In World War II, my dad, Allen Spencer was the Flight Engineer and top turret gunner on a B-17. The B-17 was an amazing plane. Strategic bombing missions actually began at the tail end of World War I, And the big world powers knew that they needed to develop bomber fleets that could handle this new kind of bombing mission, because if they did not, they would be vulnerable to the evil nations who did develop such bombers. 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of rising tensions in the Pacific, the US Army Air Corps proposed a new multi-engine bomber that would replace the outdated Martin B-10. They put out the challenge and Boeing decided to get into the competition. The plan for this bomber was to provide reinforcement to bases in Hawaii, Alaska, and Panama.
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. Nevertheless, the Air Corps loved the design so much that they ordered 13 units for further 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. 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 4850 pounds along with 5x .30-inch machine guns. The 4x Hornet Radial Engines could produce 750 HP at 2100 meters. It was a tremendous machine. A reporter from the Seattle Times would nickname it The Flying Fortress…a name that stuck, even if he didn’t know how very accurate he was.
As World War II heated up, the attack on Pearl Harbor drew the United States into it, and the B-17 Flying Fortress became a staple, used in every single World War II combat zone and by the time production ended in 1945. Boeing along with Douglas and Vega had built 12,731 bombers. When the US 8th Airforce arrived in England in 1942, their sole mission was to destroy Germany’s ability to wage war. They would use any means necessary, from carpet bombing to precision bombing. On August 17th, 1942, eighteen B-17s launched a bombing raid over Nazi-held territory in Europe, hitting railway networks and strategic points. The Luftwaffe was unprepared and didn’t know how to best attack the new planes, but it didn’t take long to improve their tactics. The B-17s suffered losses too. On September 6th, 1943, 400 bombers were sent out to attack a ball-bearing plant, 45 didn’t return. October 4th, 60 out of 291 B-17s sent to the same location were lost. January 11th, 1944, 600 B-17s were sent to various industries. Bad weather kept all but 238 of them on base. Still, 60 were lost. These losses were quite costly when you consider that a single B-17 Flying Fortress would cost $238,329 in 1945. The Luftwaffe quickly perfected their attacks on 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.
Various models of the B-17 Flying Fortress were produced, but the B-17G was the one that was most liked. Almost 9000 B-17Gs were produced, the most of any of the models, because of their superior specs. A B-17G weighed 65,000 pounds and could cruise at a speed of 150 miles per hour, peaking at 287 miles per hour. It could attain a service ceiling of 35,600 feet, and carry a 9600 pounds payload. The four Wright R-1820 Cyclone engines could produce 1200 horse power each! It was one rugged machine. One particular B-17 Bomber survived a bombing mission over Cologne, Germany, and flew back to safety with 180 flak holes and only 2 out of 4 engines in operation. The veteran never forgot, and 75 years later wrote a thank you letter to Boeing. He was thankful to be alive. My dad always felt that way too. Any amount of damage that happens to a plane can mean the difference between crashing and making it home. The B-17 was truly a flying fortress, and on of the best planes to be in. The chances of coming home were better than most.
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