History Podcasts

Boeing B-17 Being Serviced

Boeing B-17 Being Serviced

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Frederick A. Johnsen. A well researched and illustrated history of the B-17, with a very strong section on its combat record, an interesting chapter on the efforts made to improve the aircraft (including a number of suggestions that didn't enter production) and a good selection of colour pictures of the aircraft. [see more]

"World War I (1914-1919)". http://www.sparknotes.com/history/european/ww1/section5.rhtml. Accessed April 24, 2016.). WWI was one of the first instances in warfare where aircraft was used, in the early stages of WWI, the military strategists realized that aircraft could be useful for reconnaissance and could spy on their enemies with the use of reconnaissance planes. In WWI, carpet bombing was a new strategy of war and was used very&hellip

Rising Global Issue: The Proliferation of Drones “Armed drones are starting to rule the skies,” wrote Sarah Kreps and Micah Zenko, the authors of The Next Drone Wars: Preparing for Proliferation. Armed drones are not a new concept, but the use of drones and their advantages are only now starting to be realized. The use of armed drones has several advantages however, the proliferation of the drones, the inability to control what states use drones, and how they use drones could lead to mass destruction. General Henry “Hap” Arnold is the man who is given credit for the invention of drones. General Arnold was a World War II commander in the United States Army Air Forces.&hellip

The type of World War II plane that crashed and burst into flames in Connecticut on Wednesday was instrumental in the Allied bombing campaign against Nazi-occupied Europe, efficient enough to carry out daytime raids over Germany and muscular enough to withstand aerial poundings.

A Boeing B-17 went down at the end of a runway at the Bradley International Airport, just outside Hartford, Connecticut, on Wednesday morning, according to officials. There were 13 people on board: three crew and 10 passengers.

"There were fatalities," said James C. Rovella, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. He did not specify how many people were killed.

The B-17, one of more than 10,000 built, was once dubbed the "Flying Fortress," prized for its ruggedness and versatility. The crafts were most commonly used for bombing expeditions over Germany, but they were also occasionally used in the Pacific theater, where they targeted Japanese ships.

"The B-17 was extremely sturdy, extremely resilient, but it required significant skill to fly it," said Anthony Roman, a former corporate pilot and an aviation security expert with Roman & Associates.

"It developed a reputation for being able to take a significant amount of combat damage," Roman added.

Roman, who has flown as a guest on the B-17 involved in the Connecticut crash, said the aircraft was prized in the World War II-era for its technological might.

"It was one of the first modern strategic aircraft ever built by the U.S. Army," he said. "It's a tremendous loss because this aircraft symbolized the transition to modern America, modern technology."

It was also feared by foes, with its .50-caliber machine guns mounted in "blisters," ready to ward off enemies.

"Without the B-17, we may have lost the war," Gen. Carl Spaatz, the American air commander in Europe, has been widely quoted as saying.

The airport where the crash took place Wednesday — located in Windsor Locks, roughly 15 miles north of Hartford — was hosting a show of vintage World War II craft this week. The show, called "Wings of Freedom," featured many planes owned by the Collins Foundation.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were on that flight and we will be forever grateful to the heroic efforts of the first responders at Bradley," the foundation said in a statement.

Daniel Arkin is a reporter for NBC News who focuses on popular culture and the entertainment industry, particularly film and television.

List of surviving Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is a four-engine heavy bomber aircraft primarily employed by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) during World War II. Developed by Boeing, a total of 12,731 aircraft had been produced by Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed from 1936 until 1945. A vast majority (over 8,000) of these aircraft were lost in either combat operations or training accidents. The remaining combat veterans and early production models were stored and later scrapped in the vast scrap drives of the late 1940s.

The majority of the aircraft that survive today came from the last batches of aircraft produced by both Douglas and Lockheed, which had better corrosion control practices. These aircraft had found use in the 1950s and early 1960s as DB-17 Drone Director and QB-17 target aircraft with the USAF, as U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard early warning, air sea rescue or weather aircraft (known by the naval aircraft designations PB-1W or PB-1G), or overseas as photo mapping aircraft with French National Geographic Institute. After retirement from active service, these aircraft were converted during the 1960s to the late 1980s as bulk cargo transport, aerial sprayer, and water tanker aircraft.

During the late 1970s when the warbird movement began, these survivors were eagerly anticipated and as each came on the civilian market many were restored to original combat configuration. In the 1990s, as intact, existing airframes became increasingly rare (only 46 intact B-17's are known to exist as of August 2013), restorers began seeking out airframes that were previously considered unrecoverable.

12,000 Built: America's B-17 Flying Fortress Bombed Its Way Into History

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress became the symbol of the Allied bombing effort over Europe.

The B-17 Flying Fortress was the most celebrated four-engine strategic bomber of World War II, but like many other aircraft that achieved lasting fame, it barely made it into production.

In 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps put out bids for a long-range, high-altitude daylight bomber. The fledgling Boeing Company responded by developing a four-engine prototype called the B-299, which, according to folklore, was dubbed a “flying fortress!” by a local reporter. The name stuck.

Having overcome early teething problems that threatened to derail the entire project, Boeing secured a small 13-plane service test order, which led to the delivery of 39 B-17Bs in March 1940. The modified B17C series followed soon after, and a number were sent to England in 1941.

The shortcomings of these early-model Fortresses soon became apparent in combat, leading to the aircraft being bolstered by armor plating for the crew, self-sealing fuel tanks, redesigned bomb racks, and a low-pressure oxygen system to cope with high-altitude flying.

With America’s entry into the war, most of the new model B17Ds were sent to the Pacific, and in fact dropped the first American bombs against a Japanese convoy in the Philippines.

The E Series Brings Major Improvements

It became apparent that the Fortresses needed more firepower, so the defenses on the E series were increased with the inclusion of a power-operated ball turret, a tail gun position, and another turret installed in the upper fuselage behind the flight deck. To improve the stability of the aircraft during the bomb run, the span of the horizontal tail plane and the vertical tail were increased in area, and a long dorsal fin was attached to the front of the tail.

The first B-17Es arrived in operational units in November 1941, and were the first version to be used in the European Theater of Operations. The distinctive new tail design would be the main recognizable feature of all subsequent Fortresses, and over 500 E’s were built before being superseded by the B-17F in May 1942.

The B-17F was outwardly almost identical to its predecessor, but had undergone hundreds of internal changes. Some of these modifications included a new ball turret, improved oxygen system, additional ball-and-socket machine-gun mounts in the nose, and another gun added at the opening on top of the radio compartment (removed from later models). Further alterations involved the fitting of wider paddle-bladed propellers to the newer Wright R-1820-97 Cyclone engines and the strengthening of the undercarriage.

With a long-range payload of between 4,000 and 5,000 pounds (which was little more than the British twin-engine Mosquito) the first B-17Fs began flying on May 30, 1942. Early combat against German fighters revealed that the aircraft’s heavy armor plating and flak curtains were not well positioned to protect the crews from frontal attacks. Changes were made in the field to remedy this problem, but they were only partially successful.

The G Series

The B-17Gs entered service with the Eighth Air Force in late 1943, and would be the major production model of the war with more than 8,600 rolling off the assembly line. This version was boosted with Pratt & Whitney R-1820-97 engines and improved turbochargers enabling it to operate at altitudes up to 35,000 feet. The most noticeable innovation, however, was the addition of a remote controlled chin turret underneath the nose equipped with two .50-caliber machine guns, boosting the aircraft’s firepower to 13 machine guns. In a further external variation, from January 1944, B-17Gs destined for Europe arrived in their natural metal finish without camouflage paint.

The 12,650 B-17s built served in nearly every theater of the war—equipping no less than 33 overseas combat groups—where their ability to absorb brutal punishment earned them the respect and affection of their crews. The performance of the B-17 Flying Fortress in the frightful daylight battles over Europe stamps it as one of the truly legendary aircraft of World War II, and perhaps of all time.

17 August 1942

A flight of Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress bombers forms up over England, 1942. “Yankee Doodle,” 41-9023, is just to the left of center. (U.S. Air Force) Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker (Margaret Bourke-White/LIFE)

17 August 1942: Mission No. 1. The United States VIII Bomber Command made its first heavy bomber attack on Nazi-occupied Europe when eighteen Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress four-engine bombers of the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy), based at RAF Polebrook, Northamptonshire, England, headed for the railroad marshaling yards at Rouen-Sotteville, France. This was the largest and most active railroad yard in northern France.

The group began takeoffs at 1530 hours. It was escorted by several squadrons of Royal Air Force Supermarine Spitfire fighters.

While six B-17s flew along the French coast as a diversion, twelve bombers flew to Rouen and were over the target from 1739 to 1746. From an altitude of 23,000 feet (7,010 meters), they dropped 39,000 pounds (17,690 kilograms) of general purpose bombs.

Accuracy was good. One of the aim points, the locomotive shops, was destroyed by a direct hit. The overall results were moderate.

Rouen-Sotteville target assessment photograph. (U.S. Air Force)

All of the bombers returned to their base, with the first landing at 1900. Two B-17s had been damaged. American gunners claimed damage to one Luftwaffe airplane.

Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker commanded Mission No. 1 from this Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, 41-9023, Yankee Doodle, shown here being serviced between missions. This bomber survived the War. (U.S. Air Force)

The raid was commanded by Brigadier General Ira C. Eaker aboard Yankee Doodle, B-17E 41-9023, leading the second flight of six B-17s. The 97th Bombardment Group Commander, Colonel Frank A. Armstrong, Jr., flew as the co-pilot of the lead ship, Butcher Shop, B-17E 41-2578, with pilot Major Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. Major Tibbets was in command of the 97th’s 340th Bombardment Squadron. (He would later command the 509th Composite Group and fly the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.)

Colonel Frank Alton Armstrong, Jr., Air Corps, United States Army, commanding the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy), in the pilot’s position of a Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress. (Imperial War Museum)

The Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress was a major redesign. A new aft fuselage was used, incorporating larger vertical and horizontal stabilizers. A tail turret was added. A power-operated gun turret was added at dorsal and ventral positions.

The Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress was a four-engine heavy bomber operated by a flight crew of ten. It was 73 feet, 10 inches (22.504 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9-3/8 inches (31.633 meters) and an overall height of 19 feet, 2 inch (5.842 meters). Its empty weight was 32,350 pounds (14,674 kilograms), 40,260 pounds (18,262 kilograms) gross weight, and the maximum takeoff weight was 53,000 pounds (24,040 kilograms).

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2578, 97th Bombardment Group, photographed 17 August 1942. (Imperial War Museum)

The B-17E was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.875 liters) Wright Cyclone G666A (R-1820-65) nine-cylinder radial engines with turbochargers, producing 1,200 horsepower at 2,500 r.p.m. for takeoff and 1,000 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. at Sea Level. The Cyclones turned three-bladed constant-speed Hamilton-Standard Hydromatic propellers with a diameter of 11 feet, 7 inches (3.835 meters) though a 0.5625:1 gear reduction. The R-1820-65 was 47.59 inches (1.209 meters) long and 55.12 inches (1.400 meters) in diameter. It weighed 1,315 pounds (596 kilograms). 8,422 of these engines were produced by Wright Aeronautical Division and its licensees between February 1940 and August 1942.

The B-17E had a cruise speed of 195 miles per hour (314 kilometers per hour). Its maximum speed was 318 miles per hour (512 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). The service ceiling was 36,600 feet (11,156 meters).

With a normal fuel load of 2,490 gallons (9,426 liters) the B-17E had a maximum range of 3,300 miles (5,311 kilometers). Carrying a 4,000 pound (1,814 kilogram) bomb load, the range was 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers).

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2578, the lead ship on the 17 August 1942 air raid on Rouen-Sotteville, France, flown by Major Paul W. Tibbets, photographed at RAF Bovingdon, 1943. By the end of the war, this airplane was the oldest, longest-serving B-17E in the USAAF. (Imperial War Museum)

The B-17E Flying Fortress was armed with one .30-caliber Browning M2 Aircraft Machine Gun and eight Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber machine guns. The .30 was mounted in the nose. Power turrets mounting two .50-caliber guns, each, were located at the dorsal and ventral positions. (The first 112 B-17Es were built with a remotely-operated turret in the belly position, sighted by a periscope. A manned ball turret replaced this.) Two machine guns were in a tail turret, and one on each side at the waist.

The maximum bomb load of the B-17E was 20,800 pounds (9,435 kilograms) over very short distances. Normally, 4,000–6,000 pounds (1,815–2,722 kilograms) were carried. The internal bomb bay could be loaded with a maximum of eight 1,000 pound (454 kilogram) or four 2,000 pound (907 kilogram) bombs.

The B-17 Flying Fortress first flew in 1935, and was in production from 1937 to 1945. 12,731 B-17s were built by Boeing. 512 of the total were B-17Es. The last one was completed 28 May 1942. Production shifted to the further-improved B-17F.

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress 41-2509, flying over the Florida Keys, circa 1942. (Getty Images)

28 July 1935

Boeing Model 299 NX13372, photographed during its first flight, 28 July 1935. (The Boeing Company) Boeing’s Chief Test Pilot Leslie R. Tower.

28 July 1935, At Boeing Field, Seattle, Chief Test Pilot Leslie Ralph (“Les”) Tower and Louis Waite took off on the maiden flight of the Boeing Model 299, NX13372, a prototype four-engine long range heavy bomber. For approximately one-and-a-half hours, Tower flew back and forth between Tacoma and Fort Lewis. When he landed, he said, “It handles just like a little ship—a little bigger, of course.”

The Boeing Model 299 was a four-engine bomber operated by a crew of eight. It was designed to meet a U.S. Army Air Corps proposal for a multi-engine bomber that could carry a 2,000 pound (907 kilogram) bomb load a distance of 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) at a speed greater than 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour). Design of the prototype began in June 1934 and construction was started 16 August 1934. The Air Corps designated it B-299, and later, XB-17. It did not carry a military serial number, being marked with civil registration NX13372.

The Boeing Model 299 with Mount Rainier. (U.S. Air Force)

The Model 299 was 68 feet, 9 inches (20.955 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9–3/8 inches (31.633 meters) and height of 14 feet, 11–5/16 inches (4.554 meters). Its empty weight was 21,657 pounds (9,823 kilograms). The maximum gross weight was 38,053 pounds (17,261 kilograms).

The prototype was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,690.537-cubic-inch-displacement (27.703 liter) Pratt & Whitney Hornet S1E-G nine-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.5:1. The S1E-G was rated at 750 horsepower at 2,250 r.p.m., and 875 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. for takeoff, using 87-octane gasoline. They turned 11 foot, 6 inch (3.505 meters) diameter, three-bladed, Hamilton Standard Hydromatic constant-speed propellers through a 3:2 gear reduction. The S1E-G was 4 feet, 1.38 inches (1.254 meters) long, 4 feet, 6.44 inches (1.383 meters) in diameter and weighed 1,064 pounds (483 kilograms)

Boeing Model 299. (U.S. Air Force)

In flight testing, the Model 299 had a cruise speed of 204 miles per hour (328 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 236 miles per hour (380 kilometers per hour) at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). The service ceiling was 24,620 feet (7,504.2 meters). Its maximum range was 3,101 miles (4,991 kilometers). Carrying a 2,573 pounds (1,167 kilograms) load of bombs, the range was 2,040 miles (3,283 kilometers).

Boeing 299 NX13372, all engines running.

The XB-17 could carry eight 500 pound (226.8 kilogram) bombs in an internal bomb bay. Defensive armament consisted of five air-cooled Browning .30-caliber machine guns.

Nose turret of the Boeing Model 299, photographed 24 July 1935. (The Boeing Company)

NX13372 was destroyed when it crashed on takeoff at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, 30 October 1935. An Army Air Corps pilot making his first familiarization flight neglected to remove the control locks. This incident led directly to the creation of the ”check list” which is used by all aircraft crew members.

Waist gun position of the Boeing 299. (The Boeing Company)

Designated XB-17 by the Army Air Corps, this airplane and the YB-17 pre-production models that followed would undergo several years of testing and improvement before entering production as the B-17 Flying Fortress, a legendary airplane of World War II. By the end of the war 12,731 B-17s had been built by Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed Vega.

Boeing Model 299 NX13372, designated XB-17, at Wright Field, Ohio, 1935. (U.S. Air Force)

Leslie Ralph Tower was born at Sisseton, South Dakota, 21 January 1903. He was the first of three children of Ralph R. Tower, a farmer who would later serve as a state senator for Montana, and Mayme Amanda Johnson Tower, a Swedish immigrant.

Les Tower attended high school at Polson, Montana, graduating in 1922. He then attended the University of Washington, where he studied engineering. He was a member of the Radio Club.

Tower enlisted in the United States Army as an aviation cadet, training at Brooks and Kelly airfields in Texas. He then served with the 2nd Bombardment Squadron at Langley Field, Virginia.

In 1925 Tower started working for Boeing as a draftsman, but soon began test flying new airplanes, which included the B-9 bomber and the Model 247 commercial airliner. He also demonstrated and delivered Boeing airplanes around the world.

On 20 August 1935, Tower and Louis Wait flew the Model 299 from Seattle to Dayton, approximately 2,100 miles, in 9 hours, 3 minutes, averaging 233 miles per hour (375 kilometers per hour).

Les Tower was aboard the XB-17 as an observer during the 30 October flight. He saw that the control locks had not been released and tried to reach them, but was unable. In the fire that followed the crash, Tower suffered severe burns to his face, right arm and both legs.

Leslie Ralph Tower died of his injuries 19 November 1935 at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton. His remains were transported by train, escorted by Army airplanes, and were buried at Lakeview Cemetery, Polson, Montana.

Ask anyone who has seen one, heard one, or flown one “Is the B-17 the best bomber ever built?” They will likely give you more explanations than you care to hear about this magnificent aircraft. To most warbird enthusiasts, there is just nothing like a B-17 Flying Fortress. As explained by Brent William Perkins in his book Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress, with the classic lines of the early military, the Fort typifies what a heavy aircraft ought to look like. A large sweeping tail and broad wings, along with the angled windshield and distinctive nosepiece make the B-17 stand out among other designs.

Just sitting still, a B-17 gives the appearance of a warrior, while at the same time showing the graceful curves of a Hollywood movie star. Bristling with heavy machine guns in every direction and sitting tail low as if it is ready to leap into the air where, with its broad and deep wings, it finds its home. Dubbed “The Flying Fortress” by Richard Williams, newspaper reporter for the Seattle Times, the bomber was conceived under the Boeing proposal known as the model 299. It was April 1934, and a flyable prototype had to be ready in less than one year.

With the certainty of war on the horizon, military strategists were looking towards airpower to ensure total victory. At the time, there was no bomber in the US arsenal that could meet the coming demands that aerial warfare would require. The US Army Air Corps (the USAF was not born until 1947) needed more range, precision weapons delivery, and combat survivability than the aircraft in the inventories could handle at that time. The call went out. Design a bomber that can fly for ten hours at 25,000 feet, can climb to 10,000 feet in five minutes, and can maintain 7,000 feet with the designed useful load and one engine out.

Boeing had done it. After spending only $275,000.00, the 299 rolled out of the factory on Jul. 17, 1935. The 299 could carry up to 4,800 pounds of weapons in the bomb bay just a little more than a the year after going on the drafting tables. Little did they know that they had designed an aircraft that would set the standards for high altitude bombing through the end of the century.

Only one month and three days after roll out and accumulating some 14 hours and 5 minutes of test time, the 299 took off from Seattle, WA, bound for Wright-Patterson near Dayton, OH. Nine hours and three minutes later it put the rubber on the runway in Ohio. Average ground speed was 233 mph. This flight stole the show from the up and coming Douglas B-18, which was really just a beefed up DC-2. It also overshadowed the much worked over Martin B-10.

On Jan. 17, 1937, the Air Corps placed an order for thirteen YB-17s. Production for the plane would run a little more than eight years through August 1945, after some 12,731 Fortresses were built. It is believed that around 10,000 of these actually left the United States for assignments all over the world. Despite the Fort’s uncanny ability to survive major battle damage, roughly 4,500 B-17s were lost in combat flying mainly from the European Theatre of Operations and the unsinkable aircraft carrier known as the United Kingdom. From this island, the mighty Eighth Air Force launched the greatest air armada ever—where the sky roared for a thousand days and the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress marked its place in history.

Is the B- I 7 the very best bomber ever built’? For years, the argument has continued between the B-17 and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Was the B-24 the better plane? This question has consumed far too many for far too many years. The Liberator carried more, was faster, and could fly higher than the B-17. Although they did fly next to each other in combat, their role was a little different. The Flying Fortress and the Liberator complimented each other and were never meant to be competitors. However, competition was inevitable, as they were both successful bombing platforms. The two bombers were simply the result of an exhaustive search by the War Department through aircraft builders for the new bomber de signs that were so badly needed. Of the design submissions, the -17 and the -24 were the best. Their designs were simply the result of what was needed at the time. Consider the numbers. B-24 production ran up to 18,188 of the huge twin-tailed leviathans. However, by the end of the war, so many modifications had been made to the B-24 that it could no longer fly further or faster than the B-17.

War Wartime Impact – The ability to penetrate hostile airspace, weather enemy threats, carry the correct bomb load, deliver the load successfully, and return home. Defensive Characteristics – From single barrel machine guns through electronic counter measures, stealth, and even speed. What bomber defends itself better than any other? Range – Could the bomber launch, ingress, loiter, deliver, and return? Available Bomb Load – What could carry the most and how many different types of weapons could it haul? Accuracy – The result of the bomb delivery system and the aircraft’s stability and control predictability. Survivability – Evading or withstanding enemy ground-fire and aerial attack. What bomber had the lowest loss to sortie ratio?

From the time that aerial bombing began through today, these aircraft stand out among the very best ever designed: the German Gotha bombers the Heinkel 111 the B-17 B-24 Lancaster Aichi D3A Val the B-47 Stratojet the B-52 Stratofortress the FB-111 the B-58 Hustler B-1 Lancer B-2 Spirit and more.

Most agree, given the above criteria, that the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is the best bomber ever built. Apparently, the US military felt the same way. The baker one-seven was not fully retired from active service until the late 1960s!

The debate over which was the better plane began early in the War and continues even today. General James Doolittle wrote his studied comparisons, in which he partly stated that in an effort to improve the B-24’s defensive characteristics, performance was compromised at the expense of the added weight of the armor and armament. One very unusual example of the Army Air Corps attempt to improve on the Liberator was to graft the entire front of a B-17G onto a B-24J. The results were terribly unsuitable, and only three tests were flown by this plane. The hybrid bomber could only climb to 18,000 feet and lacked both longitudinal and directional stability. One note from the study report stated that the installation increased the already excessive basic weight of the B-24J. But the Bombardier and Navigator reported that they favored the increased room in the forward compartment over the traditional B-24 arrangement.

Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress

The iconic Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress served the Allied cause around the globe during World War II. Perhaps most famous as the workhorse of the Eighth Air Force's bombing campaign against Germany and occupied territories, the B-17 became legendary for its ability to take punishment and return with its crew. The B-17 design took form as the Boeing Model 299 and first flew in 1935. It was continuously refined and improved based on lessons learned in battle over the ensuing years, culminating in the B-17G. Some B-17s continued in various civil roles, particularly as fire bombers, in the post-war years.

A total of 12,726 of Boeing's long-range bombers were built by the end of the war. Much of this production occurred at Boeing Plant 2 in Seattle (6,981), with the rest built under license by Lockheed (2,750, under the name Vega), and Douglas (2,995). Wartime B-17s carried a crew of 10 and were armed with 10 (up to 13 on later G models) .50-caliber machine guns.

The Museum’s B-17F, serial number 42-29782, has a long flying history. It began life here in Seattle at Boeing's Plant 2, a mile north of The Museum of Flight, on February 13, 1943. Delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces at Wright Field, Ohio, the plane was immediately modified in Wyoming and then assigned to training units at Blythe Field and McClellan Field, both in California. A month later, it worked its way back to Washington, flying training flights at Moses Lake. During one such flight in September 1943, the right main wheel came off and the aircraft spent some time in the shop with damage to the right wing and engines #3 and #4.

During April to May 1944, the aircraft flew outside the United States, to a destination (thought to be Great Britain) and purpose unknown. The B-17 returned to Drew Field in Florida through the end of the war. In March 1945, it was designated a TB-17, or trainer aircraft.

On November 5, 1945, it was withdrawn from service and shipped to Altus, Oklahoma, for disposal. There, 42-29782 sat until 1946, when the War Assets Administration transferred the airplane to Stuttgart, Arkansas, for display as a War Memorial. Stripped of its turrets, guns, and other war-making items, it nested in a small park for the next five years, with "Great White Bird" painted on its noise. The plane sat derelict until 1953, when the aircraft was sold to the Biegert brothers of Shickley, Nebraska. The plane was eventually completely overhauled into flying condition and converted to an aerial sprayer and fire bomber, with civil registration N17W. It was then leased to Central Aircraft and flown out of Yakima, Washington for several years. In 1961, the plane was sold to Globe Air, which used N17W as a tanker through 1968. That was when our plane started its illustrious movie career.

Appearing in the movie The Thousand Plane Raid in 1968, N17W saw its first action in what would be three Hollywood features. The film Tora Tora Tora in 1969 came next. N17W’s acting career ended in 1989 with the movie Memphis Belle. This final movie, shot on location in England, required more than 50 hours of flying time. In order for the director to give the illusion of many B-17s in a single scene, the plane was painted with one scheme on the left side and a different scheme on the right.

In between movie stints, from 1968 to 1985, the aircraft continued flying for Globe Air, performing spraying, firefighting, and tanker jobs. In 1985, Seattle businessman and then-Museum of Flight trustee Robert Richardson acquired the B-17. Over time, top and bottom turrets were installed and the plane became based at The Museum of Flight. After its work with the Memphis Belle film shoot in England, the B-17 came back to the Museum for good and a thorough restoration began in 1991.

In 1998, the B-17F, newly christened Boeing Bee and registered NL17W, flew from Renton, Washington to Boeing Field for permanent display at The Museum of Flight. It is considered the finest B-17 restoration in the world, completely authentic with all components except guns fully functional.

Flying Fortress: A forgotten prototype crash that almost ended Boeing

It’s one of the most iconic bombers from World War II, and it was a key part of Allied strategy to fight the Nazis and liberate Europe. Before that, though, what eventually became the B-17 suffered a tragic setback 83 years ago this week that not many people remember.

Boeing’s roots as a local company go back to 1916. The story of the B-17 begins in 1934 when the Roosevelt administration and the Air Mail Act forced big companies, including Boeing, that were building aircraft and flying passengers and cargo to split into separate entities.

This was because of charges of collusion between the aviation industry and previous Hoover administration Postmaster General Walter Brown. The charges were ultimately disproved years later, but Boeing was forced to split into three companies, including United Technologies, United Airlines, and the Boeing Airplane Company.

In September 1934, company founder Bill Boeing resigned as board chairman and stepped away from the industry completely. Longtime executive Claire Egtvedt became president and decided to go big that is, to focus on building big airplanes.

Around the same time, the US Army Air Corps, precursor to the US Air Force, asked airplane manufacturers to build prototypes for a multi-engine coastal defense plane. One catch: there was no money from the government to build it.

Under Egtvedt’s leadership, Boeing essentially “bet the company” and spent all available cash to design and build what they called the Model 299. It was a big, shiny, aluminum, four-engine bomber designed to be equipped with an array of defensive machine guns.

The new plane debuted at Boeing Field and took its inaugural flight early on the morning of Sunday, July 28, 1935.

The new bomber was a big hit with the public and the reporters who came to see its rollout. Compared with other planes in production in 1935, the Model 299 was huge: 75 feet long, with a 100-foot wing span. The first flight lasted 90 minutes, and thousands of people around Western Washington caught a glimpse of the 299 and/or heard the distinctive sounds of its four engines.

Mike Lombardi is Boeing’s corporate historian, overseeing the company’s collection of historic photos, documents and artifacts from an office at the Boeing Archives.

Lombardi says the Model 299 came to be known by its more famous nickname with help from one of those local journalists who came to the rollout.

“It had four different machine gun positions to defend it, and they proposed that it could go out into the ocean and find enemy ships and it would protect America from invasion,” Lombardi said. “And with that talk … one of the great statements from one of our newspaper newsmen here in Seattle, Richard Smith with The Seattle Times . . . he exclaimed at seeing this airplane that it was a ‘Flying Fortress.’”

“And of course, that name stuck,” Lombardi said. “Boeing quickly adopted it, trademarked it and then pretty soon Dick Smith was working here at Boeing in the PR department … just a happy coincidence,” Lombardi said, with a chuckle.

The Model 299 made additional test flights around Seattle throughout August.

“Some of us remember years ago with the 747 doing the same thing, how everybody would go out and stop and look” when it flew over, Lombardi said. “The 299 made that same impression on everybody … just this incredible airplane, this symbol of technology and aviation advancement,” he said.

“Everyone in Seattle was justifiably very proud that Boeing was a Seattle company and doing these incredible things,” Lombardi said.

On Tuesday, August 20, 1935, the 299 took off and headed east to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio for official trials, and to compete for an Army Air Corps contract against twin-engine bombers from Douglas and Martin.

Mike Lombardi says it was a record-breaking flight of just over nine hours from Seattle to Dayton.

“This airplane is so fast, it actually is faster than a fighter plane,” Lombardi said. “Boeing at this time is building the P-26 which was America’s first all-metal, low-wing monoplane, which was very fast at 233 miles an hour. But the 299 was even faster.”

Tests of the three bombers continued throughout September and October.

A Flying Fortress crashes

Then, on the morning of October 30, 1935, a crew of five got aboard the Model 299 for another test flight. They pointed the plane down the runway, accelerated, and headed up into the sky. But, they forgot to release a new safety device called a “gust lock,” which prevented flaps from being damaged by wind while the plane was parked.

“As the plane was climbing without any control, it stalled … it crashed and burned,” Lombardi said. “The airplane was gone, and, sadly, Boeing lost this wonderful test pilot Les Tower, along with the Air Corps pilot, so this was an incredible tragedy.”

The loss of life was tragic, of course, but the loss of the only Model 299 also meant that Boeing was doomed.

“Everything the company had went into this prototype and there it was, a burning wreck on the field. By default, Boeing lost the competition. We didn’t have an airplane to finish and Douglas won. So that was the end of the Boeing Company.”

The Army Air Corps placed a big order for the Douglas bomber, which became known as the B-18 Bolo.

Mike Lombardi says that things were pretty bleak around the Boeing factory in November and December of 1935 as it looked like it would all have to be shut down.

But, as we all know, it wasn’t really over for the scrappy little aerospace giant. And come January 17, 1936, things were looking up.

“One thing saved it, and that was that taking that risk on being innovative taking that risk to go a little bit farther than what the customer asked for and give them a better airplane,” Lombardi said.

“This airplane flew faster, higher could carry more could go farther than the Douglas airplane clearly a better airplane all the way around it was the clear winner if it had made it through the competition. And so the Air Corps decided they had to have that Boeing airplane,” he said.

The Army ordered 13 Flying Fortress plane to start, and the relatively small contract literally saved the company. Then, as the World War II neared, the B-17 ultimately beat out the Douglas plane and became one of the workhorses of the strategic bombing of industrial sites in Germany. Ultimately, more than 12,000 Flying Fortress planes were built by Boeing and other manufacturers during the war.

Mike Lombardi says it isn’t just the Flying Fortress that’s worthy of icon status. Also deserving are the young men who flew them, and the Boeing employees who built them.

“To think that airplanes could win wars was a pretty radical idea,” Lombardi said of the American air power strategy embodied by the Flying Fortress. “But this is what America did in World War II [with] these young men flying these B-17s.”

“The other part of that was here on the home front, that people could build that many airplanes in that short a time,” Lombardi said. “That was also part of the legendary history of the B-17, and that history was here in Seattle.”

Watch the video: Battle Stations: B17 Flying Fortress War History Documentary (January 2022).