American Steel: The B-17 Flying Fortress

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“The plane can be cut and slashed almost to pieces by enemy fire and bring its crew home.” – Wally Hoffman, B-17 Pilot, 8th Air Force 

On the 3rd of February, 1945, the people of Berlin awoke to the screech of sirens. They rushed from their homes, taking to the streets as the soft snow that covered the ground shook with the rhythmic heartbeat of flak batteries scattering the morning sky with explosions. The first rays of light peeking over the horizon illuminated the cause of the shrieking warnings. A thousand hulking aircraft above the city, their silhouettes dark against the deep blue of their background. The people hurried to their sanctuaries, the thunderous rumble of the overhead attackers’ engines chasing them into Berlin’s bunkers. As the heavy doors of the air raid shelters swung shut, the people of the German capital heard the telltale whistling of the coming cavalcade of iron and flame, the heralding call of the plane affectionately described by the men who crewed her as the mightiest ever built.

The B-17 Flying Fortress began its life as prototype YB-17; aircraft manufacturer Boeing’s answer to a 1934 U.S. Army Air Corps proposal for a multi-engined bomber to replace its aging Martin B-10 fleet. To reflect the rapidly advancing state of airborne combat, the USAAC required submitted bomber prototypes to be capable of carrying a full bomb load at 10,000 feet for a duration of ten hours at a top speed of at least 200 miles per hour with a range of 2,000 miles. In total, three aircraft that fit this criteria were submitted for evaluation: the YB-17, the Douglas DB-1 and the Martin Model 146. To decide the winner of the contract for the USAAC’s future bomber, a fly-off was held at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio in October of 1935. It was there that, upon seeing the YB-17 rolled onto the runway for its test flight, Seattle Times reporter Richard Williams exclaimed “Why, it’s a flying fortress!” at the sight of its five .30 caliber machine guns and 4,800 pounds of bomb load. The reporter’s words would prove to be prophetic.

At the fly-off, the YB-17 quickly emerged the odds-on favorite to win the Army Air Corp’s contract. In fact, the four-engine YB-17’s performance was so superior to both of its twin-engine competitors that the USAAC procurement officers purchased 65 of the aircraft before the competition was even finished. However, on October 30th, 1935, the YB-17’s bid for victory was dashed by a devastating tragedy. On the day of the YB-17’s 2nd evaluation flight, USAAC test-pilot Major Ployer Peter Hill and Boeing employee Les Tower were killed after the crew forgot to disengage the gust locks (locking mechanisms which kept control surfaces like rudders in place while the plane was parked on the ground) before take-off, resulting in the aircraft crashing immediately after it was airborne. The destroyed YB-17 was unable to complete the evaluation, leading to its disqualification from the competition.

The USAAC declared the Douglas DB-1 (officially designated the B-18 Bolo) the winner of the fly-off and canceled their order for 65 YB-17s, a deadly mistake seemingly having doomed the YB-17 to nothingness. But the Boeing bomber would not die so easily. The Army Air Corps remained impressed by the YB-17’s performance at the fly-off, and in 1936, ordered 13 YB-17 aircraft for service testing through a legal loophole. Boeing jumped at the opportunity, equipping the new YB-17s with more powerful engines, larger flaps, and instituting a mandatory pre-flight checklist to avoid accidents like that which had occurred with the original prototype. Over the course of 1937, the 13 aircraft were delivered to the various USAAC bases around the country for testing. The new YB-17s performed even more effectively than the original model, and by July of 1940, the USAAC had submitted full purchase orders to Boeing with the plan to make the YB-17 one of its primary fleet bombers. The following month, the USAAC released the official designation for their new heavy aircraft, a classification derived from a Seattle Times reporter’s exclamation almost five years prior: the Flying Fortress.

The Flying Fortress made its formal combat debut in early 1942, running day raids on Nazi rail yards through the German-occupied territory in France. Exceedingly accurate due to the use of the then top-secret Norden bombsight code-named the “Blue Ox,” the B-17 offered the USAAC (re-named the United States Army Air Force in 1941) the high-altitude long-range bomber it needed to be effective in the European theater of the war. However, this role was not without a cost. In the early years of the Flying Fortress’s deployment, the USAAF lacked a strike aircraft in its aerial arsenal capable of escorting B-17s the full distance of their bombing runs, meaning they conducted the meat of their missions without cover. Even with the B-17’s amazing ability to absorb damage and successfully return home, this practice, coupled with the superiority of the Luftwaffe’s fighters during that period, resulted in an extremely high casualty rate for the Flying Fortress and its crew. In the skies, the B-17 was a hunted breed.

Initially, the Army Air Force’s solution to high fatality rates was to equip the B-17 with a greater weapons suite, increasing the number of .50 caliber machine guns from five to 13, including chin, top, ball and tail turrets. When Luftwaffe pilots encountered Flying Fortresses carrying the increased weapons compliment, they nicknamed them filigendes stachelschwein (flying porcupine) for the aircraft’s resemblance to the quilled animal. While the enlargement in weaponry resulted in a greater effectiveness in the bomber to fighter conflict, it failed to decrease losses of man or machine. Because the B-17 could not maneuver while in the act of bombing, the aircraft was extremely vulnerable to German strafing runs and flak fire while releasing its payload; a fault that could not be rectified. Meaning that for the two years the B-17 was in service before the advent of Allied fighters capable of long-range escort, the men of the Flying Fortress flew missions into the teeth of the enemy’s defenses knowing a great number of them would not return. By war’s end, 3,120 B-17s were lost in battle; nearly a third of the number manufactured for combat. For the cost of victory, the Flying Fortress paid in blood and steel.

On its almost 9,000 combat missions over Europe, the most of any American bomber, Flying Fortresses dropped 646,036 tons of bombs on targets all over the continent, pounding the Third Reich into submission. Legendary for its ability to survive, the Flying Fortress not only symbolizes America’s power but its resilience. The quintessential embodiment of the principle that success depends not on how hard one can hit, but how hard one can get hit and keep moving forward, the B-17 is one of the most recognizable icons of the United States’s air supremacy and the shining example of the country’s spirit. For its unyielding toughness in the face of overwhelming adversaries and its role in the destruction of the greatest enemy this world has ever faced, the B-17 Flying Fortress takes its place as a hallmark in the revered bloodline that is American steel.

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Wooden hulled, three masted heavy frigate. Named by President George Washington.

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