The B-17 Has Turned 80, Here Are 20 Facts About The Flying Fortress


Strategic bombing missions had properly begun during World War 1 and the post-war years saw a number of world powers working on the development of state-of-the-art bomber fleets. During the month of August 1934, in anticipation of rising tensions in the Pacific, the US Army Air Corps proposed a new multi-engine bomber that would replace the outdated Martin B-10. This was to be the B-17 Flying Fortress whose primary purpose would be to reinforce bases in Hawaii, Alaska & Panama.

B-17s in formation
B-17 group flying in formation. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Enter the B-17 Flying Fortress. Boeing competed against both Martin and Douglas for the contract to build 200 units of such a bomber but failed to deliver as the first B-17 Flying Fortress crashed.

The Air Corps loved the design so much that they ordered 13 units for evaluation and analysis. After a string of tests, it was introduced in 1938; the B-17 was now the prime bomber for all kinds of bombing raids.

A B-17 Dropping Bombs
A U.S. Army Air Force Boeing B-17G-50-VE Flying Fortress dropping its payload during WWII. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Here are some amazing things you probably won’t know about this mighty bomber:

1. The Prototype

The prototype B-17 Bomber was built at the company’s own expense and was a fusion of the features of Boeing XB-15 and Boeing 247 Transport Aircraft. Initially, it could carry a payload of 2200 kg along with 5x .30-inch machine guns. The 4x Hornet Radial Engines could produce 750 HP at 2100 meters.

Crashed Model 299
Crashed Model 299. Wikipedia / Public Domain

2. The Name

The name Flying Fortress was coined by a reporter of the Seattle Times and from there on became the trademark for Boeing. The company lost the tender because the model crashed but the Air Corps designated a special F1 Fund for the procurement of 13 B-17s on an experimental basis.

A Depiction of the B-17 (Copyright PD-USGov-Military-Air Force)
A caricature of the B-17 “Flying Fortress.” Wikipedia / Public Domain

3. Production on a Massive Scale

The B-17 Flying Fortress was used in every single World War II combat zone and by the time production ended in 1945, Boeing along with Douglas & Vega had built 12,731 bombers.

A B-17 Production Plant
Boeing B-17Es under construction. This is the first released wartime production photograph of Flying Fortress heavy bombers in production. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

4. The Mighty Eight

The US 8th Airforce arrived in England in 1942 with the sole mission of destroying Germany’s ability to wage war. They would use any means necessary, be it carpet bombing or precision bombing. On August 17th, 1942 18x B-17s launched a bombing raid over Nazi-held territory in Europe, hitting railway networks and strategic points. At first, the Luftwaffe was unprepared and didn’t know how to counter the raids but then improved tactics brought the loss ratio down to 10:15. Here are some notable losses:

  • September 6th, 1943, 400 bombers sent out to attack a ball-bearing plant, 45 were lost.
  • October 4th, 291 B-17s sent to the same location, 60 were lost.
  • January 11th, 1944, 600 B-17s sent to various industries. Bad weather brought down this number to 238 out of which 60 were lost.

5. Head On

The Luftwaffe found that attacking the B-17 Flying Fortress head on proved more fruitful and therefore the Americans developed the term “Bandits at 12 O’ Clock High” for oncoming Luftwaffe fighters.

A Damaged B-17
A Damaged B-17. Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

6. The cost

A single B-17 Flying Fortress would cost US$238, 329 in 1945.

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