While the plane was circling into formation (which could take as long as 45 minutes) the crew members would move into their positions. Two waist gunners would move back into the fuselage, manning guns pointing out of each side of the aircraft. The tail gunner would climb to the back of the plane where he sat on a banana seat and knelt with a gun sight in front of him. The ball turret gunner took his seat in a tight-fitting, rotating globe in the belly of the bomber.

The average crew size was 5’7” 127 lbs., and the smallest guy in the crew was the ball turret gunner. He sat in the confined space of the ball turret for up to 8 hours for each mission. Although the working conditions inside were cramped at best, the B-17’s reliability and solid design made it one of the most effective bombers in WWII.

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