|The name Flying Fortress has entered the world of myth and legend.
Perhaps more than any other plane, the B-17 represented the power of American aviation in
the years that Europe was overrun by Axis troops. A total of 12,731 Flying Fortresses were
produced during the war. Throughout the war they made history. On August 17, 1942, B-17s
began daylight bombing missions in Europe. On January 27, 1943, they began bombing raids
on Germany. (The night bombing raids were conducted by tour-engine RAF planes.)
Wilhelmshaven, Schweinfurt, Wiener Neustadt, Regensburg, and Berlin were only some of the
cities that saw the skies filled with hundreds and hundreds of bombers in formation,
together with the flaming wreckage of hundreds more. Thousands of lives were lost, and
cities were almost completely leveled.
Project 299, as Boeing called it, got started on August 16, 1934, only eight days after the company had received the official government request for a prototype multi-engine bomber to be ready by August of the following year. Specifications called for a plane that could carry a payload of 2,000 pounds a distance of between 1,000 and 2,000 miles at speeds between 200 and 250 m.p.h. The Boeing designers took advantage of the knowledge they had gained in building the civil transport Model 247 and in developing the Model 294 bomber. The first prototype took to the air on July 28,1935. Less than a month later, in a transfer flight, it showed what it could do, flying over 2,000 miles nonstop in nine hours. This plane was destroyed on October 30 during takeoff, and 13 pre-series aircraft were ordered built for testing. The first of these planes, the YB-17, took to the air on December 2, 1936, and the others were delivered for testing between March 1 and August 5, 1937, to the 2nd Bombardment Group. Another body, originally designed for static testing, was equipped with four Wright engines and super-chargers and designated the Y1 B-17A. The performance of this plane was so promising that the supercharger became standard in later production. Static tests were deemed unnecessary after one of the Y1B-17s had flown through a storm without any damage.
The first order for a series model came in 1938, when 39 B-l7Bs were ordered. A second order, for 38 B-17Cs (with heavier armament, armor for crew, and self-sealing fuel tanks) arrived in 1939, followed in 1940 by an order for 42 B-l7Ds, which were substantially identical with the preceding model. These last two versions of the Flying Fortress were the first to see combat. They were used from May, 1941, by the British (B-17C, with no great success) and after Pearl Harbor by the Americans. Most of the B-17s at Pearl Harbor were destroyed on the ground by the Japanese, but those that survived the Japanese attack were responsible for the first American air offensive of World War II. On December 10, 1941, B-17s attacked Japanese shipping.
The 1941 version, the B-17E, was extensively modified. The entire rear section of the plane was radically altered to provide greater stability, especially at high altitude, and to make room for the installation of a defensive gun position in the tail. The plane's armament was increased by the addition of two mechanically controlled gun turrets, one on the back and one in the belly. Both turrets had 12.7-mm. guns, and machine guns were also installed on the sides of the fuselage. Two 7.62-mm. light machine guns, manually operated, were kept forward. A total of 512 B-17Es were built. They appeared in the Pacific first, early in 1942, and later in Europe, in July, with units of the 8th Air Force, based in Great Britain. On August 17 these planes made their first raid on the European front, with a daylight bombing mission to Rouen.
The next model was the B-17F, which appeared in 1942. It had still heavier armament and some other modifications. A total of 3,400 aircraft were built. Lockheed and Douglas helped in the production of this model, with 500 and 600 planes respectively. The rest were produced at the Boeing plant in Seattle.
The largest production series of the Flying Fortress was the B-17G. The Boeing company built 4,035; Douglas built 2,400 in Long Beach; and Lockheed built 2,250 in Burbank. Most of these 8,685 planes were sent to Europe, beginning in 1943. These planes had heavier defensive armament, with a remote-controlled turret forward, just below the navigator-bomber's position.
Several experimental versions were also built, as well as non-bomber B-17s, including photo-reconnaissance, naval rescue, and transport models. The United States was not the only country to employ the Flying Fortress. During the war the RAF took just over 200 Flying Fortresses, 20 of them B-l7Cs and the rest models E, F, and G. These planes were assigned to Bomber Command and to Coastal Command and remained in service until the end of the war.
The Germans captured about 20 Flying Fortresses, some intact and some damaged. They were assigned to the Kampfgeschwader 200 and used to study improved fighter tactics. Some of these planes were used by the Luftwaffe in secret operations, either without insignia or with fake USAAF insignia.
After the war some surviving B-l7Gs served in the new Israeli air force and in the air forces of Brazil and the Dominican Republic. And some Flying Fortresses were transformed into water bombers for fighting forest fires.
(Source: Enzo Angelucci & Paolo Matricardi, in "World War II Airplanes, Volume 2)
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