Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
B-17 Flying Fortress
Boeing B-17E
Role Heavy bomber
Strategic bomber
National origin United States
Manufacturer Boeing
First flight 28 July 1935[1]
Introduction April 1938
Retired 1968 (Brazilian Air Force)
Primary users United States Army Air Forces
Royal Air Force
Produced 1936–1945
Number built 12,731[2]
Unit cost US$238,329[3]
Variants XB-38 Flying Fortress
YB-40 Flying Fortress
C-108 Flying Fortress
Developed into Boeing 307

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is a four-engine heavy bomber aircraft developed in the 1930s for the then-United States Army Air Corps (USAAC). Competing against Douglas and Martin for a contract to build 200 bombers, the Boeing entry outperformed both competitors and more than met the Air Corps' expectations. Although Boeing lost the contract because the prototype crashed, the Air Corps was so impressed with Boeing's design that they ordered 13 more B-17s for further evaluation. From its introduction in 1938, the B-17 Flying Fortress evolved through numerous design advances.

The B-17 was primarily employed by the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) in the daylight precision strategic bombing campaign of World War II against German industrial and military targets. The United States Eighth Air Force based at Thorpe Abbotts airfield in England and the Fifteenth Air Force based in Italy complemented the RAF Bomber Command's nighttime area bombing in Operation Pointblank to help secure air superiority over the cities, factories and battlefields of Western Europe in preparation for Operation Overlord.[4] The B-17 also participated to a lesser extent in the War in the Pacific where it conducted raids against Japanese shipping and airfields.

From its pre-war inception, the USAAC (later USAAF) touted the aircraft as a strategic weapon; it was a potent, high-flying, long-range bomber that was able to defend itself, and to return home despite extensive battle damage. It quickly took on mythic proportions,[5][N 1][6] and widely circulated stories and photos of B-17s surviving battle damage increased its iconic status.[7] With a service ceiling greater than any of its Allied contemporaries, the B-17 established itself as an effective weapons system, dropping more bombs than any other U.S. aircraft in World War II. Of the 1.5 million metric tons of bombs dropped on Germany by U.S. aircraft, 640,000 tons were dropped from B-17s.[8]

As of September 2011, 13 airframes remain airworthy, with dozens more in storage or on static display.



Model 299 NX13372
Nose turret with gun fitted to the prototype
Crashed Model 299
Boeing Y1B-17 in flight

On 8 August 1934, the U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) tendered a proposal for a multi-engined bomber to replace the Martin B-10. The Air Corps was looking for a bomber capable of reinforcing the air forces in Hawaii, Panama, and Alaska.[9] Requirements were that it would carry a "useful bombload" at an altitude of 10,000 feet (3 km) for 10 hours with a top speed of at least 200 miles per hour (320 km/h).[10]

They also desired, but did not require, a range of 2,000 miles (3,200 km) and a speed of 250 miles per hour (400 km/h). The competition for the Air Corps contract would be decided by a "fly-off" between Boeing's design, the Douglas DB-1 and the Martin Model 146 at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio.

The prototype B-17, designated Model 299, was designed by a team of engineers led by E. Gifford Emery and Edward Curtis Wells and built at Boeing's own expense.[11] It combined features of the experimental Boeing XB-15 bomber with the Boeing 247 transport airplane.[10] The B-17's armament consisted of up to 4,800 pounds (2,200 kg) of bombs on two racks in the bomb bay behind the cockpit, and five 0.30 inches (7.62 mm) machine guns, and it was powered by four Pratt & Whitney R-1690 "Hornet" radial engines each producing 750 horsepower (600 kW) at 7,000 feet (2,100 m).[12]

The first flight of the Model 299 was on 28 July 1935, with Boeing chief test-pilot Leslie Tower at the controls.[1][13] Richard Williams, a reporter for the Seattle Times coined the name "Flying Fortress" when the Model 299 was rolled out, bristling with multiple machine gun installations.[14] The most unique being the nose installation (see note for description and drawing) which allowed the single machine gun to be fired from about any frontal angle any approaching enemy fighter would take to attack the B-17 [15]

Boeing also claimed in some of the early press releases that Model 299 was the first combat aircraft that could continue its mission if one of its four engines for what ever reason failed.[16] Boeing was quick to see the value of the name and had it trademarked for use. On 20 August 1935, the prototype flew from Seattle to Wright Field in nine hours and three minutes at an average cruising speed of 252 miles per hour (406 km/h), much faster than the competition.[17]

At the fly-off, the four-engine Boeing's performance was superior to those of the twin-engine DB-1 and Model 146. Then-Major General Frank Maxwell Andrews of the GHQ Air Force believed that the long-range capabilities of four-engine large aircraft were more efficient than shorter-ranged twin-engined airplanes, and that the B-17 was better suited to their doctrine.[18] His opinions were shared by the Air Corps procurement officers, and even before the competition had finished they suggested buying 65 B-17s.[19][20]

Development continued on the Boeing Model 299, and on 30 October 1935, Army Air Corps test-pilot Major Ployer Peter Hill and Boeing employee Les Tower took the Model 299 on a second evaluation flight; however, the crew forgot to disengage the airplane's "gust lock," a device that held the bomber's movable control surfaces in place while the aircraft was parked on the ground. Having taken off, the aircraft entered a steep climb, stalled, nosed over and crashed, killing Hill and Tower (other observers survived with injuries).[21][22][N 2]

The crashed Model 299 could not finish the evaluation, and while the Air Corps was still enthusiastic about the aircraft's potential, Army officials were daunted by the much greater expense per aircraft[23] (Douglas quoted a unit price of $58,200 based on a production order of 220 aircraft, compared with a price of $99,620 from Boeing[24]), and as the competition could not be completed Boeing was legally disqualified from the consideration for the contract.[20] Army Chief of Staff Malin Craig cancelled the order for 65 YB-17s, and ordered 133 of the twin-engine Douglas B-18 Bolo instead.[19][20]

Initial orders

Regardless, the USAAC had been impressed by the prototype's performance, and on 17 January 1936, through a legal loophole,[25] the Air Corps ordered 13 YB-17s (designated Y1B-17 after November 1936 to denote its special F-1 funding) for service testing.[20] The YB-17 incorporated a number of significant changes from the Model 299, including more powerful Wright R-1820-39 Cyclone engines replacing the original Pratt & Whitneys. Although the prototype was company-owned and never received a military serial (the B-17 designation itself did not appear officially until January 1936, nearly three months after the prototype crashed),[26] the term "XB-17" was retroactively applied to the airframe and has entered the lexicon to describe the first Flying Fortress.

Between 1 March and 4 August 1937, 12 of the 13 Y1B-17s were delivered to the 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field in Virginia for operational development and flight tests.[27] One suggestion adopted was the use of a pre-flight checklist to avoid accidents such as that which befell the Model 299.[25][28][N 3] In one of their first missions, three B-17s, directed by lead navigator Lieutenant Curtis LeMay, were sent by General Andrews to "intercept" and photograph the Italian ocean liner Rex 610 miles (980 km) off the Atlantic coast.[29] The mission was successful and widely publicized.[30][31] The 13th Y1B-17 was delivered to the Material Division at Wright Field, Ohio, to be used for flight testing.[32]

B-17Bs at March Field, California, prior to attack on Pearl Harbor.

A 14th Y1B-17 (37-369), originally constructed for ground testing of the airframe's strength, was upgraded and fitted with exhaust-driven turbochargers. Scheduled to fly in 1937, it encountered problems with the turbochargers, and its first flight was delayed until 29 April 1938.[33] The aircraft was delivered to the Army on 31 January 1939.[34] Once service testing was complete, the Y1B-17s and Y1B-17A were redesignated B-17 and B-17A respectively to signify the change to operational status.[35]

Opposition to the Air Corps' ambitions for the acquisition of more B-17s faded, and in late 1937, 10 more aircraft designated B-17B were ordered to equip two bombardment groups, one on each U.S. coast.[36] Improved with larger flaps, rudder and Plexiglas nose, the B-17Bs were delivered in five small batches between July 1939 and March 1940. In July 1940, a significant order for 512 B-17s was issued;[37] however, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, fewer than 200 B-17s were in service with the Army.[25]

A total of 155 B-17s of all variants were delivered between 11 January 1937 and 30 November 1941, but production quickly accelerated with the B-17 eventually setting the record for achieving the highest production rate for large aircraft.[38][N 4]The aircraft went on to serve in every World War II combat zone, and by the time production ended in May 1945, 12,731 aircraft had been built by Boeing, Douglas, and Vega (a subsidiary of Lockheed).[39]

Design and variants

Production numbers
Variant Produced First flight
Model 299 1 28 July 1935[1]
YB-17 13 2 December 1936[40]
YB-17A 1 29 April 1938.[33]
B-17B 39 27 June 1939[41]
B-17C 38 21 July 1940[42]
B-17D 42 3 February 1941[43]
B-17E 512 5 September 1941[44]
B-17F 3,405 30 May 1942[45][46]
B-17F-BO 2,300 [45]
B-17F-DL 605 [45]
B-17F-VE 500 [45]
B-17G 8,680
B-17G-BO 4,035
B-17G-DL 2,395
B-17G-VE 2,250
Grand total 11,931

The B-17 went through several alterations in each of its design stages and variants. Of the 13 YB-17s ordered for service testing, 12 were used by the 2nd Bomb Group of Langley Field, Virginia, to develop heavy bombing techniques, and the 13th was used for flight testing at the Material Division at Wright Field, Ohio.[32] Experiments on this aircraft led to the use of a turbo-supercharger which would become standard on the B-17 line. A 14th aircraft, the YB-17A, originally destined for ground testing only and upgraded with the turbocharger,[47] was re-designated B-17A after testing had finished.[34][35]

Blister turret of Model 299, not adopted for production

As the production line developed, Boeing engineers continued to improve upon the basic design. To enhance performance at slower speeds, the B-17B was altered to include larger rudder and flaps.[41] The B-17C changed from gun blisters to flush, oval-shaped windows.[42] Models A through D of the B-17 were designed defensively, while the B-17E was the first model primarily focused on offensive warfare.[47]

The B-17E was an extensive revision of the design; the fuselage was extended by 10 ft (3.0 m), a much larger vertical fin and rudder were incorporated into the original design, and a gunner's position in the tail as well as an improved nose were added, resulting in a 20% increase in aircraft weight.[47] The engines were upgraded to more powerful versions multiple times throughout its production, and similarly, the gun stations were altered on numerous occasions to enhance their effectiveness.[48]

B-17G nose detail

By the time the definitive B-17G appeared, the number of guns had been increased from seven to 13, the designs of the gun stations were finalized, and other adjustments were complete. The B-17G was the final version of the B-17, incorporating all changes made to its predecessor, the B-17F,[47] and in total 8,680 were built,[49] the last one (by Lockheed) on July 28 1945.[50] Many B-17Gs were converted for other missions such as cargo hauling, engine testing and reconnaissance.[51] Initially designated SB-17G, a number of B-17Gs were also converted for search-and-rescue duties, later to be redesignated B-17H.[52]

Two versions of the B-17 were flown under different designations, the XB-38 Flying Fortress and the YB-40 Flying Fortress. The XB-38 was an engine test-bed for Allison V-1710 liquid-cooled engines, should the Wright engines normally used on the B-17 become unavailable. The only prototype XB-38 to fly crashed on its ninth flight and the type was abandoned, the V-1710 being kept for fighters.[53][54]

The YB-40 was a heavily armed modification of the standard B-17 used before the P-51 Mustang, an effective long-range fighter, became available to act as escort. Additional armament included an additional dorsal turret in the radio room, a chin turret (which became standard with the B-17G) and twin .50 in (13 mm) guns in the waist positions. The ammunition load was over 11,000 rounds, making the YB-40 well over 10,000 lb (4,500 kg) heavier than a fully loaded B-17F. The YB-40s with their numerous heavy modifications had trouble keeping up with the lighter bombers once they had dropped their bombs, and so the project was abandoned and finally phased out in July 1943.[55][56][57]

SB-17G-95DL 44-83722
assigned to the 2nd ERS as a Search and Rescue aircraft

Late in World War II, at least 25 B-17s were fitted with radio controls and television cameras, loaded with 20,000 lb (9,100 kg) of high-explosives and dubbed BQ-7 "Aphrodite missiles" for Operation Aphrodite. The operation, which involved remotely flying Aphrodite drones onto their targets by accompanying CQ-17 "mothership" control aircraft, was approved on June 26, 1944, and assigned the 388th Bombardment Group stationed at RAF Fersfield, a satellite of RAF Knettishall.[58]

The first four drones were sent to Mimoyecques, the Siracourt V-1 bunker, Watten and Wizernes on August 4, causing little damage. The project came to a sudden end with the unexplained mid-air explosion over the Blyth estuary of a B-24 Liberator, part of the United States Navy's contribution as "Project Anvil", en route for Heligoland piloted by Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., future U.S. president John F. Kennedy's elder brother. Blast damage was caused over a radius of 5 miles (8.0 km). British authorities were anxious that no similar accidents should again occur, and the Aphrodite project was scrapped in early 1945.[58]

Operational history

The B-17 began operations in World War II with the RAF in 1941 (but was not successful), and in the Southwest Pacific with the US Army. The 19th Bombardment Group had deployed to Clark Field in the Philippines a few weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as the first of a planned heavy bomber buildup in the Pacific. Half of the group's airplanes were wiped out on December 8, 1941 when they were caught on the ground during refueling and rearming for a planned attack on Japanese airfields on Formosa. The small force of B-17s operated against the Japanese invasion force until they were withdrawn to Darwin. In early 1942 the 7th Bombardment Group began arriving in Java with a mixed force of B-17s and LB-30/B-24s.[59] After the defeat in Java, the 19th withdrew to Australia where it continued in combat until it was sent back home by Gen. George C. Kenney when he arrived in Australia in mid-1942.[60] In July 1942 the first B-17s were sent to England to join Eighth Air Force. Later that year two groups moved to Algeria to join Twelfth Air Force for operations in North Africa. The B-17s were primarily involved in the daylight precision strategic bombing campaign against German targets ranging from U-boat pens, docks, warehouses and airfields to industrial targets such as aircraft factories.[61] In the campaign against German aircraft forces in preparation for the invasion of France, B-17 (and B-24 Liberator) raids were directed against German aircraft production while their presence drew the Luftwaffe fighters into battle with Allied fighters.[4]

Early models proved to be unsuitable for combat use over Europe and it was the B-17E that was first successfully used by the USAAF. The defense expected from bombers operating in close formation alone did not prove effective and the bombers needed fighter escorts to operate successfully.

During World War II, the B-17 equipped 32 overseas combat groups, inventory peaking in August 1944 at 4,574 USAAF aircraft worldwide.[62] B-17s dropped 640,036 short tons (580,631 metric tons) of bombs on European targets (compared to 452,508 short tons (410,508 metric tons) dropped by the Liberator and 463,544 short tons (420,520 metric tons) dropped by all other U.S. aircraft).[clarification needed] The British heavy bombers, the Avro Lancaster and Handley Page Halifax, dropped 608,612 and 224,207[63] long tons respectively.


RAF Fortress B.I AN529.

The Royal Air Force entered World War II with no heavy bomber of its own in service; the biggest available were long-range medium bombers such as the Vickers Wellington which could carry up to 4,500 lb of bombs.[64] While the Short Stirling and Handley Page Halifax would become its primary bombers by 1941, in early 1940 the RAF entered into an agreement with the U.S. Army Air Corps to be provided with 20 B-17Cs, which were given the service name Fortress I. Their first operation, against Wilhelmshaven on 8 July 1941 was unsuccessful;[65][66] on 24 July, the target was Brest, France, but again the bombers missed completely.

By September, after the RAF had lost eight B-17Cs in combat or to accidents and many instances of aborts due to mechanical problems, Bomber Command abandoned daylight bombing raids because of the Fortress I's poor performance. The experience showed both the RAF and USAAF that the B-17C was not ready for combat, and that improved defenses, larger bomb loads and more accurate bombing methods were required. However the USAAF continued using the B-17 as a "day" bomber, despite pleas from the RAF that attempted daylight bombing would be ineffective.[67]

As usage by Bomber Command had been curtailed, the RAF transferred its remaining Fortress I aircraft to Coastal Command for use as a long-range maritime patrol aircraft instead.[68] These were later augmented in August 1942 by 19 Fortress Mk II (B-17F) and 45 Fortress Mk IIA (B-17E). A Fortress from No. 206 Squadron RAF sank U-627 on 27 October 1942, the first of 11 U-boat kills credited to RAF Fortress bombers during the war.[69] No. 223 Squadron, as part of 100 Group operated a small number of Fortresses in support of the bombing offensive for jamming German radar.[70]

Women pilots leaving their B-17, "Pistol Packin' Mama", at Lockbourne AAF, Ohio, during WASP training to ferry B-17 aircraft. Left to right are Frances Green, Marget Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn.

Initial USAAF operations over Europe

The Air Corps (renamed United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) on June 20, 1941), using the B-17 and other bombers, bombed from high altitudes using the then-secret Norden bombsight, which was an optical electro-mechanical gyro-stabilized analog computer.[71] The device was able to determine, from variables input by the bombardier, the point at which the aircraft's bombs should be released to hit the target. The bombardier essentially took over flight control of the aircraft during the bomb run, maintaining a level altitude during the final moments before release.[72]

The USAAF began building up its air forces in Europe using B-17Es soon after entering the war. The first Eighth Air Force units arrived in High Wycombe, England, on 12 May 1942, to form the 97th Bomb Group.[73] On 17 August 1942, 12 B-17Es of the 97th, with the lead aircraft piloted by Major Paul Tibbets and carrying Brigadier General Ira Eaker as an observer, were escorted by RAF Spitfires on the first USAAF raid over Europe, against railroad marshalling yards at Rouen-Sotteville in France, while a further six aircraft flew a diversionary raid along the French coast.[74][75] The operation was a success, with only minor damage to two aircraft.

As the raids of the American bombing campaign grew in numbers and frequency, German interception efforts arose to respond to the bombers (such as during the attempted bombing of Kiel on 13 June 1943[76]) to the level where unescorted bombing missions became discouraged.[77]

Combined offensive

Boeing B-17F radar bombing through clouds: Bremen, Germany, on 13 November 1943.

The two different strategies of the American and British bomber commands were organized at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. The resulting "Combined Bomber Offensive" would weaken the Wehrmacht, destroy German morale and establish air superiority through Operation Pointblank's destruction of German fighter strength in preparation of a ground offensive.[4] The USAAF bombers would attack by day, with British operations – chiefly against industrial cities – by night.

Operation Pointblank opened with attacks on targets in Western Europe. General Ira C. Eaker and the Eighth Air Force placed highest priority on attacks on the German aircraft industry, especially fighter assembly plants, engine factories and ball-bearing manufacturers.[4] Attacks began in April 1943 on heavily fortified key industrial plants in Bremen and Recklinghausen.[78]

B-17F formation over Schweinfurt, Germany, 17 August 1943

Since the airfield bombings were not appreciably reducing German fighter strength, additional B-17 groups were formed, and Eaker ordered major missions deeper into Germany against important industrial targets. The 8th Air Force then targeted the ball-bearing factories in Schweinfurt, hoping to cripple the war effort there. The first raid on 17 August 1943 did not result in critical damage to the factories, with the 230 attacking B-17s being intercepted by an estimated 300 Luftwaffe fighters. The Germans shot down 36 aircraft with the loss of 200 men, and coupled with a raid earlier in the day against Regensburg, a total of 60 B-17s were lost that day.[79]

A second attempt on Schweinfurt on 14 October 1943 would later come to be known as "Black Thursday".[80] While the attack was successful at disrupting the entire works, severely curtailing work there for the remainder of the war, it was at an extreme cost.[81] Of the 291 attacking Fortresses, 60 were shot down over Germany, five crashed on approach to Britain, and 12 more were scrapped due to damage – a total loss of 77 B-17s.[82] One hundred and twenty-two bombers were damaged and needed repairs before their next flight. Out of 2,900 men in the crews, about 650 men did not return, although some survived as prisoners of war. Only 33 bombers landed without damage. These losses were a result of concentrated attacks by over 300 German fighters.[83]

B-17G of the 384th Bomb Group on the bomb run

Such high losses of air crews could not be sustained, and the USAAF, recognizing the vulnerability of heavy bombers to interceptors when operating alone, suspended daylight bomber raids deep into Germany until the development of an escort fighter that could protect the bombers all the way from the United Kingdom to Germany and back. At the same time, the German night fighting ability noticeably improved to counter the nighttime strikes, challenging the conventional faith in the cover of darkness.[84] The Eighth Air Force alone lost 176 bombers in October 1943,[85] and was to suffer similar casualties on 11 January 1944 on missions to Oschersleben, Halberstadt and Brunswick. Lieutenant General James Doolittle, commander of the Eighth, had ordered the second Schweinfurt mission to be cancelled as the weather deteriorated, but the lead units had already entered hostile air space and continued with the mission. Most of the escorts turned back or missed the rendezvous, and as a result 60 B-17s were destroyed.[86][87] A third raid on Schweinfurt on 24 February 1944 highlighted what came to be known as "Big Week",[88] during which the bombing missions were directed against German aircraft production.[84] German fighters would have to respond, and the North American P-51 Mustang and Republic P-47 Thunderbolt fighters (equipped with improved drop tanks to extend their range) accompanying the American heavies all the way to and from the targets would engage them.[89] The escort fighters reduced the loss rate to below seven percent, with only 247 B-17s lost in 3,500 sorties while taking part in the Big Week raids.[90]

By September 1944, 27 of the 40 bomb groups of the Eighth Air Force and six of the 21 groups of the Fifteenth Air Force used B-17s. Losses to flak continued to take a high toll of heavy bombers through 1944, but by 27 April 1945 (two days after the last heavy bombing mission in Europe), the rate of aircraft loss was so low that replacement aircraft were no longer arriving and the number of bombers per bomb group was reduced. The Combined Bomber Offensive was effectively complete.[91]

Pacific Theater

B-17C AAF S/N 40-2074 at Hickam Field. An onboard fire burnt the plane in two shortly after landing on 7 December 1941. One crewman was killed by Zero attack.[92]

On 7 December 1941, a group of 12 B-17s of the 38th (four B-17C) and 88th (eight B-17E) Reconnaissance Squadrons, en route to reinforce the Philippines, were flown into Pearl Harbor from Hamilton Field, California, arriving during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Leonard "Smitty" Smith Humiston, co-pilot on First Lieutenant Robert H. Richards' B-17C, AAF S/N 40-2049, reported that he thought the U.S. Navy was giving the flight a 21-gun salute to celebrate the arrival of the bombers, after which he realized that Pearl Harbor was under attack. The Fortress came under fire from Japanese fighter aircraft, though the crew was unharmed with the exception of one member who suffered an abrasion on his hand. Enemy activity forced an abort from Hickam Field to Bellows Field, where the aircraft overran the runway and into a ditch where it was then strafed. Although initially deemed repairable, 40-2049 (11th BG / 38th RS) received more than 200 bullet holes and never flew again. Ten of the 12 Fortresses survived the attack.[93]

B-17E BO AAF S/N 41-9211
Typhoon McGoon II of the 11th BG / 98th BS, taken in January 1943 in New Caledonia. The antennas mounted upon the nose were used for radar tracking surface vessels.

By 1941, the Far East Air Force (FEAF) based at Clark Field in the Philippines had 35 B-17s, with the War Department eventually planning to raise that to 165.[94] When the FEAF received word of the attack on Pearl Harbor, General Lewis H. Brereton sent his bombers and fighters on various patrol missions to prevent them from being caught on the ground. Brereton planned B-17 raids on Japanese air fields in Formosa, in accordance with Rainbow 5 war plan directives, but this was overruled by General Douglas MacArthur.[95] A series of disputed discussions and decisions, followed by several confusing and false reports of air attacks, delayed the authorization of the sortie. By the time the B-17s and escorting Curtiss P-40 fighters were about to get airborne, they were destroyed by Japanese bombers of the 11th Air Fleet. The FEAF lost half its aircraft during the first strike,[96] and was all but destroyed over the next few days.

Another early World War II Pacific engagement on 10 December 1941 involved Colin Kelly who reportedly crashed his B-17 into the Japanese battleship Haruna, which was later acknowledged as a near bomb miss on the heavy cruiser Ashigara. Nonetheless, this deed made him a celebrated war hero. Kelly's B-17C AAF S/N 40-2045 (19th BG / 30th BS) crashed about 6 mi (10 km) from Clark Field after he held the burning Fortress steady long enough for the surviving crew to bail out. Kelly was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.[97] Noted Japanese ace Saburo Sakai is credited with this kill, and in the process, gained respect for the ability of the Fortress to absorb punishment.[98]

B-17D captured by Japanese army, with marks of Hinomaru

B-17s were used in early battles of the Pacific with little success, notably the Battle of Coral Sea[99] and Battle of Midway.[100] While there, the Fifth Air Force B-17s were tasked with disrupting the Japanese sea lanes. Air Corps doctrine dictated bombing runs from high altitude, but it was soon discovered that only one percent of their bombs hit targets. However, B-17s were operating at heights too great for most A6M Zero fighters to reach, and the B-17's heavy gun armament was easily more than a match for lightly protected Japanese planes.

On March 2, 1943, six B-17s of the 64th Squadron attacked a major Japanese troop convoy from 10,000 ft (3 km) during the early stages of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, off New Guinea, using skip bombing to sink three merchant ships including the Kyokusei Maru. A B-17 was shot down by a New Britain-based A6M Zero, whose pilot then machine-gunned some of the B-17 crew members as they descended in parachutes and attacked others in the water after they landed.[101] Later, 13 B-17s bombed the convoy from medium altitude, causing the ships to disperse and prolonging the journey. The convoy was subsequently all but destroyed by a combination of low level strafing runs by Royal Australian Air Force Beaufighters, and skip bombing by USAAF North American B-25 Mitchells at 100 ft (30 m), while B-17s claimed five hits from higher altitudes.[102]

A peak of 168 B-17 bombers were in the Pacific theater in September 1942, with all groups converting to other types by mid-1943. In mid-1942 Gen. Arnold decided that the B-17 was inadequate for the kind of operations required in the Pacific and made plans to replace all of the B-17s in the theater with B-24s as soon as they became available. Although the conversion was not complete until mid-1943, B-17 combat operations in the Pacific theater came to an end after a little over a year.[103] Surviving airplanes were reassigned to the 54th Troop Carrier Wing's special airdrop section, and were used to drop supplies to ground forces operating in close contact with the enemy. Special airdrop B-17s supported Australian commandos operating near the Japanese stronghold at Rabaul, which had been the primary B-17 target in 1942 and early 1943.[104]

Bomber defense

Part of a USAAF stream of over 1,000 B-17s

Before the advent of long-range fighter escorts, B-17s had only their .50 in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns to rely on for defense during the bombing runs over Europe. As the war intensified, Boeing used feedback from aircrews to improve each new variant with increased armament and armor.[105] The number of defensive guns increased from four 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns and one 0.30 in (7.62 mm) nose machine gun in the B-17C, to thirteen 0.50 in (12.7 mm) machine guns in the B-17G. But because the bombers could not maneuver when attacked by fighters, and during their final bomb run they needed to be flown straight and level, individual aircraft struggled to fend off a direct attack.

German training model on how to attack a fliegendes Stachelschwein

A 1943 survey by the Air Corps found that over half the bombers shot down by the Germans had left the protection of the main formation.[106] To address this problem, the United States developed the bomb-group formation, which evolved into the staggered combat box formation where all the B-17s could safely cover any others in their formation with their machine guns, making a formation of the bombers a dangerous target to engage by enemy fighters.[107] Luftwaffe "jagdflieger" (fighter pilots) likened attacking a B-17 combat box formation to encountering a fliegendes stachelschwein, or "flying porcupine". However, the use of this rigid formation meant that individual aircraft could not engage in evasive maneuvers: they had to always fly in a straight line, which made them vulnerable to the German flak. Additionally, German fighter aircraft later used the tactic of high-speed strafing passes rather than engaging with individual aircraft to inflict damage with minimum risk.

As a result, the B-17s' loss rate was up to 25% on some early missions (60 of 291 B-17s were lost in combat on the second Raid on Schweinfurt[108]), and it was not until the advent of long-range fighter escorts (particularly the North American P-51 Mustang) resulting in the degradation of the Luftwaffe as an effective interceptor force between February and June 1944, that the B-17 became strategically potent.

Formation flying through dense flak over Merseburg, Germany

The B-17 was noted for its ability to absorb battle damage, still reach its target and bring its crew home safely. Wally Hoffman, a B-17 pilot with the Eighth Air Force during World War II, said, "The plane can be cut and slashed almost to pieces by enemy fire and bring its crew home."[109] Martin Caidin reported one instance in which a B-17 suffered a mid-air collision with a Focke-Wulf Fw 190, losing an engine and suffering serious damage to both the starboard horizontal stabilizer and the vertical stabilizer, and being knocked out of formation by the impact. The airplane was reported as shot down by observers, but it survived and brought its crew home without injury.[110] Its toughness more than compensated for its shorter range and lighter bomb load when compared to the Consolidated B-24 Liberator or the British Avro Lancaster heavy bombers.[clarification needed] Stories abound of B-17s returning to base with tails having been destroyed, with only a single engine functioning or even with large portions of wings having been damaged by flak.[111] This durability, together with the large operational numbers in the Eighth Air Force and the fame achieved by the "Memphis Belle", made the B-17 a significant bomber aircraft of the war. Other factors such as combat effectiveness and political issues also contributed to the B-17's success.[112]

The B-17 design went through eight major changes over the course of its production, culminating in the B-17G, differing from its immediate predecessor by the addition of a chin turret with two .50 in (12.7 mm) caliber M2 Browning machine guns under the nose. This eliminated the B-17's main defensive weakness in head-on attacks.

The Luftwaffe

A severely damaged B-17 continues to fly after an attacking Bf 109 fighter collided with the aircraft.

After examining wrecked B-17s and B-24s, Luftwaffe officers discovered that on average it took around 20 hits with 20 mm (0.79 in) shells fired from the rear to bring them down.[82] Pilots of average ability hit the bombers with only about two percent of the rounds they fired, so to obtain 20 hits, the average pilot had to fire one thousand 20 mm (0.79 in) rounds at a bomber.[82] Early versions of the Fw 190, one of the best German interceptor fighters, were equipped with two 20 mm (0.79 in) MG FF cannons, which carried only 500 rounds, and later with the better Mauser MG 151/20 cannons, which had a longer effective range than the MG FF weapon. The German fighters found that when attacking from the front, where fewer defensive guns were pointed, it only took four or five hits to bring a bomber down.[82] To address the Fw 190's shortcomings, the number of cannons fitted was doubled to four with a corresponding increase in the amount of ammunition carried, and in 1944, a further upgrade to Rheinmetall-Borsig's 30 mm (1.2 in) MK 108 cannons was made, which could bring a bomber down in just a few hits.[82]

B-17G-15-BO "Wee Willie", 322d BS, 91st BG, after direct flak hit on her 128th mission.[113]

The adoption of the Werfer-Granate 21 (Wfr. Gr. 21) rocket mortar by the Luftwaffe in mid-August 1943 promised the introduction of a major "stand-off" style of offensive weapon – one strut-mounted tubular launcher was fixed under each wing panel on the Luftwaffe's single-engined fighters, and two under each wing panel of a few twin-engined Bf 110 daylight Zerstörer aircraft.[82] However, due to the ballistic drop of the fired rocket (despite the usual mounting of the launcher at about 15° upward orientation), and the small number of fighters fitted with the weapons, the Wfr. Gr. 21 never had a major effect on the combat box formations of Fortresses.[82] Also, the attempts of the Luftwaffe to fit heavy-calibre Bordkanone-series 37, 50 and even 75 mm (2.95 in) cannon as anti-bomber weapons on twin-engined aircraft such as the special Ju 88P fighters, as well as one model of the Me 410 Hornisse, did not have much effect on the American strategic bomber offensive. The Me 262 had moderate success against the B-17 late in the war however. With its usual nose-mounted armament of four MK 108 cannons, and with some examples later equipped with the R4M rocket, launched from underwing racks, it could fire from outside the range of the bombers' .50 in (12.7 mm) defensive guns and bring an aircraft down with one hit.[114]

Captured B-17F-27-BO in Luftwaffe colors, the USAAF-named "Wulf Hound", 41-24585, of the 360th BS/303rd BG, missing in action 16 October 1942. Operated by Kampfgeschwader 200.

During World War II, after crash-landing or being forced down, approximately 40 B-17s were captured and refurbished by the Luftwaffe with about a dozen put back into the air. Given German markings, the captured B-17s were used to determine the plane's vulnerabilities and to train German interceptor pilots in tactics.[115] Others, with the cover designations Dornier Do 200 and Do 288, were used as long-range transports by the Kampfgeschwader 200 special duties unit, carrying out agent drops and supplying secret airstrips in the Middle East and North Africa. They were chosen for these missions as being more suitable for the role than available German aircraft and not in an attempt to deceive the Allies, being operated in full Luftwaffe markings.[116][117] One of the B-17s of KG200, bearing Luftwaffe markings A3+FB, was interned by Spain when it landed at Valencia airfield, 27 June 1944, and remained there for the rest of the war.[73] Some B-17s kept their Allied markings and were used in attempts to infiltrate B-17 formations and report on their position and altitude. The practice was initially successful, but the Army Air Forces combat aircrews quickly developed and established standard procedures to first warn off, and then fire upon any "stranger" trying to join a group's formation.[73][verification needed]

Soviet use

The U.S. did not offer B-17s to the Soviet Union, however, at least 73 aircraft were acquired by the Soviet Air Force. These were aircraft that landed with mechanical trouble during the shuttle bombing raids over Germany, or had been damaged by a Luftwaffe raid in Poltava. The Soviets restored 23 to flying condition and concentrated them in the 890th bomber regiment of the 45th bomber division but they never saw combat. In 1946 the regiment was assigned to the Kazan factory to aid in the Soviet effort to reproduce the Boeing B-29 as the Tupolev Tu-4.[118]

Japanese use

Boeing B-17E Fortress 41-2471 formerly of 7th Bomb Group, used by Japanese Army for training to develop fighter tactics

Three B-17 Flying Fortress were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines and Netherlands East Indies. At Clark Field they recovered the turbosupercharger of a B-17 and other spare parts. Eventually an entire B-17D was put together from the collection of parts. Another B-17E was restored in the Netherlands East Indies, from the remains of almost 15 B-17s found on airfields. The third B-17E was found in reasonable condition in the same area, after it crash landed at Djokjakarta, Java and was abandoned.[citation needed]

They were tested by the IJAAF Koku Gijutsu Kenkyujo (Air Technical Research Laboratory) at Tachikawa. In the spring of 1945 an American aerial photo of the Japanese Tachikawa air base revealed a large unknown Japanese four-engine bomber. After the war investigators discovered the aircraft was actually a B-17E.[citation needed]

Postwar history

U.S. Air Force

Rear interior of late production B-17G, with staggered waist gun positions

Following the end of World War II, the B-17 was quickly phased out of use as a bomber and the Army Air Forces retired most of its fleet. Flight crews ferried the bombers back across the Atlantic to the United States where the majority were sold for scrap and melted down, although significant numbers remained in use in second-line roles such as VIP transports, air-sea rescue and photo-reconnaissance.[119][120] Strategic Air Command (SAC), established in 1946, used reconnaissance B-17s (at first called F-9 [F for Fotorecon], later RB-17) until 1949.[121][122] With the disestablishment of the US Army Air Forces and the establishment of an independent U.S. Air Force in 1947, most extant B-17s were transferred to USAF.

The USAF Air Rescue Service of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) operated B-17s as so-called "Dumbo" air-sea rescue aircraft. Work on using B-17s to carry airborne lifeboats had begun in 1943, but they only entered service in the European theater in February 1945, also being used to provide search and rescue support for B-29 raids against Japan. About 130 B-17s were converted to the air-sea rescue role, at first designated B-17H and later SB-17G. Some SB-17s had their defensive guns removed, while others retained their guns to allow use close to combat areas. The SB-17 served through the Korean War, remaining in service with USAF until the mid-1950s.[52][123][124]

In 1946, surplus B-17s were chosen as drone aircraft for atmospheric sampling during the Operation Crossroads atomic bomb tests, being able to fly close to or even though the mushroom clouds without endangering a crew. This led to more widespread conversion of B-17s as drones and drone control aircraft, both for further use in atomic testing and as targets for testing surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles.[125] One hundred and seven B-17s were converted to drones.[126] The last operational mission flown by a USAF Fortress was conducted on 6 August 1959, when DB-17P, AF Ser. No. 44-83684 directed a QB-17G, AF Ser. No. 44-83717, out of Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, as a target for an AIM-4 Falcon air-to-air missile fired from an F-101 Voodoo. A retirement ceremony was held several days later at Holloman AFB, after which 44-83684 was retired to the Military Aircraft Storage and Disposition Center (MASDC) at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Arizona.[citation needed] Perhaps the most famous B-17, the Memphis Belle, is currently being fastidiously restored to its World War II wartime appearance by the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.[127]

U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard

Under Cadillac II, the AN/APS-20 radar was fitted onto the B-17G, redesignated in the USN/USMC/USCG system as PB-1W
U.S. Coast Guard PB-1G stationed at CGAS Kodiak, Alaska

During the last year of World War II and shortly thereafter, the United States Navy acquired 48 ex-USAAF B-17s for patrol and air-sea rescue work. The first two ex-USAAF B-17s, a B-17F (later modified to B-17G standard) and a B-17G were obtained by the Navy for various development programs.[121] At first, these aircraft operated under their original USAAF designations but on July 31, 1945, they were assigned the naval aircraft designation PB-1, a designation which had originally been used in 1925 for the Boeing Model 50 experimental flying boat.[128]

Thirty-two B-17Gs[129] were used by the Navy under the designation PB-1W, the suffix -W standing for antisubmarine warfare. A large radome for an S-band AN/APS-20 search radar was fitted underneath the fuselage and additional internal fuel tanks were added for longer range, with the provision for additional underwing fuel tanks, while no armament was fitted. These aircraft were painted dark blue, a standard Navy paint scheme which had been adopted in late 1944.[121][128] The PB-1W eventually evolved into an early warning aircraft by virtue of its APS-20 search radar.[129] PB-1Ws continued in USN service until 1955, gradually being phased out in favor of the Lockheed WV-2 (known in the USAF as the EC-121, a designation adopted by USN in 1962), a military version of the Lockheed 1049 Constellation commercial airliner.

In July 1945, 16 B-17s were transferred to the Coast Guard via the Navy; these aircraft were initially assigned U.S. Navy Bureau Numbers (BuNo), but were delivered to the Coast Guard designated as PB-1Gs beginning in July 1946.[121][124] Coast Guard PB-1Gs were stationed at a number of bases in the U.S. and Newfoundland, with five at Coast Guard Air Station Elizabeth City, North Carolina, two at CGAS San Francisco, two at NAS Argentia, Newfoundland, one at CGAS Kodiak, Alaska, and one in Washington state.[124] They were used primarily for air-sea rescue, but were also used for iceberg patrol duties and for photo mapping. Air-sea rescue PB-1Gs usually carried a droppable lifeboat underneath the fuselage and the chin turret was often replaced by a radome.[124][130] The Coast Guard PB-1Gs served throughout the 1950s, the last example not being withdrawn from service until October 14, 1959.[121][130]

Cold War Special Missions

A number of B-17s were used by the CIA front companies Civil Air Transport, Air America and Intermountain Aviation for special missions. These included B-17G 44-85531, registered as N809Z. These aircraft were primarily used for agent drop missions over the People's Republic of China, flying from Taiwan, with Taiwanese crews. In all, four B-17s were shot down in these operations.[131]

In 1957 the surviving B-17s had been stripped of all weapons and painted black. In mid-September, one of these Taiwan-based B-17s was flown to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. assigned for covert missions into Tibet. Two missions into Tibet are known to have been flown by this B-17G (44-85531).

On 28 May 1962, N809Z, piloted by Connie Seigrist and Douglas Price, flew Maj. James Smith, USAF and Lt. Leonard A. LeSchack, USNR to the abandoned Soviet arctic ice station NP 8, as Operation Coldfeet. After parachuting from the B-17, Smith and LeSchack searched the station for several days. On 1 June, Seigrist and Price returned and picked up Smith and LeSchack using a Fulton Skyhook system installed on the B-17.[132] In 1965, N809Z was used to perform a Skyhook pick up in the James Bond movie Thunderball. This aircraft, now restored to its original B-17G configuration, is now on display in the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.


Military operators of the B-17
Civil operators of the B-17

The B-17 was a versatile aircraft, serving in dozens of USAAF units in theaters of combat throughout World War II, and in non-bomber roles for the RAF. Its main use was in Europe, where its shorter range and smaller bombload relative to other aircraft available did not hamper it as much as in the Pacific Theater. Peak USAAF inventory (in August 1944) was 4,574 worldwide.[62]


There are a total of 51 surviving airframes worldwide:

  • 10 active flying
  • 9 on static display
  • 2 currently undergoing restoration to fly
  • 3 currently undergoing restoration for display
  • 5 in storage
  • 19 partial airframes/hulks

Fortresses as a symbol

The B-17's capacity to repel enemy attacks and still inflict heavy damage to German military capability and production centers is imaginatively rendered in this caricature.
B-17G 43-38172 of the 8th AF 398th BG 601st BS which was damaged on a bombing mission over Cologne, Germany, on 15 October 1944; the bombardier was killed.[133]

The B-17 Flying Fortress has become, for many reasons, an icon of American power and a symbol of its Air Force. During the 1930s, the USAAC, as articulated by then-Major General Frank Maxwell Andrews and the Air Corps Tactical School, touted the bomber as a strategic weapon.[134][N 5]General Henry H. Arnold, Chief of the Air Corps, recommended the development of bigger aircraft with better performance and the Tactical School agreed completely.[135][N 6]

When the Model 299 was rolled out on 28 July 1935, bristling with multiple machine gun installations, Richard Williams, a reporter for the Seattle Times coined the name "Flying Fortress" with his comment "Why, it's a flying fortress!".[136] Boeing was quick to see the value of the name and had it trademarked for use. In 1943, Consolidated Aircraft commissioned a poll to see "to what degree the public is familiar with the names of the Liberator and the Flying Fortress." Of 2,500 men in cities where Consolidated adverts had been run in newspapers, 73% had heard of the B-24 Liberator, while 90% knew of the B-17.[7]

After the initial B-17s were delivered to the Air Corps 2nd Bombardment Group, they were used on promotional flights emphasizing its great range and navigational precision. In January 1938, group commander Colonel Robert Olds flew a YB-17 from the east to west coast, setting a transcontinental record of 13 hours 27 minutes. He also broke the west-to-east coast record on the return trip, averaging 245 mph (394 km/h) in 11 hours 1 minute.[137] Six bombers of the 2nd Bombardment group took off from Langley Field on 15 February 1938 as part of a goodwill flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Covering 12,000 miles (19,000 km) they returned on 27 February, with seven aircraft setting off on a flight to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, three days later.[138] In a well-publicized mission on May 12 of the same year, three B-17s "intercepted" and took photographs of the Italian ocean liner SS Rex 610 miles (980 km) off the Atlantic coast.[139][N 7]

During the war, the largest offensive bombing force, the Eighth Air Force, had an open preference for the B-17. Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle wrote about his preference for equipping the Eighth with B-17s, citing the logistical advantage in keeping fielded forces down to a minimum number of aircraft types with their unique servicing and spares. For this reason, he wanted B-17 bombers and P-51 fighters for the Eighth. His views were supported by Eighth Air Force statisticians, whose studies purportedly showed that Fortresses had utility and survivability much greater than that of the B-24.[7] Making it back to base on multiple occasions despite extensive battle damage, its durability took on mythical proportions;[5][6] stories and photos of B-17s surviving battle damage were widely circulated during the war.[7] Despite an inferior performance and bombload compared to the more numerous B-24 Liberator,[140] a survey of Eighth Air Force crews showed a much higher rate of satisfaction in the B-17.[141]

Hollywood featured the airplane in its movies, such as Twelve O'Clock High starring Gregory Peck.[142] This film was made with the full cooperation of the United States Air Force and made use of actual combat footage. In 1964, the movie was made into a television show of the same name and ran for three years. Footage from Twelve O' Clock High was also used, along with three restored B-17s, in the 1962 film The War Lover. The B-17 also appeared in the 1938 movie Test Pilot with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, with Clark Gable in Command Decision in 1948, in Tora! Tora! Tora! in 1970, and in Memphis Belle with Matthew Modine, Eric Stoltz, Billy Zane, and Harry Connick, Jr. in 1990. The most famous B-17, the Memphis Belle, toured the U.S. with its crew to reinforce national morale (and to sell War Bonds), and starred in a USAAF documentary, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.[143]

Notable B-17s

B-17G Shoo Shoo Baby
  • Aluminum Overcast – flying example.
  • Yankee Lady – flying example, Yankee Air Force.
  • Liberty Belle – former engine testbed restored as flying example, destroyed in a forced landing on 13 June 2011, outside of Chicago, Illinois; no fatalities.
  • Memphis Belle
  • My Gal Sal
  • Murder Inc. – A B-17 bombardier wearing the name of the B-17 "Murder Inc." on his jacket was used for propaganda in German newspapers.[144]
  • Nine-O-Nine – flying example, Collings Foundation of Stow, Massachusetts.
  • Old 666 - the B-17 flown by the highest decorated crew in the Pacific Theater
  • Piccadilly Lilly II - 200th from last B-17G to be built, used in the movie Twelve O'Clock High As of 2011, being restored to Flight status, at the Planes of Fame museum.
  • I'll Be Around - B-17G in the 390th Bomb Group Museum at the Pima Air and Space Museum near Tucson, AZ.
  • (The) Pink Lady
  • Sally B – The last flying example in Europe.
  • Sentimental Journey – flying example, Commemorative Air Force.
  • Shoo Shoo Baby
  • Swamp Ghost
  • (The) Swoose
  • Texas Raiders – flying example, Commemorative Air Force.
  • Thunderbird
  • Ye Olde Pub – the B-17 that Franz Stigler did not shoot down, as memorialized in the painting "A Higher Call" by John D. Shaw.[145]
  • 5 Grand - 5,000th B-17 made, emblazoned with Boeing employee signatures, served with the 333rd Bomb Squadron, 96th Bomb Group in Europe. Damaged and repaired after gear-up landing, transferred to 388th Bomb Group. Returned from duty following V-E Day, flown for war bonds tour, then stored at Kingman, Arizona. Following unsuccessful bid for museum preservation, the aircraft was scrapped.[146]

Noted B-17 pilots and crew members

Maynard H. Smith receiving Medal of Honor from War Secretary, Henry L. Stimson.
Forrest L. Vosler receiving Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt.
L–R, Nancy Love, pilot and Betty (Huyler) Gillies, co-pilot, the first women to fly the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber

Medal of Honor awards

Many B-17 crew members received military honors and 17 received the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded by the United States:[147]

Other military achievements or events

  • Allison C. Brooks (1917–2006): Was awarded numerous military decorations, and was ultimately promoted to the rank of major general and served in active duty until 1971.
  • 1st Lt. Emil "Mickey" Cohen (1924–2008): Nicknamed "The Kid". Flew with the 447th Bombardment Group, 709th squadron, out of Rattlesden, England. Piloted the Barbara Jane and two missions on The Blue Hen Chick. Was the youngest B-17 pilot in the 8th Air Force and may have been the youngest bomber pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces.
  • 1st Lt. Eugene Emond (1921–1998): Lead pilot for Man O War II Horsepower Limited. Received the Distinguished Flying Cross, Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, American Theater Ribbon and Victory Ribbon. Was part of D-Day and witnessed one of the first German jets when a ME-262 flew through his formation over Germany. One of the youngest bomber pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces.
  • Captain Werner G. Goering: American-born nephew of the Nazi commander of the Luftwaffe in World War II, Hermann Göring.[163]
  • Immanuel J. Klette (1918–1988): Second-generation German-American whose 91 combat missions were the most flown by any Eighth Air Force pilot in World War II.[164]
  • Colin Kelly (1915–1941): Pilot of the first U.S. B-17 lost in action.[165]
  • Col Frank Kurtz (1911–1996): The USAAF's most decorated pilot of World War II. Commander of the 463rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), 15th Air Force, Celone Field, Foggia, Italy. Clark Field Philippines attack survivor. Olympic bronze medalist in diving (1932), 1944–1945. Father of actress Swoosie Kurtz.
  • Gen. Curtis LeMay (1906–1990): Became head of the Strategic Air Command and of the USAF.
  • Lt. Col. Nancy Love (1914–1976) and Betty (Huyler) Gillies (1908–1998): The first women to be certified to fly the B-17, in 1943.[166]
  • Col. Robert K. Morgan (1918–2004): Pilot of Memphis Belle.
  • Lt. Col. Robert Rosenthal (1917–2007): Commanded the only surviving B-17, "Rosie's Riveters", of a US 8th Air Force raid by the 100th Bomb Group on Münster in 1943. Earned sixteen medals for gallantry (including one each from Britain and France), and led the raid on Berlin on February 3, 1945, that is likely to have ended the life of Roland Freisler, the Third Reich's infamous "hanging judge".
  • 1st Lt Bruce Sundlun (1920–2011): Pilot of Damn Yankee of the 384th Bomb Group was shot down over Belgium on 1 Dec 1943 and evaded capture until reaching Switzerland 5 May 1944.[167]
  • Brig Gen Paul Tibbets (1915–2007): Flew with the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy) with both the 8th Air Force in England and the 12th Air Force in North Africa. Later pilot of the B-29 Enola Gay, dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
  • Robert Webb (1922–2002): One of the youngest bomber pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces. Received the Distinguished Flying Cross with seven oak leaf clusters.

Civilian achievements or events

  • Martin Caidin (1927–1997): Author of Cyborg, the story that formed the basis of The Six Million Dollar Man wrote the saga of the last transatlantic formation flight of B-17s ever made, Everything But the Flak.
  • Clark Gable (1901–1960): Academy Award-winning film actor, five missions as waist gunner with several groups from May to September 1943, including the B-17 Eight Ball of the 359th Bomb Squadron (351st Bomb Group).
  • Irv Homer (1922–2009). Philadelphia Radio host served as 15th Air Force B-17 co-pilot during WW2.
  • Tom Landry (1924–2000): American football player and coach, flew 30 missions over Europe in 1944–45 as a B-17 pilot with the 493rd Bomb Group, surviving a crash landing in Czechoslovakia. (His older brother Robert died in a B-17 crash)[168]
Clark Gable with 8th AF B-17F with pre-Cheyenne tail position, in Britain, 1943
  • Norman Lear: Radio operator, with the 463rd Bombardment Group (Heavy), 15th Air Force, Celone Field, Foggia, Italy; television producer of American sitcoms Sanford and Son, Maude and All in the Family, among others.
  • Gene Roddenberry (1921–1991): Creator of Star Trek; flew B-17s for the 394th Bomb Squadron, 5th Bomb Group (H), in the Pacific theater.[169]
  • Robert Rosenthal (1917–2007): Assistant to the U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, where he interrogated Hermann Göring, pilot with the 100th Bomb Group.
  • Brigadier General Robert Lee Scott, Jr. (1908–2006): Best known for his autobiography God is My Co-Pilot, about his exploits in World War II with the Flying Tigers and the United States Army Air Forces in China and Burma.
  • James Stewart (1908–1997): Academy Award-winning film actor, instructed in B-17s before flying 20 combat missions in B-24s with the 8th Air Force, England; retired from Air Force Reserve as a Brigadier General.[170]
  • Bert Stiles (1920–1944): 91st Bomb Group co-pilot from March to October 1944, short-story author, killed in action flying a P-51 on a second tour.
  • Bruce Sundlun (1920–2011): 384th Bomb Group Pilot of B-17F Damn Yankee avoided capture after being shot down over Jabbeke, Belgium, 1 December 1943 to become a lawyer, businessman and Governor of Rhode Island 1991–95.
  • Smokey Yunick (1923–2001): Award-winning motorsports car designer and premier NASCAR crew chief flew 50 missions as a B-17 pilot with the 97th Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the 15th Air Force, out of Amendola Airfield, Foggia, Italy.[171]

Specifications (B-17G)

3-view projection of a B-17G, with inset detail showing the "Cheyenne tail" and some major differences with other B-17 variants

Data from The Encyclopedia of World Aircraft[33]

General characteristics



  • Guns: 13 × .50 in (12.7 mm) M2 Browning machine guns in 8 turrets in dorsal, ventral, nose and tail, 2 in waist positions, 2 beside cockpit and 1 in the lower dorsal position
  • Bombs:
    • Short range missions (<400 mi): 8,000 lb (3,600 kg)
    • Long range missions (≈800 mi): 4,500 lb (2,000 kg)
    • Overload: 17,600 lb (7,800 kg)

See also

B-17 modified for testing of the XT-34 turboprop. This aircraft survived and was rebuilt to stock configuration as "Liberty Belle", but was lost in a post-forced-landing fire near Oswego, Illinois on 13 June 2011.
Related development
  • Boeing XB-15
  • Boeing XB-38 Flying Fortress
  • Boeing YB-40 Flying Fortress
  • Boeing C-108 Flying Fortress
Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era

Related lists



  1. ^ The B-17's incredible capacity to take it, to come flying home on three, two, even one engine, sieve-like with flak and bullet holes, with large sections of wing or tail surfaces shot away-has been so widely publicized that U. S. fighting men could afford to joke about it" and "one important fact stands clear-cut now. The Flying Fortress is a rugged airplane.
  2. ^ On board the plane were pilots Major Ployer P. Hill (his first time flying the 299) and Lieutenant Donald Putt (the primary Army pilot for the previous evaluation flights), Leslie Tower, Boeing mechanic C.W. Benton, and Pratt and Whitney representative Henry Igo. Putt, Benton and Igo escaped with burns, and Hill and Tower were pulled from the wreckage alive, but later died from their wounds.
  3. ^ The idea of a pilot's checklist spread to other crew members, other Air Corps aircraft types, and eventually throughout the aviation world. Life magazine published the lengthy B-17 checklist in its 24 August 1942 issue.
  4. ^ Quote: "At the peak of production, Boeing was rolling out as many as 363 B-17s a month, averaging between 14 and 16 Forts a day, the most incredible production rate for large aircraft in aviation history."
  5. ^ Quote: "The Howell Commission's report ... stated '... an adequate striking force for use against objectives both near and remote is a necessity for a modern army ...'"
  6. ^ Quote: "To them it seemed that the bomber was well-nigh invincible. They argued that pursuit was obsolete and attack an expensive luxury, since aviation was more effective when used for interdiction behind enemy lines and strategic bombardment to destroy the enemy's means and will to fight."
  7. ^ This is a common error. The Rex was 725 miles offshore on her last position report as the B-17s were taxiing for takeoff from Mitchel Field, four hours before interception.


  1. ^ a b c "The Boeing Logbook: 1933–1938". Boeing. Retrieved 3 March 2009. 
  2. ^ Yenne 2006, p. 8.
  3. ^ Bowers, Peter M. Fortress in the Sky. Granada Hills, California: Sentry Books Inc., 1976. ISBN 0-913194-04-2.
  4. ^ a b c d Carey 1998, p. 4.
  5. ^ a b "The Story of the B-17". excerpts from B-17 Pilot Training Manual. Headquarters, AAF, Office of Flying Safety. Retrieved 16 January 2007. 
  6. ^ a b Browne, Robert W. "The Rugged Fortress: Life-Saving B-17 Remembered". Flight Journal: WW II Bombers (Winter 2001). 
  7. ^ a b c d Johnsen, Frederick A. "The Making of an Iconic Bomber". Air Force Magazine 89 (10, 2006). Retrieved 15 January 2007. 
  8. ^ Yenne 2005, p. 46.
  9. ^ Tate 1998, p. 164.
  10. ^ a b Swanborough and Bowers 1963, p. 74.
  11. ^ Hess and Winchester Wings of Fame 1997, p. 41.
  12. ^ Bowers 1989, pp. 291–292.
  13. ^ Salecker 2001, p. 46.
  14. ^ Yenne 2006, p. 12.
  15. ^ "Army's Biggest Bomber Has Rotating Nose." Popular Science Monthly, August 1937.
  16. ^ "Giant Bomber Flies Four Miles Per Minute." Popular Mechanics, October 1935.
  17. ^ "Army Bomber Flies 2,300 Miles In 9 Hours, or 252 Miles an Hour; New All-Metal Monoplane Sets a World Record on Non-Stop Flight From Seattle to Dayton, Ohio". The New York Times, 21 August 1935. "Subscription required" 
  18. ^ Zamzow 2008, p. 33.
  19. ^ a b Tate 1998, p. 165.
  20. ^ a b c d Zamzow 2008, p. 34.
  21. ^ "Model 299 Crash, 15 November 1935". National Museum of the USAF. Retrieved 16 January 2007. 
  22. ^ Schamel, John. "How the Pilot's Checklist Came About". Flight Service History. Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
  23. ^ Salecker 2001, p. 48.
  24. ^ Francillon 1979, pp. 201–202.
  25. ^ a b c Meilinger, Phillip S. "When the Fortress Went Down". Air Force Magazine (Air Force Association) 87 (9, October 2004). Retrieved 22 May 2010. 
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Further reading

  • Birdsall, Steve. The B-17 Flying Fortress. Dallas, Texas: Morgan Aviation Books, 1965.
  • Davis, Larry. B-17 in Action. Carrollton, Texas: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1984. ISBN 0-89747-152-0.
  • Jablonski, Edward. Flying Fortress. New York: Doubleday, 1965. ISBN 0-385-03855-0.
  • Johnsen, Frederick A. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. Stillwater, Minnesota: Voyageur Press, 2001. ISBN 1-58007-052-3.
  • Lloyd, Alwyn T. B-17 Flying Fortress in Detail and Scale, Vol. 11: Derivatives, Part 2. Fallbrook, California: Aero Publishers, 1983. ISBN 0-8168-5021-6.
  • Lloyd, Alwyn T. B-17 Flying Fortress in Detail and Scale, Vol. 20: More derivatives, Part 3. Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania: Tab Books, 1986. ISBN 0-8168-5029-1.
  • Lloyd, Alwyn T. and Terry D. Moore. B-17 Flying Fortress in Detail and Scale, Vol. 1: Production Versions, Part 1. Fallbrook, California: Aero Publishers, 1981. ISBN 0-8168-5012-7.
  • O'Leary, Michael. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (Osprey Production Line to Frontline 2). Botley, Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 1999. ISBN 1-85532-814-3.
  • Thompson, Scott A. Final Cut: The Post War B-17 Flying Fortress, The Survivors: Revised and Updated Edition. Highland County, Ohio: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 2000. ISBN 1-57510-077-0.
  • Willmott, H.P. B-17 Flying Fortress. London: Bison Books, 1980. ISBN 0-85368-444-8.

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