B-17 Flying Fortress
The B-17 Flying Fortress is one of the most famous airplanes ever built. When the Boeing B-17 flew in 1935 at a speed of over 250 mph, its impact, both physically and psychologically, was profound. As Hap Arnold phrased it, this was “airpower you could put your hand on.” The B-17 was significantly larger than the B-10 and weighed nearly four times as much, yet the Fortress was faster and had a greater range and payload than the Martin bomber. In 1938 the engines were equipped with superchargers, which markedly increased the altitude-speed characteristics of the B-17.
By the early 1930s, modern bombers started to evolve from theory into production. Still, the Air Corps had to be very careful not to openly defy the Army. US military policy was based on defense. Any weapon system designed for offensive operations would never have been approved. The long-range bomber, including the B-17, was therefore developed under the guise of coastal defense.
As late as 1940 the Army General Staff largely disagreed with the decision of Maj. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, Commander, General Headquarters Air Force, to purchase the B–17 heavy bomber. The decision was referred to as Andrews’ Folly, but it marked the culmination of two decades of effort to produce an effective strategic bomber.
A flight of B-17s enroute to Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941 was assumed to be the large formation of aircraft tracked on radar early that Sunday morning. This formation turned out to be the carrier-based attack and fighter aircraft of Japan. The B-17s arrived later in the day and became the first B-17s to see combat in the Pacific Theater of Operations during World War II.
Few B-17s were in service on that infamous day, but production quickly accelerated. The Boeing, Vega, and Douglas consortium was formed in order to produce B-17s. Douglas Aircraft Company and Vega Aircraft Company (an associate of Lockheed which was consolidated into Lockheed in 1943) agreed to produce B-17’s under license from Boeing. In the process, Boeing agreed to enlarge its B-17 plant in Seattle and to build a new one in Wichita. Douglas contracted for a new plant in Long Beach and Vega expanded its facility in Burbank. The Douglas and Vega plants initially encountered many problems associated with setting up complex assembly lines. However, by the end of B-17 production, Douglas produced 3,000 (23.5%) and Vega produced 2,750 (21.6%).
The early B-17 models were disappointing and did not live up to their pre-war hype.
B-17s served in every World War II combat zone. The aircraft is best known for daylight strategic bombing of German industrial targets. The B-17E, the first mass-produced model Flying Fortress, carried nine machine guns and a 4,000-pound bomb load. It was several tons heavier than the prototypes and bristled with armament. It was the first Boeing airplane with the distinctive - and enormous - tail for improved control and stability during high-altitude bombing. Each version was more heavily armed.
According to its most ardent supporters, the B-17 had the range and payload which would, with sufficient numbers, bring an enemy to its knees quickly. With doctrinal and technological issues settled, airmen addressed the neglected problem of industrial mobilization.
As war approached in the aftermath of the September 1938 Munich Crisis, the biggest problem was to acquire enough B-17s and other heavy bombers to implement the strategic bombing doctrine. This would take all the manufacturing capability of the major aircraft companies and leave them unable to produce anything else.
The production of heavy bombers in the quantities needed was too large for Boeing to handle alone, so the Air Corps decided to form a pool of manufacturers to produce these. The Boeing, Vega, and Douglas consortium was formed in order to produce B-17s. Douglas Aircraft Company and Vega Aircraft Company (an associate of Lockheed which was consolidated into Lockheed in 1943) agreed to produce B-17's under license from Boeing. In the process, Boeing agreed to enlarge its B-17 plant in Seattle and to build a new one in Wichita. Douglas contracted for a new plant in Long Beach and Vega expanded its facility in Burbank. The Douglas and Vega plants initially encountered many problems associated with setting up complex assembly lines. However, by the end of B-17 production, Douglas produced 3,000 (23.5%) and Vega produced 2,750 (21.6%).
Production ended in May 1945 and totaled 12,726. Boeing plants built a total of 6,981 B-17s in various models, and another 5,745 were built under a nationwide collaborative effort by Douglas and Lockheed (Vega).
During the Second World War, as a result of forced landings, the Germans captured about 40 B-17 bombers, about a dozen of them flew in the Luftwaffe after the restoration. The planes were marked with German identification marks and they were given the code name "Dornier Do 200". The captured B-17s were mainly used by the Kampfgeschwader 200 squadron to carry out secret operations and reconnaissance missions. One of the B-17 bombers of the KG200 squadron with the number A3 + FB after landing on June 27, 1944 at Valencia airport was interned until the end of the war by Spain. Some captured B-17 with Allied identification marks were used by the Germans to penetrate the formation of bombers to track their course and height. At first, such tactics brought some success, However, the crews of the B-17 quickly developed and implemented the identification procedure and the rules for opening fire on "strange" aircraft trying to join the ranks. Also, the B-17s were used by the Germans to investigate the vulnerabilities of bombers and train fighter pilots. At the end of the war, Allied troops discovered several surviving German B-17s.
In 1948, several B-17s were used by the Israeli Air Force. They were used quite actively during the first Arab-Israeli war (1948-1949) and occasionally - during the Sinai campaign of 1956.
Only a few B-17s survive today; most were scrapped at the end of the war. Today there are approximately 40 B-17s left in the world. Of these, there exists numerous F and G models, some of them still flying. There is only one B-17D model, that located at the Smithsonian’s Paul Graber Restoration Facility. Two E models exist along with 5 P-38s under 260 feet of ice in Greenland. There is also a derelict E in Bolivia, as well as one in New Guinea. There is one more E model, serial number 41-2595, and it is currently undergoing restoration near Chicago, Illinois.
There are many B-17 Flying Fortresses with famous histories, such as the "Hell's Angels" and the "Memphis Belle." These are just two of the B-17s that were pulled from front line service and flown back to the United States to conduct war bond tours. "Hell's Angels," a B-17F of the 358th Bomb Squadron, 303rd Bomb Group was one of the first aircraft to participate in a war bond tour. The aircraft completed 48 missions without ever turning back from its assigned target. The members of squadron got the idea to sign the "Hell's Angels" before it left for the states. The idea caught on and other squadrons signed their aircraft before sending them back to the U.S.
The "Memphis Belle" has the distinction of being one of the first B-17s to complete 25 combat missions. It was also the first B-17 with 25 combat missions sent back to tour the U.S. to help sell war bonds. The aircraft was assigned to the 91st Bomb Group, 324th Bomb Squadron and based at Bassingbourn, England. The aircraft is one of the few B-17s remaining and is on display in Memphis, TN. The movie "Memphis Belle" is based on the crew's missions.
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