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Project B

The origin of the Flying Fortress was the February 1934 Army Air Corps requirement for a bomber with a range of 5000 miles at 200 mph while carrying a bombload of 2000 pounds. This "Project A" was more of a feasibility study rather than a serious proposal for a production bomber. Both Martin and Boeing submitted preliminary designs in response to the "Project A" requirement. The Martin project was cancelled before anything was built, but the Boeing design (assigned the company designation of Model 294) was awarded a contract for a single example under the designation XBLR-1. The XBLR-1 was later redesignated XB-15.

Interest among American airmen in the development of a "big bomber" extended back to the early 1920's. Plans for a night bomber with a cruising radius up to 1,000 miles, and a payload of 10,000 pounds, had led in 1923 to the Barling bomber--the largest plane built in the United States up to that time.

In 1933, the Air Corps Materiel Division identified four projects as aircraft requirements and distributed the specifications to contractors. The planners showed some tendency, again, to get ahead of the engineers. The Materiel Division in 1933 set the objective in terms of a plane with a range of 5,000 miles at a speed of 200 miles per hour with a bomb load of 2,000 pounds. War Department approval having given the development plan official status as Project A, contracts of 1934 and 1935 with Boeing resulted in the construction of one experimental model, completed in the fall of 1937 as the XB-15.

The most immediate impact centered on Project B, which called for development of a bomber with speeds between 200 and 250 miles per hour and ranges between 1,020 and 2,200 miles while it carried a bomb load of 2,000 pounds. [This should not be confused with the first "Project B" which in 1921 involved Army aviation under general Billy Mitchell joining the Navy in tests against ex-German warships. The tests climaxed on July 20-21, 1921, with the bombing of the ex-German battleship Ostfriesland. In a few minutes the Ostfriesland rolled over and disappeared beneath the waves.]

The YB-10s that the Air Corps first received during airmail operations were a big advance over the older Keystone bombers in performance and striking power. Driven by 2 Wright engines, the B-10 carried a crew of 4, provided internal storage for 2,260 pounds of bombs, and mounted 3 machineguns (in the turret, the rear cockpit, and the floor of the fuselage behind the bomb bay). Its maximum speed was 207 miles per hour, cruising speed 169, service ceiling, 21,000 feet, and range 600 miles. Air Corps flyers thought the YB-10 a great plane, far superior to any of their previous bombers.

In 1934 Secretary of War George Dern called for a study of the Air Corps' state of preparedness and appointed former Secretary of War Newton Baker to chair a board that would investigate the role, size, and organization of the Army's air arm. The final report published on 18 July 1934 concluded that the "Air Invasion (and Air Defense) of the United States . . . are conceptions of those who fail to realize the inherent limitations of aviation and consider ocean barriers." It thus found no reason to reorganize the air sections of either the War or Navy Departments.

The Air Corps was looking ahead and, on 08 August 1934 [some sources say May of 1934], the Army announced another bomber competition. This was for a multi-engined bomber capable of carrying 2000 pounds of bombs with a range of 2000 miles at more than 200 mph. Unlike the "Project A" requirement, this Army requirement envisaged from the outset that the winning design would have a production run of as many as 220 aircraft. Several manufacturers (including Boeing) were invited to submit bids, with the entries being flown at Wright Field in a final competition to select the winner.

General Headquarters (GHQ) Air Force, formed on 1 March 1935, was the country's principal combat aviation arm for almost seven years. The organization fostered the strategic doctrine employed by the greatest air force ever built and, in two years prior to war, formed the training nucleus necessary to expand the Army Air Corps to unprecedented size. The development of doctrine would play a key role in the contribution of GHQ Air Force. But doctrine, as always, was limited by the equipment used to implement new ideas. The GHQ Air Force operated with poor equipment when it was first formed, but the situation soon improved.

Beginning in 1935, Major General Frank Andrews, Commander of the GHQ Air Force, argued for exclusive procurement of four-engine bombers. The Air Corps argued that this single bomber type ensured efficiency and allowed flexibility to accomplish any bombardment mission. The War Department General Staff saw in such a suggestion the danger that the Air Corps would concentrate entirely on strategic operations to the neglect of ground support.

Faced with the tactical-technical requirements of the US Air Corps at the beginning of 1934 for a bomber capable of carrying twice the bomb load twice as far as a Martin B-10, Douglas thought that it could solve this problem based on engineering experience and technology of designing DC-2 - commercial transport aircraft, which at that time was preparing to fulfill its first flight.

Builders were instructed to have designs ready for a flying competition in October 1935. Experimental aircraft, built on their own initiative by various companies to meet the requirements of the US Army, were evaluated in Wright Field (Ohio) in August 1935. Preliminary work by Boeing on the design began on June 18, 1934. Martin and Douglas proposed variants of existing designs: Martin’s bid was an improved B-10, and Douglas offered a military version of its DC-2 airliner.

Initially, Boeing engineers were thinking along the same lines, suggesting a version of their new twin-engine Model 247 airliner. They quickly realized, however, that their two-engine design would offer only marginally better performance over the B-10. Boeing engineers came up with what was basically a scaled-down version of the Model 294. Like the Model 294, it was to be powered by four engines. Boeing’s four-engine Model 299 had its maiden flight on 28 July 1935. Ten days later the B-17 taxied out for takeoff at Wright Field. The aircraft climbed very steeply, too steeply, to around 200 feet where it stalled, rolled to the side, and crashed back on the airfield and exploded. Two crewmembers died and three escaped. The crash was doubly tragic because of its impact on the Air Corps.

The Fortress prototype had crashed, so the winner of the competition was the Douglas B-18 Bolo. Air Corps leaders tried to place an order for 65 of the revolutionary B-17s, but the War Department, which controlled the Air Corps purse strings, refused. The plane had crashed; moreover, it would cost $197,000 per copy, whereas the smaller B-18 would cost only $99,000. The Army ordered 133 Bolos. Fortunately, a legal loophole allowed the Air Corps to buy a small number of B-17test aircraft — 13 to be precise, enough to equip one squadron.

Airmen continually asked Army leaders to buy more of the big B-17 bombers, but ground commanders were not receptive. Instead, they ordered more B-18s. It appears the Army’s policy was based on the beliefs that quantity was more important than quality and long-range bombers would embolden airmen to continue to think beyond the battlefield — something not to be encouraged. Airmen countered with fiscal and efficiency arguments. In truth, it was not the Army alone that insisted on quantity over quality. Congress also was inclined to procure hundreds of B-18s, simply because they were relatively cheap and it could then be claimed the Air Corps was indeed procuring a sizable number of aircraft each year, despite their inadequacies.



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Page last modified: 07-09-2018 07:20:48 ZULU