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Boeing b-17 flying fortress.
The iconic bomber of the European theater, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, carried the fight to the Germans in the skies over Europe.
Top Image: Close-up of a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber in flight, 1944-45. Gift of Peggy Wallace, 2010.308.082
Even though it was the Japanese who attacked the Americans at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the official policy of the United States and its allies was to defeat Germany first. The problem was there was no easy way to hit Germany, as a cross-channel invasion of Europe was still years away. The British had been bombing from the air, but heavy losses forced them to switch to nighttime area bombing, greatly reducing its effectiveness. The Americans, on the other hand, were proponents of daylight, precision bombing using their state-of-the-art and top-secret Norden bomb-sight. They also believed they had an aircraft which could fight its way in and out of the target area, unescorted, and return home safely. That aircraft was the Boeing B-17, better known as the “Flying Fortress”.
In years following World War I, the United States was heavily influenced by Italian air-power theorist Giulio Douhet who called for heavy investment in a force of bombers to fly over the front-lines, destroy an enemy’s infrastructure, and break their will to fight. In theory, in the words of British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the “bomber will always get through.” The Americans believed the B-17, with the Norden bomb sight, could be that bomber. It was a four engine, heavy bomber which first flew on July 28, 1935. It had a crew of ten and could carry 6,000 pounds of bombs at 300 miles per hour for a range of 2,000 miles. Its famous nickname came from the fact it carried 13 .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns for protection, and had a legendary toughness for carrying its crew home on one engine or even with the tail shot away.
The first B-17 raid in Europe took place on August 17, 1942, when 12 planes attacked the railroad marshaling yards in Rouen, France. American bomber numbers continued to build in Europe and attacks (and losses) began to build up. While the US Fifteenth Air Force also had B-17s, the most famous group to fly them during the war was the US Eighth Air Force based out of England. B-17s flown by the Eighth saw some of the fiercest combat of the war.
As the Americans flew further into Europe and Germany, the missions became deadlier. One of the worst days of the war for the B-17 and its crewmen was the second raid on German ball bearing production in Schweinfurt, Germany on October 14, 1943. Losses were so heavy on the mission it became known as “Black Thursday." The B-17, for all its armor and firepower, was simply unable to continue to fly unescorted against swarms of German fighter aircraft and their sophisticated air defense system. Clearly, something had to be done because the bomber was not getting through.
B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 398th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force, taking fire from flak over Germany, 1944-45. Gift of Peggy Wallace, 2010.308.044
Group of B-17 bombers over Europe with vapor trail flowing behind them, 1944-45. Gift of Peggy Wallace, 2010.308.041
B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 398th Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force, in-flight above cloud level in Europe, 1944-45. Gift of Peggy Wallace, 2010.308.048
The B-17 was legendary for its toughness as this photo shows a bomber that survived its nose being crushed and returned to its base in England, 1944-45. Gift of Peggy Wallace, 2010.308.034
B-17 Flying Fortress bomber dropping bombs on targets in Europe, 1944-45. Gift of Peggy Wallace, 2010.308.022
B-17 Flying Fortresses in formation over Europe, 1944-45. Gift of Austin Loree, 2011.160.029
Flying Fortresses dropping bombs and smoke markers over Goppingen, Germany in 1945. Gift of Peggy Wallace, 2010.308.040
But help soon arrived when the North American P-51 Mustang began to reach the beleaguered Eighth Air Force in large enough numbers to make a difference. The B-17 finally had a fighter which could escort them in and out of Germany, and began to overwhelm German defenses and industry. With a renewed focus and power, the Allies finally achieved the air supremacy needed over Normandy for the D-Day landings in June 1944.
By the end of the war, the B-17 was an obsolete aircraft which had been surpassed by another Boeing bomber, the B-29 Superfortress. The plane was pulled out of front-line service and used as a transport plane and even drones. While the US had less than 200 at the start of the war, more than 12,000 B-17s were produced by the end and served in every theater. Many B-17s survive today in museums, and there are some that still fly. For many, the B-17 is the iconic bomber of the war, and the “Flying Fortress" remains a symbol of American might.
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This article is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II made possible by Bank of America.
A New Orleans native, James Linn first became involved with the institution then known as The National D-Day Museum in 2001 as an eighth-grade volunteer on weekends and during the summer. Linn joined The National WWII Museum staff in 2014 and served as a Curator until 2020.
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In the span of only a few days in October 1943, the US Army Air Forces was forced to reconsider its entire strategic bombing endeavor in the European theater.
- Air & Spacecraft
- Aircraft Details
Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress
- Step Inside (VR)
The iconic Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress served the Allied cause around the globe during World War II. Perhaps most famous as the workhorse of the Eighth Air Force's bombing campaign against Germany and occupied territories, the B-17 became legendary for its ability to take punishment and return with its crew. The B-17 design took form as the Boeing Model 299 and first flew in 1935. It was continuously refined and improved based on lessons learned in battle over the ensuing years, culminating in the B-17G. Some B-17s continued in various civil roles, particularly as fire bombers, in the post-war years.
A total of 12,726 of Boeing's long-range bombers were built by the end of the war. Much of this production occurred at Boeing Plant 2 in Seattle (6,981), with the rest built under license by Lockheed (2,750, under the name Vega), and Douglas (2,995). Wartime B-17s carried a crew of 10 and were armed with 10 (up to 13 on later G models) .50-caliber machine guns.
The Museum’s B-17F, serial number 42-29782, has a long flying history. It began life here in Seattle at Boeing's Plant 2, a mile north of The Museum of Flight, on February 13, 1943. Delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces at Wright Field, Ohio, the plane was immediately modified in Wyoming and then assigned to training units at Blythe Field and McClellan Field, both in California. A month later, it worked its way back to Washington, flying training flights at Moses Lake. During one such flight in September 1943, the right main wheel came off and the aircraft spent some time in the shop with damage to the right wing and engines #3 and #4.
During April to May 1944, the aircraft flew outside the United States, to a destination (thought to be Great Britain) and purpose unknown. The B-17 returned to Drew Field in Florida through the end of the war. In March 1945, it was designated a TB-17, or trainer aircraft.
On November 5, 1945, it was withdrawn from service and shipped to Altus, Oklahoma, for disposal. There, 42-29782 sat until 1946, when the War Assets Administration transferred the airplane to Stuttgart, Arkansas, for display as a War Memorial. Stripped of its turrets, guns, and other war-making items, it nested in a small park for the next five years, with "Great White Bird" painted on its noise. The plane sat derelict until 1953, when the aircraft was sold to the Biegert brothers of Shickley, Nebraska. The plane was eventually completely overhauled into flying condition and converted to an aerial sprayer and fire bomber, with civil registration N17W. It was then leased to Central Aircraft and flown out of Yakima, Washington for several years. In 1961, the plane was sold to Globe Air, which used N17W as a tanker through 1968. That was when our plane started its illustrious movie career.
Appearing in the movie The Thousand Plane Raid in 1968, N17W saw its first action in what would be three Hollywood features. The film Tora! Tora! Tora! in 1970 came next. N17W’s acting career ended in 1989 with the movie Memphis Belle . This final movie, shot on location in England, required more than 50 hours of flying time. In order for the director to give the illusion of many B-17s in a single scene, the plane was painted with one scheme on the left side and a different scheme on the right.
In between movie stints, from 1968 to 1985, the aircraft continued flying for Globe Air, performing spraying, firefighting, and tanker jobs. In 1985, Seattle businessman and then-Museum of Flight trustee Robert Richardson acquired the B-17. Over time, top and bottom turrets were installed and the plane became based at The Museum of Flight. After its work with the Memphis Belle film shoot in England, the B-17 came back to the Museum for good and a thorough restoration began in 1991.
In 1998, the B-17F, newly christened Boeing Bee and registered NL17W, flew from Renton, Washington to Boeing Field for permanent display at The Museum of Flight. It is considered the finest B-17 restoration in the world, completely authentic with all components except guns fully functional.
Cockpit Waist Radio Station Bombardier Position
Matterport 3D Tour
B-17F Matterport 3D Tour
The Museum's Boeing B-17 was featured in multiple movies including Tora! Tora! Tora! and Memphis Belle .
Of the 12,731 B-17 planes produced, 6,981 of them were built by Boeing and 2,300 of them were B-17Fs .
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AIR & SPACE MAGAZINE
Inside a flying fortress.
Look inside one of the only surviving B-17Gs with a combat record
Roger Connor and Christopher Moore
The B-17 Flying Fortress shaped the air war over Western Europe like no other World War II aircraft. From the outset of fighting, it provided a strategic bombing capability that the Axis could never match. Its heavy payload, defensive armament, and rugged construction allowed the Army Air Forces to bomb heavily defended targets in Western Europe, unescorted, in daylight. While the strategic bombing campaign suffered its share of missteps and the legacy of civilian casualties is still hotly debated, the efficacy of the Flying Fortress in crippling German industry and infrastructure is not in doubt. Eighth Air Force B-17s alone dropped well over 400,000 tons of bombs on Axis-held territory from August 17, 1942 to May 8, 1945. However, 4,754 Flying Fortresses were lost or written off in the course of operations, constituting 37 percent of the production run of 12,731 airframes. See below for a gallery of B-17 photos. Text and images are from the Smithsonian book In the Cockpit II: Inside History-Making Aircraft of World War II (Collins Design, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, 2010), photography by Eric F. Long and Mark A. Avino, text by Roger D. Connor and Christopher T. Moore. Reprinted with permission.
Boeing built its prototype Model 299 to a 1934 Air Corps specification for a bomber with a 2,000-lb bomb load and a radius of action of more than 1,000 miles. By 1940, the B-17, as it had come to be designated, had evolved into a capable combat aircraft. The American heavy bomber doctrine that evolved through the 1930s centered on daylight precision bombing, though in operations “precision” would be a relative term, with Eighth Air Force heavy bombers dropping 50 percent of their bombs more than 1,500 feet from their targets. The solution was to fly larger formations, putting even more aircraft under the guns of capable German fighters. B-17 armament proliferated with later models mounting up to 13 .50 caliber machine guns and carrying a crew of 10. The defensive fire of B-17s took its toll on the Luftwaffe attackers, but the survival of these formations would ultimately depend on the ability of escorts to minimize the exposure to German air defense fighters.
Survivor with a Combat Record
Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby is one of the only surviving B-17Gs with a combat record. It entered service with the Ninety-first Bomb Group in March 1943. On May 29, 1944, after an extensive period of combat, the aircraft departed for a raid on the Focke-Wulf plant in Poznan, Poland. After its bomb run, the aircraft suffered flak damage and was forced to land in neutral Sweden, where the aircraft was interned with its crew. The Swedish government sold the aircraft to SAAB, who turned the Flying Fortress into an airliner. The U.S. Air Force later rescued the aircraft after it had been abandoned and eventually undertook a massive program to restore it.
The bombardier operated the Norden M-9 bombsight during the bomb run, but could also defend the aircraft with the chin turret located beneath his seat by using the roof-mounted N-6 sight to track targets and a flexible hand controller, mounted on the right side of his position, to direct the turret.
Compared with the B-29, the B-17’s navigation equipment was basic. Navigational equipment visible here includes a gyro flux gate compass, a radio compass, and an astrodome to take celestial sightings (rarely used over Europe). The navigator could also assist the bombardier in fending off deadly head-on attacks by manning the two ANM2 .50 caliber machine guns mounted on either side of the nose.
The radio operator employed a range of liaison and command radio sets in the course of his communications duties and tuned in electronic assembly beacons and landing aids to assist with navigation.
The radio operator manned his relatively spacious position between the bomb bay and the waist gun compartment. Looking aft, he could see the top of the ball turret.
Ball Turret Gunner
One of the most grueling assignments in the air war was that of the ball turret gunner. The gunner entered the cramped turret after takeoff by rotating the guns downward. Unless tracking a target, the gunner reclined on his back with the guns parallel to the fuselage.
Manning the waist guns was uncomfortable and hazardous. Operating at altitudes up to 25,000 feet in an unpressurized cabin, temperatures often plunged to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Frostbite, hypoxia, and the challenge of operating in bulky flight gear and flak jackets made aiming and firing the guns a constant challenge.
The nature of bomber interception made the tail of the aircraft a frequent target and the B-17 tail gunner had to trust in the armor plate in front of his kneeling position to protect him.
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Relic hunters surprised by what they discovered in wwii-era ‘swamp ghost’ bomber.
- World War 2
While flying over Papua New Guinea in 1972, airmen from the Royal Australian Air Force spotted something strange in the swamplands below. The large object looked nothing like its surroundings, prompting them to vow to uncover whatever it was. After a long search through the complex swamp systems, they discovered what they’d seen: a wrecked aircraft, known to locals as the “Swamp Ghost.”
Shockingly, it was a Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress that had been forgotten by US forces for decades. However, it was what they found inside the downed aircraft that was even more surprising.
The crew survived a death-defying crash
On February, 23, 1942, a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor , the B-17E Flying Fortress , piloted by Capt. Frederick C. Eaton Jr., was hit while flying over Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, which had been invaded by Japan. The aircraft’s wing was damaged and fuel was leaking out of the hull too quickly for the crew to make it back to the capital city of Port Morseby.
Capt. Eaton opted for a crash landing in what he thought was a wheat field. The crew survived, but they weren’t in a wheat field. They’d actually landed in a swamp crawling with vicious crocodiles. Somehow, they made it out alive and were found by villagers who took them in and treated them for malaria . They were nursed back to health and returned to serve for the remainder of the Second World War .
The legend of the “Swamp Ghost”
After the crash, neither the crew of the B-17E nor the US Air Force tried to retrieve the heavy bomber. It remained in the swamp, where it was visited by villagers. Soon, it became somewhat of a holy site, as mysterious things happened to those who dared explore the wreckage.
According to legend, some who ventured toward the aircraft never returned, while others contracted malaria and suffered from cognitive issues. This led locals to keep a distance and worship the area as a sacred place, to keep themselves safe from the strange phenomena.
Following the war, Papua New Guinea became a popular destination for relic hunters looking for downed aircraft, old guns and infrastructure, and other artifacts the jungle had swallowed up. The “Swamp Ghost” quickly became one of the main attractions.
Salvagers spotted the B-17E Flying Fortress in the jungle
When the B-17E was spotted in 1972 by the Australian airmen, they were astounded by what they’d found. The wreck was in amazing condition, and they even found thermoses filled with coffee that had been poured by the original crew!
In the 1980s, after hearing about the discovery, renowned aircraft salvager Fred Hagan and his partner, David Tallichet, set out to find the wreck and salvage it. They were shocked to see the “Swamp Ghost” was in such good condition, and while the majority of the weapons and mechanics had been stripped by locals, the interior was still remarkable.
Hagan and Tallichet began the process of reconstructing the heavy bomber to make it sturdy enough to be moved. However, setbacks delayed the project for years. Finally, in 2006, the salvage mission was complete, minus one additional setback: locals didn’t want it removed. Eventually, after a ceremony to appease the spirits of the swamp, the aircraft was permitted to leave its resting place for the first time in 65 years.
Where is the “Swamp Ghost” now?
More from us: The Douglas SBD Dauntless Changed the Course of the Second World War In a Single Day
Once it was fully restored, the “Swamp Ghost” was put on display at a ceremony in Long Beach, California that was attended by many family members of the original crew. It has since been permanently moved to the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum in Hawaii, where it’s undergoing restoration.
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Video: Inside “Swamp Ghost” at Pearl Harbor
Posted on August 04, 2014 By Ray Panko | [email protected] | Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
High above recently captured Rabaul, New Britain, and piloting a fully loaded B-17E Flying Fortress, Capt. Frederick “Fred” C. Eaton, Jr. had just spotted his target – a 10,000-ton enemy freighter. As he lined up to unleash his payload, the bomb bay doors malfunctioned. The crew worked feverishly to open the doors as he circled for a second attempt. Japanese anti-aircraft batteries zeroed in on the lone bomber’s altitude and unleashed a hellish barrage, damaging the wings. Lining up the target once more, he went in. This time, the doors opened and the bombs fell toward their target. As if on cue, Japanese fighters swooped in, guns blazing. Eaton and his crew were in a fight for their lives.
The aerial battle raged, bullets and cannon shells riddling the Flying Fortress as it ran for cover. In the skirmish, tail gunner John Hall claimed an enemy aircraft while waist gunners William Schwartz and Russell Crawford added two more claims to the tally. In the aftermath, Eaton believed the port wing was bleeding fuel from an unexploded flak round. Knowing he wouldn’t reach the safety of the refueling field at Port Moresby, New Guinea, he flew as far southwest as the fumes could carry them. Salvation revealed itself just as the crew determined the stricken bomber couldn’t climb over the towering Owen Stanley mountains — an isolated swamp in the foothills of the New Guinea mountain range. Eaton slid the heavy aircraft into the swamp water for a wheels-up landing. The B-17 slewed sideways and settled in the deep kunai grass without breaking up. Despite the running battle and the crash landing, there were zero casualties. Six weeks and dozens of malaria-infested miles later, Eaton and crew finally reached safety. They were assigned another B-17 and continued to fly for the rest of the war.
For more than seven decades, that lucky Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, serial 41-2446, lay intact and virtually undisturbed, all but forgotten. In 1972 it was spotted by a Royal Australian Air Force helicopter and local press dubbed it the “Swamp Ghost.” It is not the historical name of the bomber, but it is the name history has given it.
Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
Thanks to Museum supporter David Tallichet, working with aircraft archaeologist Fred Hagen, the B-17E now has a chance at a new lease on life. Now housed at Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum, Swamp Ghost is arguably the world’s only intact and unretired World War II-era B-17E bomber, a one-of-a-kind example of an aircraft that played an indispensable role in winning WWII. And it is the only B-17 in the world that still bears its battle scars.
To properly exhibit this national treasure, an interpretative display of Swamp Ghost is being developed. Your financial support is requested and most welcome. Mahalo!
Everything you need to know about the 'flying fortress' b-17 bomber.
The powerful heavy bomber can carry more than 17,000 lbs of armament
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was an iconic symbol of American aviation during World War II. It holds a storied history as a legendary bomber, revered for its robust design and strategic role in the war effort. Today, the B-17 remains a symbol of strength and resilience.
A force to be reckoned with
Designed by the Boeing Aircraft Company as a high-flying strategic bomber, the B-17 came as a response to a 1934 Army Air Corps request for a four-engined bomber. At the time, it was more common to have two engines, so the inception of this heavy bomber signified a turning point in military aviation.
The Flying Fortress boasts a wingspan of 103 feet 9 inches (31.62 m) and a length of 74 feet 4 inches (22.66 m). Its distinctive design features four turbo-supercharged radial engines, each driving a three-bladed propeller. The aircraft's role in strategic precision bombing missions was emphasized by a capacity for up to 17,196 lbs (7,800 kg) of internal and external bombs.
The B-17 today: How Many Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Aircraft Are Still Operational?
The B-17's strategic importance was highlighted by its ability to fly at high altitudes of 25,000 to 35,000 feet (7,500 to 10,500 meters), thanks to its powerful engines. This allowed pilots to evade enemy defenses while delivering precise and powerful strikes, with the Norden bombsight providing high levels of accuracy when it came to offloading bombs.
Attack or be attacked
The technical specifications of the B-17 underscore its place as a technological marvel of its time. With a maximum speed of around 287 miles per hour (293 km/h) and a range exceeding 2,000 miles (3,219 km) while carrying 6,000 lbs (2,700 kg) of bombload, the B-17 could penetrate deep into enemy territory, striking key targets with precision.
The aircraft's defensive capabilities were equally impressive, with multiple machine gun positions placed strategically to repel enemy fighters. Its defensive armament included up to thirteen .50-caliber machine guns, creating a virtual wall of firepower to deter enemy fighters.
Keep up with the latest Simple Flying coverage of military aviation here .
As the backbone of the United States Army Air Forces' daylight bombing campaign, the B-17 undertook perilous missions deep into enemy territory. Typically flying in a formation of nine or 12 aircraft, the Flying Fortress squadron flew in tight defensive formations for mutual protection.
The B-17 underwent various modifications and improvements throughout its time in service, resulting in different models tailored for specific roles. One notable variant, the B-17G – which entered service in the summer of 1943 – introduced a "chin" turret for increased forward firepower, enhancing the aircraft's defensive capabilities in head-on attacks.
A lasting legacy
In collaboration with Douglass, Lockheed, and Vega, Boeing manufactured more than 12,730 examples of the B-17 before it was rendered obsolete by the larger and more powerful B-29 Superfortress. After the war, a small number of modified Flying Fortresses went on to serve in search-and-rescue missions.
Today, only six remain operational , but the legacy of the type lives on through carefully preserved examples in museums and airshows , allowing new generations to appreciate the significance of this wartime marvel. It stands as more than just a historic aircraft; The B-17 Flying Fortress represents a symbol of courage, resilience, and innovation that shaped the course of World War II.
Up next: What's The Latest With The Grounding Of The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress?
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Your financial support is critical to the future of the hill aerospace museum, a look inside the b-17.
The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress may be the most iconic aircraft of WWII, highly significant in turning the tide toward an Allied victory in the skies over the European theater. Introduced in 1935, the Boeing B-17 was the first military aircraft with a flight deck instead of an open cockpit. More than 12,731 B-17s were produced by Boeing, Lockheed and Douglas from 1935 through 1968. The Boeing B-17G model on display at Hill Aerospace Museum was built in 1945 and replicates the Short Bier styling of the 493rd Bomb Group.
Built for strategic daylight bombing, the four-engine, heavy bomber B-17 is equipped with 13 Browning M-2 .50-caliper mounted machine guns, and is capable of carrying up to a 6,000-pound bomb load in a single mission. There were two machine guns in the main cabin, operated by the waist gunner, in addition to several more throughout the aircraft.
Inside the B-17
The first thing you’ll notice when peeking inside a B-17 is that it was built for combat, not comfort. Crews of 10—a pilot and copilot, bombardier, navigator, radio operator and five gunners—occupied the small cabin for six to eight hours per mission. The main cabin was barely tall enough for the crew to stand up straight. Flying at altitudes above 27,000 feet meant it got very cold in the aircraft, often below freezing temperatures. Outlets in the sides of the aircraft allowed the crew to plug in electric suits to stay warm. The crew also required oxygen above 15,000 feet and oxygen tanks were located throughout the aircraft.
The main cabin was unarmored and outfitted with two, twin .50-caliber machine guns for the waist gunner to defend the aircraft against side attacks. Each gun could fire about 700 rounds per minute. Lack of armor plating on the B-17 meant crews were also at risk from ground explosions which could penetrate the aircraft.
Two officers occupied the nose of the B-17. The bombardier perched at the extreme front end, protected only by a Plexiglas window. The navigator sat at a mounted table just behind the bombardier, where he laid out charts and maps to navigate the best course. Their defenses were two, twin .50-caliber machine guns out of the nose, one for each officer, plus a remote device for the machine guns on the chin turret. The most vulnerable aspect of the B-17 was a head-on attack, and many bombardiers and navigators were lost in missions.
Inside the B-17 Flight Deck
Above and behind the nose of the B-17, two officers occupied the flight deck—the pilot on the left and the copilot on the right. Twin yokes allowed the pilots to operate and control the aircraft. The pilot typically manned the controls while the co-pilot operated landing gears, engines and firing controls. Directly behind the flight deck were two, twin .50-caliber machine guns in the top, or dorsal, turret. A passageway under the cockpit floor allowed crew members to reach the flight deck as needed.
Bomb Bay, Radio Operator and Tail Gun
Located aft of the cockpit, the bomb bay was a narrow, cramped space for accessing the rear of the aircraft. It helped to be small in stature to navigate these tight quarters. The radio operator’s station was through this narrow passage. The ball turret was aft of the radio operating equipment. At the extreme end of the fuselage were two more twin .50-caliber machine guns operated by the tail gunner whose job was to protect the rear of the aircraft from attack.
Sperry Ball Turret
The underside of the B-17 featured the Sperry ball turret, a spherical space about four feet in diameter and capable of rotating 360 degrees. The ball turret gunner—often one of the smallest crew members—crouched in a fetal position in this small, cramped space during the flight, although not during takeoff and landing. Armed with two machine guns, the ball turret gunner was protected only by flak jackets and Plexiglas.
Hill Aerospace Museum’s Boeing B-17G
With less than 50 fully intact B-17s remaining today, and only 10 which are airworthy, we are lucky to have a B-17G here at Hill Aerospace Museum. Click here to learn more or visit us today to see the extraordinary Flying Fortress.
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The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was Outdated When WWII Began
A workhorse of the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress became a legend.
This article appears in: June 2020
By Sam McGowan
In the minds of many military enthusiasts, there was only one bomber in the United States inventory during World War II. This is not true, of course, but historians focusing on the war in Europe have devoted so much paper and ink to the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress that it is often thought of as the only American bomber of the war, at least until the much larger B-29 Superfortress—also designed by Boeing—came along.
In reality, far more Consolidated B-24 Liberators were produced and were used more extensively than B-17s, both as bombers and in other roles. In fact, it was only in the Eighth Air Force that the B-17 was predominant. Thousands of Douglas A-20s, North American B-25s, and Martin B-26s, as well as excellent British bombers such as the Lancaster and Wellington, served in all theaters of war, but the “Fort” has come to symbolize the air war perhaps more than any other bomber.
Ironically, the B-17 was actually already outdated by the time the first Japanese bomb fell on Pearl Harbor, and its initial wartime introduction produced results so dismal that the British, who were the first to test it in combat, decided against the Boeing bomber and instead opted for the new Consolidated airplane that had been designed to replace it as their four-engine bomber import.
Nevertheless, thanks in large measure to the press, which romanticized the bomber far beyond its actual capabilities and accomplishments, the fame of the Flying Fortress achieved mythical proportions. Even its name allegedly came from a Seattle newspaper reporter, who dubbed the new bomber as a “flying fortress.” The young men who flew it in combat added to the myth, claiming it was the best and safest bomber ever built, in spite of the fact that they were enduring heavier losses than their peers in B-24s.
First flown in 1935, Boeing Aircraft Company’s B-17 was based on technology of the 1920s and early 1930s and was not the airplane the Army Air Corps actually had in mind for a long-range bomber. Consolidated’s B-24 was designed to replace the B-17 and was in many ways a much better airplane, with vastly improved performance due to an aerodynamically shaped wing that afforded higher speeds and greater payloads using engines with the same rated horsepower.
The B-17 was an all-electric airplane, while the B-24—and nearly every large airplane that followed—incorporated hydraulically operated landing gear, flaps, and other components that required far less maintenance than the numerous electrical servos that operated the B-17’s landing gear, flaps, and turrets. The B-17, nonetheless, was possessed of a design feature that made it able to absorb punishment and created a stable bombing platform: its huge wing possessed an extremely long chord (i.e., diameter between the leading and trailing edges), which produced considerable lift and featured large areas of empty space through which bullets and shrapnel could pass without doing substantial damage. But that same large wing also produced considerable drag, which limited the B-17’s speed and severely reduced its operational range.
The combination of the Clark Y wing and its lighter maximum gross weight did endow the B-17 with an ability to climb to higher altitudes than a Liberator, a feature that proved beneficial during the final months of World War II in Europe, when increasingly accurate German antiaircraft guns presented the major threat to bomber formations as German fighter attacks decreased. The big wing also made the airplane easy to fly due to the wing’s inherent stability and the light control inputs required to operate the ailerons.
The B-17 was an indirect result of U.S. Army thinking from years following the Great War, when Air Service leaders, led by the controversial Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell, began pushing for the development of a “big bomber” with a 1,000-mile operating range for night missions and a 10,000-pound payload, a mission requirement that would not be met until the advent of the B-29 and Consolidated B-32 in 1942.
By the 1930s, aerodynamics and engine performance had advanced considerably, while U.S. public policy was turning toward using aircraft to defend the North American coasts. The need for long-range bombers capable of intercepting and attacking an enemy invasion force while it was still hundreds of miles out at sea led military planners to again seek a large bomber.
Although the new bomber lacked the performance the Army was actually seeking for a long-range bomber, it had some good qualities, including docile handling characteristics that made it popular with young pilots, whose training had been in biplanes. The Air Corps officers who flew it were convinced the new B-17 was the best bomber in the world, and the service’s senior leadership was eager to procure more, since it afforded new capabilities in aerial bombardment. An element within the Air Corps were becoming devotees of the concept of daylight precision bombing, and the B-17 offered a stable bombing platform that allowed bombardiers to drop their bombs with accuracy, at least in training situations from medium altitudes.
Plans were for two combat groups equipped with B-17s, one for each coast. An additional squadron of 13 airplanes had been authorized, and the Air Corps requested 50 more.
But military planning in the mid-1930s was geared toward homeland defense rather than strategic operations, and the purchase of several squadrons of huge land-based bombers was seen as a conflict with the Navy’s carrier-based bomber force, which at the time was equal to similar forces around the world. In 1936, no country had an air or sea arm capable of threatening the United States directly, nor was there any likelihood one would in the foreseeable future.
The B-17 was saved from obscurity by the course of world events and the emphasis of President Franklin Roosevelt on building up the U.S. military, especially its air forces. Gathering war clouds over Europe presented an excuse to ask Congress to appropriate money for military projects.
With his party controlling both the executive and legislative branches of government, Roosevelt was able to push through legislation authorizing a massive defense budget, and a military that had been starved for funds suddenly found itself with a blank check to purchase more equipment, particularly aircraft, and to recruit men to equip newly constituted combat units. At the time, only 13 B-17s were in the inventory, but an additional 40 were now ordered.
The B-17 was not, however, the bomber the Army had decided it really wanted. It was lacking in range, speed, and payload, so the War Department put out a new specification for a four-engine bomber with increased performance to replace the B-17 until a true, long-range bomber could be developed. The contract for the new bomber was awarded to Consolidated Aircraft for its new B-24.
Even though the B-17 had been in existence since 1935, production had been limited at least in part due to Boeing and the Army’s desires to improve the airplane’s performance. This was achieved by the addition of superchargers, which allowed later models to operate as high as 35,000 feet at lighter weights, and the output of the Curtiss-Wright engines was eventually increased to 1,200 takeoff-rated horsepower.
The RAF was the first to fly B-17s in combat
By 1940, war had broken out in Europe, and Britain’s Royal Air Force was eager to try out the new bomber. The Army Air Corps was anxious to see what the airplane could do under combat conditions, and 20 B-17Cs were diverted from U.S. production under the Lend-Lease Act for delivery to Britain, where they were designated by the RAF as Fortress I and assigned to No. 90 Squadron RAF.
The record of the Fortress I was dismal. During the first mission, the guns froze up and became useless, and one airplane was forced to divert due to engine trouble. The second mission caused no damage to the target, and one of the bombers was shot up so badly that it could not be returned to service. It was the second Fortress I to be lost (the first to be delivered ground-looped on landing, ran off the runway, and had to be scrapped for parts).
The third combat mission—against Oslo, Norway—saw the loss of all three bombers on the mission to fighter attack. After just over a month of operations, eight of the 20 airplanes had been lost either in combat or to accident, and the RAF decided it wanted nothing more to do with the Boeing bomber. Although four of the Fortress I’s were sent to North Africa , where they operated as night bombers exclusively, the remaining Fortresses were transferred to RAF Coastal Command for coastal patrol.
The RAF decided against accepting any more Fortresses and instead opted for the new Consolidated four-engine bomber that had been designed as its replacement and was beginning to come off the production lines. It was not until late 1942 that the RAF accepted any more B-17s, and they were used primarily for coastal patrol and electronic countermeasures work.
The B-17’s failure in combat led to severe criticism of the RAF, even though the RAF had used them as daylight bombers on unescorted missions depending on their own armament to defend against fighters. just as the U.S. Army planned to do if the country went to war.
Fortunately for the young men who went to war with the Eighth Air Force in England, the shortfalls in the B-17’s designs had been recognized, and newer models had been produced with fixes that rectified some of the problems first encountered by the British . Nevertheless, B-17 crews would suffer horrendous losses until suitable escort fighters were developed to accompany them to and from their targets.
B-17s in the Pacific Theater
Although the B-17 is best known for its service with the Eighth Air Force in England, the airplane’s first use in combat by American forces was on the other side of the world, in the Philippines and Southwest Pacific. Under the Rainbow Plan for national defense, the War Department initially wrote off the Philippines as indefensible, but as Japanese aggression in the region increased, President Roosevelt decided that the islands could serve as a base from which to defend against further expansion of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
In the summer of 1941, the War Department began building up military strength in the Philippines, including deploying a large heavy-bomber force made up of B-17s and B-24s. In August 1941, the War Department decided to move the first heavy bombers to Clark Field , and the 19th Bombardment Group was alerted for the move.
War Department plans called for a total heavy bomber force of 165 bombers by the spring of 1942. About half would be B-17s complemented by a similar number of B-24s.
Popular myth has long held that U.S. forces in the Philippines were unprepared when war broke out. “Understrength” is a more appropriate description. General Douglas Mac-Arthur ’s Philippines Department was feverishly preparing for war while hoping that it would not come until sometime after the first of the year, by which time military strength in the islands would have greatly increased.
Lieutenant General Lewis H. Brereton, the senior Air Corps officer in the department, took steps to protect his forces by deploying his fighter squadrons at several bases around Luzon. On December 4, with war barely four days away, he ordered two of the 19th Bombardment Group’s four squadrons to Del Monte Plantation on Mindanao. Consequently, half of the B-17s in the Philippines were spared when Japanese bombers struck Clark around mid-day on December 8. Even then, the bomber force was not caught by surprise as is so commonly believed, but fell victim to a stroke of bad luck.
Earlier in the day, the two squadrons had been ordered aloft on scouting missions after word came of the attacks on Hawaii but had been recalled to rearm and refuel for an attack on Japanese airfields on Formosa that afternoon. Unfortunately, both squadrons were still on the ground when a Japanese formation bombed and strafed Clark Field, and except for three airplanes, the entire force was damaged beyond repair by strafing fighters.
Maintenance crews worked feverishly to repair the damaged bombers, but freak accidents destroyed all three before they could fly an operational mission. Still, half of the heavy-bomber component in the Philippines was not touched, and the two remaining squadrons would form the nucleus of the air force that would ultimately defeat the Japanese in the Southwest Pacific.
The 16 B-17s at Del Monte continued operating in the Philippines for the next two weeks, until Roosevelt decided to abandon the islands and the remnants of the 19th Group were ordered to Australia, where they took up station at Batchelor Field near Darwin. Before the B-17s departed, several attacks were flown against Japanese ships and landing parties at Viggan with some success, but losses and maintenance requirements took their toll.
One of the B-17s that attacked Viggan was flown by Captain Colin P. Kelly and his crew. After being attacked by fighters, most of the crew bailed out over Clark, except for Kelly and the copilot, who remained on board. Before they could jump, the airplane exploded and threw both pilots out. Kelly’s parachute did not open, and he was killed. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and became the first American hero of the war.
MacArthur’s orders were to defend Australia, and the growing force of B-17s under his command was put to work attacking Japanese installations in New Britain and the Solomon Islands. The bomber force was reduced, at least on paper, when the 7th Bombardment Group was ordered to India to form the bomber command for the new Tenth Air Force. Only six airplanes and crews made the move, most of them transferred to the 19th.
The 19th Group left Darwin and moved to Townsville, from which it staged airplanes and crews through Port Moresby for attacks against Rabaul, which had become the main Japanese supply and staging base in the Southwest Pacific. A mission required the crews to take off from Townsville and spend the night at Moresby, where ground crews serviced the airplanes while the flight crews attempted to get some sleep either on the ground or on the wings of their bombers.
They would take off in the wee hours of the morning and cross the rugged Owen-Stanley Mountains, then proceed out across the Bismarck Sea to their target. Missions were small, consisting of no more than three airplanes, and were usually timed so that the bombers would arrive over the target before dawn. Damage to the target was probably minimal at best, but at least the crews were striking a blow against Japan.
The B-17’s record in the Philippines, Java, and the Solomons was good. Crews came back from missions in airplanes that had suffered considerable damage from fighter attack, although the damage was often more to the skin rather than structure. That B-17s often returned after taking numerous hits in the huge wings and massive tail. giving rise to the myth that the Flying Fortress was “more rugged” than its sister Liberator.
In truth, both airplanes were able to continue flying after absorbing numerous hits from fighters and shrapnel from flak, and both were susceptible to fatal damage from cannon hits in structural areas. The B-17’s wide wings and large tail simply offered more surface and were more likely to be hit than the slim wings and smaller twin vertical stabilizers of the B-24.
In late July 1942, Lt. Gen. George C. Kenney arrived in Australia to assume the role of MacArthur’s air boss. His first act was to ground the entire bomber force for maintenance in anticipation of mounting a large-scale attack on Rabaul in preparation for the impending landings on Guadalcanal.
The V Bomber Command managed to get 15 airplanes over Rabaul the day of the Guadalcanal landings. From then on, missions were scheduled with as many airplanes as possible, although small formations and even single airplanes continued operating against Japanese shipping at night. Shortly after his arrival, Kenney also decided to send the veteran 19th Group back to the U.S. The group had been in constant combat since the previous December 8, and its crews were worn out, both physically and emotionally. The 43rd Group had arrived from the United States and would become the primary heavy bomber group in the Southwest Pacific until the arrival of the B-24-equipped 90th Group. The 43rd was the last B-17 group sent to the Pacific.
The B-17 force continued low-level attacks against shipping at night, but their days in the Southwest Pacific were numbered. War Department priorities combined with the superior range and payload of the B-24 led to the closing of the chapter on the B-17’s role in the Pacific War. By the end of 1943, all of the B-17s in the theater had been replaced with B-24s, and all new groups coming in flew Liberators.
B-17s with the Eighth Air Force
Army Air Forces plans had actually called for the B-24 to be the service’s primary bomber, and most of its senior officers preferred the Liberator due to its increased payload, speed, and range. The exception was among the staff of the Eighth Air Force, which deployed to England in the summer of 1942, and Jimmy Doolittle, who went to North Africa to command the new Twelfth Air Force after returning from the Tokyo Raid.
Eighth Air Force was conceived as the U.S. Army Air Forces element to wage war against Germany from bases in England. Although the original unit was a conventional air force consisting of a full range of bomber components (heavy, medium, and light), as well as a fighter component, it had become solely a heavy bomber organization supported by fighter and troop carrier commands by the time it moved overseas in July 1942.
The first U.S. B-17 mission in Europe was flown on August 17, 1942, by a dozen 97th Bombardment Group B-17s against the railroad marshalling yards in the French city of Rouen. The Rouen mission was designed for publicity purposes to announce that the U.S. Army Air Forces were commencing combat operations against German targets in Western Europe.
The raid’s main objective was to create newspaper headlines. Escorting Spitfire fighters accompanied the bombers to and from the target, and there were no losses. Surprisingly, bombing results were determined to have been quite good. American B-17 missions were off to a good start, especially in comparison to the early British efforts, but since they were fairly short missions against targets in France, they encountered little opposition. Six missions were flown before the B-17s endured their first fighter attacks. Three more missions were flown without loss, but on the tenth mission, two Fortresses went down.
U-boats were taking a heavy toll on shipping, and the destruction of the pens where the submarines sheltered between sorties became a major objective. After October, the main targets for the heavy bombers were the submarine pens in northern France.
Reports by the B-17 gunners indicated that they were taking a heavy toll on their attackers, but postwar analysis of German records reveals that these claims were greatly exaggerated. Heavy bomber operations from England in the fall of 1942 were designed more to garner publicity than anything else. That began to change with the arrival of more aircraft and crews.
The few winter missions that were mounted were against targets in France and occupied Europe, particularly submarine bases along the Bay of Biscay. The B-17s lacked the numerical strength to go into Germany unescorted, and the escorting Spitfires were only capable of operating a short distance across the English Channel.
On January 21, 1943, the Combined Chiefs of Staff issued what is commonly known as the Casablanca Directive, an order for a combined bomber offensive from the United Kingdom, with American bombers attacking by day while their British counterparts continued the night attacks the RAF had been mounting for nearly two years. Up to this point, Eighth Air Force bombers had yet to appear in the skies over Germany.
The experiences of the early missions over France indicated that the heavy bombers were incapable of adequately defending themselves against the hordes of Luftwaffe fighters they could expect to encounter once they started penetrating German airspace. German antiaircraft defenses were known to be formidable, as British losses on their night missions illustrated.
Eighth Air Force commenced operations into Germany in the late winter of 1943 and quickly learned that they could not be conducted without tremendous loss. The deeper into German airspace a mission went, the greater the losses. Few American fighters were based in England at the time, and the Spitfires with which VIII Fighter Command had equipped its squadrons lacked the range to go further than France.
The lack of an adequate escort fighter led Eighth Air Force to seek to convert a number of B-17s and B-24s into heavily armed escorts. Designated as YB-40s, the modified Fortresses were equipped with additional guns and carried large quantities of ammunition in the bomb bays. While the concept looked good on paper, in practice the YB-40s proved generally ineffective. Their heavy armament made them considerably slower than the already slow bombers, thus reducing combat speeds and making the B-17s more vulnerable to fighters than they already were. The one good thing that came out of the project was the chin turret, which was adopted for all future B-17 production.
To improve its escort capabilities, VIII Fighter Command began receiving Republic P-47 Thunderbolts in the spring of 1943. The P-47s were heavy, and the former Spitfire pilots didn’t like them, but they quickly proved to be formidable fighters, and with the addition of external fuel tanks, they were capable of operating far deeper into German-held territory than any other fighter had previously gone. Still, even with additional fuel, the P-47s were only able to go a short distance into German skies. Once the escorts turned away, the bomber formations were left to fend for themselves against ever-increasing numbers of Luftwaffe fighters.
Without adequate escorts, losses among the B-17s were astronomical. The prewar belief that “the bomber will always get through” was proving to be true, but only when the bombers operated in large formations; and even then, losses were high.
A decision was made: All future B-17 production would be sent to Europe to replace combat losses and to equip B-17 groups that were then in the training pipeline; all but two future combat groups would be equipped with B-24s.
In the summer of 1943, the B-17s were left alone in England, as all VIII Bomber Command Liberators were sent to Libya to support the invasion of Sicily and fly the most famous air-raid of the war, the daring low-level attack on the oil refineries at Ploesti.
On August 17, the anniversary of the first Eighth Air Force B-17 mission, VIII Bomber Command suffered its worst losses to date. A force of 376 B-17s was sent against Messerschmitt factories at Regensberg and the ball-bearing plants at Schweinfurt. The two-pronged mission was part of a plan that included an attack on aircraft factories at Weiner-Neustadt in Austria by Eighth and Ninth Air Force B-24s in concert with the B-17 missions over Germany.
The Weiner-Neustadt mission went off on August 13, but the Regensberg-Schweinfurt mission was delayed for four days. The Schweinfurt attack was assigned to the 1st Bombardment Wing, which was to return to its bases in England. The B-17s of the 4th Bombardment Wing were equipped with long-range fuel tanks and were to continue on to North Africa to refuel and rest in the first experiment with shuttle bombing.
Strong fighter opposition was expected, and 18 squadrons of P-47s and 16 of Spitfires were planned as escorts. Once the escorts reached the limit of their range, the German fighters came in. A total of 60 B-17s failed to return from the mission or reach the shuttle bases in North Africa: 36 from the Regensberg force and 24 from the Schweinfurt mission. Nearly all fell victim to fighter attack. It was becoming obvious that unescorted missions into Germany were too costly to continue.
On October 14, VIII Bomber Command returned to Schweinfurt. This time, 291 1st and 3rd Air Division B-17s were joined by 2nd Air Division B-24s, which were supposed to fly a considerably longer, more southerly route to the target. Early autumn thunderstorms over England created problems for the formation. While the B-17s were able to eventually assemble, the B-24 force was restricted due to bad weather, so the formation leader decided to take the Liberators on a diversion toward Emden instead.
The Germans were not fooled by the feint, and as soon as the escorts left the B-17s, fighters pounced on them in force. It was a repeat of the previous mission against Schweinfurt, only worse. Once again, 60 B-17s and their crews were lost, while 17 others returned with major battle damage. As a result of the Schweinfurt mission and other heavy losses during a six-day period that claimed more than 80 additional bombers and their ten-man crews, Eighth Air Force decided to halt further missions into Germany until the escort problem had been solved.
In September 1943, some B-17s were equipped with H2X radar navigational equipment, which allowed blind bombing using radar to mark the release points for bombs. The VIII Bomber Command developed a new lead-crew system that used crews trained in radar bombing to mark the point at which formations released their bombs in synchronization with the lead bombardiers who bombed visually, if possible, but by radar if the target was obscured by clouds.
By early 1944, as weather conditions over Europe deteriorated, radar and synchronized bombing had become a normal mode of operation. Eighth Air Force planners had developed a standard calling for the maximum number of bombs to fall within a 1,000-foot circle around the target, and missions were planned using a “shotgun” method calling for maximum tonnage on the target rather than the precision bombing that had been so heavily emphasized before the war and which had proven impossible under combat conditions.
By early 1944, the escort problem had been solved, as more P-38s became available in England and the effective range of the P-47s was greatly increased. Redesigned North American P-51 Mustangs were also becoming available, although it would not be until mid-1944 that their numbers were increased to the point that they became truly effective in the escort role.
With the escort problem solved, the bombers returned to Germany with a major effort against aircraft manufacturing facilities during the last week of February. Eighth Air Force formations came in from England while Fifteenth Air Force came up from Italy in a coordinated effort. The goal was to destroy the Luftwaffe and gain complete air superiority over Western Europe in preparation for the invasion of Normandy. German aircraft manufacturing was the primary target, with the oil and transportation industries also given high priorities. Another major effort was aimed at the V-1 and V-2 rocket-launching facilities in France.
From February 1944 until the end of the war, the heavy bomber mission was essentially the same: a strategic campaign to destroy German industry. After the Normandy invasion, some missions were aimed at tactical targets, but the strategic campaign continued. With escort fighters able to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, increasing losses to flak as accuracy improved became a major concern.
Bomber formations were forced to fly higher and higher to avoid the flak, and increasingly heavy armor was added to the B-17s and B-24s. Fortunately, the B-17’s huge wing allowed the Flying Fortresses to operate at higher altitudes, although their airspeed and range suffered as their weight was increased with the addition of more and more armor. The reduction in fighter attacks reduced the necessity for speed, which had been the B-17s main deficiency, while Allied advances into Europe and ultimately into Germany reduced the need for elaborate routes to and from the targets and the need for excess range.
In late 1943, General Doolittle took command of the new Eighth Air Force. Doolittle, who had achieved celebrity status before the war as an air racer, became popular with the senior British officers on the Allied staff while he commanded Twelfth Air Force in North Africa, and when General Dwight Eisenhower and his staff were ordered back to England, they pressed for Doolittle to go with them.
Doolittle had a special fondness for the B-17 and undisguised dislike for the B-24. The halting of unescorted bomber missions into Germany led to a decline in bomber losses and made more B-17s available. In mid-1944, Doolittle began converting the B-24 groups in 3rd Air Division to B-17s as the first step to converting the entire VIII Bomber Command to the Boeings.
Doolittle’s justification for the planned switch was that the B-24s were more vulnerable to antiaircraft fire due to their being forced to operate at lower altitudes as their operational weights were increased with additional armor. His plans were thwarted by the impending end of the war and Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Forces’ decision to suspend B-17 production so that the facilities could be used to produce B-29 Superfortresses for the air campaign against the Japanese home islands.
By that time, however, the issue had become moot. Allied ground forces had driven Germany’s forces back into the homeland. The need for strategic bombing was decreasing, and the War Department’s attention had turned toward the defeat of Japan. It was a campaign in which the B-17 would have no combat role.
When the war in Europe came to an end, most of the B-17s headed for the scrap pile, not to the Pacific. The War Department decided to transfer the Eighth Air Force to Okinawa, but none of its B-17s would take part. Instead, it would become a second heavy bomber force, equipped with B-29s. Although Eighth Air Force Headquarters moved to Okinawa, the war ended before it became operational.
Sam McGowan is a retired pilot and Vietnam veteran. He is the author of numerous works on varied topics related to World War II and resides in Missouri City, Texas.
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Skeptoid Podcast #742 August 25, 2020 Podcast transcript | Subscribe
World War II was — among many other things — the source of some of the world's greatest stories. But among these tales of adventure, heroism, sacrifice, and terror are a few other types of stories that slipped through the cracks — including ghost stories. One of these concerned a famous bomber, a B-17 Flying Fortress, said to have returned from a mission over Germany, navigated back to Britain with its squadron, and then executed a perfect landing. There's nothing unusual about that; but when ground crews observed nobody getting out of the plane, they went to check on it themselves and found it empty. The B-17 had apparently flown its mission without an aircrew. Books of ghostly tales now tell the story of the Phantom Fortress, and today we're going to turn our skeptical eye upon it, and we will find out how much of the Phantom Fortress's tale is fact and how much of it is fiction.
Normally in a Skeptoid episode, here's where I'd tell the story as we hear it today. That's a bit difficult, because there are multiple versions of the story floating around. In some, the phantom plane lands in Belgium; in others it lands in Britain. In some the crew all parachute safely; in others they land behind German lines. We even have versions where meals are found half-eaten aboard the landed aircraft, recalling echoes of the Mary Celeste .
I found one apparent nexus that ties the various versions of the story together, and it's found in Martin Caidin's 1991 book Ghosts of the Air: True Stories of Aerial Hauntings — not an encouraging title when you're trying to dig for historical fact. Most of his chapter on this story is quoted from a letter he received in the 1980s from a man named John T. Gell, who had been a boy during World War II. On perhaps the most memorable day of the war for him, he and his family had been outside their home in Riseley, a small hamlet in North Bedfordshire, England, watching the familiar sight of American B-17 bombers returning from the day's mission over Germany. One bomber, however, its engines stuttering uncertainly, dropped low and headed right for them; moments later it crashed into the trees in their back yard! Gell's father sprang into action, searching the wreckage for injured crew members. To the family's astonishment, there had been nobody aboard at all. Gell wrote:
This B-17 had been with the 303rd Bomb Group, and then we confirmed that the entire crew had bailed out over Belgium. Yet this Fortress, now entirely unmanned, had flown in formation with the other B-17s, turning and whatever was necessary to descend and tum, directly back to its home field before crashing in our backyard. The pilots with whom I have discussed this at first flatly refused to believe it, but the factuality of it all became ever more evident when we found that not only had the entire crew bailed out, but they had all escaped from German-occupied territory and ten days later were back in the air again aboard another B-17!
Although Gell's story ends with a crash rather than a perfect landing, it does include the most incredible part of the story: the bomber flying itself along with its squadron all the way back from Belgium, a feat that would be impossible by any practical interpretation. Are we forced to conclude that some supernatural force must have been at play; or is there room to search deeper?
We have a singular advantage when researching World War II stories, and that's the war's extensive documentation — no part of it being better documented than the histories of the bomber squadrons. Every group has an association, a website, historians of its own; we know the day-to-day histories of every aircraft, every crew member, and every mission flown; and the bombers in this Phantom Fortress story are no different. Gell did record the markings on the bomber that crashed into his trees, and that made it easy to look up its actual history. It was B-17F serial number 42-5482 , named the Cat o' 9 tails , attached to the 359th Bombardment Squadron of the 303rd Bombardment Group (known as the Hell's Angels), and was recorded as suffering flak damage over Germany on October 14, 1943 and finally crashing all the way back home in Riseley. Squadron records even include the detail that it crashed into trees and broke apart and was declared salvage, meaning destroyed beyond economic repair.
So far as its crew having bailed out over Belgium, that's another story. In fact, searching for such an event, I found that it's literally another story. The most popular tale of a B-17 crew bailing out over Belgium turns out to have happened to a different plane — a story that took place over a year later, but that had an ending much more in line with our ghost story. On November 21, 1944 (often wrongly given as November 23), a British anti-aircraft crew behind Allied lines in Belgium spotted a bomber — its engines sputtering — coming in to land in a nearby field. It landed almost perfectly, but dragged a wingtip and spun around, a type of less-than-ideal landing called a ground loop, suffering minor damage in the process. British Major John Crisp, fearful that it might be some kind of German booby trap, carefully climbed aboard even as its engines were still running. He found it absolutely deserted, and shut the engines off himself. This one was a B-17G, serial number 43-38545 , attached to the 401st Bombardment Squadron of the 91st Bombardment Group, a famous group dubbed the Ragged Irregulars.
So it appears that we end up with two similar but distinct stories: different years, different planes, different countries; but that appear to have woven themselves together into one, once we leave the authoritative historical texts and move into the realm of mass-market publications. That nexus published in Caidin's ghost story book appears to be the key.
When John Gell wrote his letter to Caidin with his account of the uncrewed plane flying from Belgium to England, some forty years had passed. The story of the plane that ground looped in Belgium had been printed in the Stars & Stripes newspaper and from there had been syndicated throughout the Allied countries. It had become a reasonably well-known legend, variously dubbed the "Ghost Ship" or the "Phantom Fort" by the press. Forty years later, it is entirely reasonable for Gell to assume the famous plane that crashed with no one on board was the very one that had actually happened right before his eyes when he'd been a boy — and, just to be clear, the crash at the Gell home is an absolute historical fact, as it's where the Americans had come to retrieve the wreckage, 170 High Street in Riseley. Gell made nothing up, but he does appear to have understandably and accidentally conflated these two events; and thus intertwined, the beginning of one aircraft's story grafted onto the end of the other one's was a ghost story so good that Caidin could not help but include it in his 1991 book.
The plane that crashed into the Gells' yard had just participated in a bombing raid which became known as Black Thursday, both for the number of crews lost to enemy action, and for those lost due to bad weather over the bases in Britain. The B-17F Cat o' 9 tails , captained by 21-year-old 2Lt. Ambrose G. Grant, was substantially but not fatally damaged by German flak, and Grant was able to fly it all the way back across the Channel to their base at Molesworth along with the rest of the squadron. However, his instruments had all been destroyed and he was unable to find Molesworth's lights in the dense fog, and they were critically low on fuel. Grant ascended to 7,500 feet and all ten crew members bailed out, and when the plane crashed into the Gells' trees at 6:40pm, all ten landed safely about four miles away. It was, in fact, an all-too-common event in those days; no ghosts needed to explain it. Ironically, a mere three weeks later, Grant and his crew were shot down over Germany and spent the rest of the war in a Luftwaffe POW camp .
A year later and 250 miles away, 28-year-old 1Lt. Harold R. DeBolt was in command of a B-17G that was almost brand new, having flown only two previous missions, and had not yet been given a name. This was its first flight with this squadron, having just been transferred from the 324th. But being new did not protect it from the German anti-aircraft artillery. DeBolt had been unable to complete his bomb run over Merseburg, Germany due to damaged bomb bay doors and a massive explosion of flak right beneath them. With two engines out and a severe vibration threatening to destroy the airframe, DeBolt soon realized it would be impossible to make it back to Britain and instead headed for the Allied lines in Belgium. They managed to still have a safe altitude of 2,000 feet by the time they crossed into friendly territory, and all nine crewmen parachuted to safety and were soon rescued by British troops. DeBolt had left the fatally wounded B-17 on autopilot, as was the standard procedure when leaving the controls in order to bail out. The autopilot kept it on the straight and level as it continued to descend, and it then made its rough landing in the field where Major Crisp found it. The uncrewed landing was pretty neat, but it was hardly bizarre or inexplicable.
Take a piece from Grant's story and another from DeBolt's, connect them together, and fabricate a new story that tells of a miraculous and unexplainable sensation, and you've got today's Phantom Fortress story.
The tale of the Phantom Fortress, presented in the mass media and on the Internet as a mystery that cannot be explained, is a typical one. It required comparatively little research to discover that Gell's account as published in Caidin's book of ghost stories included some obvious errors. That very same research yielded the building blocks from which the Caidin version was assembled, and those blocks were each stamped with the serial numbers revealing which of the two B-17 stories they came from. If you take any similar "amazing" story from pop culture, chances are that you'll find some such mistake or error in its building blocks as well. Actual events can never be unexplainable, by definition; if they actually happened, there's an explanation, even if it's not immediately apparent.
Although an incredible story like a phantom B-17 that completes a mission and lands all by itself with nobody at the controls is cool, it should hardly be satisfying to stop there and not want to learn more. Apply the tools of critical thinking, and you'll have the common pleasure of enjoying the mystery story, plus the all-too-rare bonus of actually solving it.
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article: Dunning, B. "The Phantom Fortress." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 25 Aug 2020. Web. 25 Jan 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4742>
References & Further Reading 303rdbg.com. "303rd BG (H) Combat Mission No. 78." Hell's Angels: 303rd Bomb Group (H). 303rdbg.com, 10 May 2006. Web. 18 Aug. 2020. <http://www.303rdbg.com/missionreports/078.pdf> 91stbombgroup.com. "The Ghost Ship." 91st Bomb Group (H). 91st Bomb Group.com, 25 Nov. 2011. Web. 14 Aug. 2020. <http://www.91stbombgroup.com/91st_tales/58_the_ghost_ship.pdf> Caidin, M. Ghosts of the Air: True Stories of Aerial Hauntings. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. 139-149. Hoitash, C. "Phantom Fortress: The Crewless Landing of a B-17." War History Online. Timera Media, 29 Jan. 2019. Web. 16 Aug. 2020. <https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/phantom-fortress-b-17.html> Osborne, D. B-17 Fortress Master Log. London: Dave Osborne, 2011. 124. Zhou, J. "B-17 42-5482 / Cat-O-Nine Tails." B-17 Flying Fortress. Jing Zhou, 16 Mar. 2018. Web. 18 Aug. 2020. <https://b17flyingfortress.de/en/b17/42-5482-cat-o-nine-tails/> Zhou, J. "B-17 43-38545." B-17 Flying Fortress. Jing Zhou, 27 Sep. 2019. Web. 18 Aug. 2020. <https://b17flyingfortress.de/en/b17/43-38545/>
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Still Unsolved Story Of B-17 Landing With Crew Missing
The Second World War II created countless stories of heroism and courage in the face of evil. There were great stories of triumph but there are also many lingering mysteries of WWII, this is one of them.
On November 3rd, 1944 a B-17 touched down at an Allied airfield in Belgium. Crews on the airfield were surprised when the bomber’s propellors continued buzzing 20 minutes after the plane had landed. However, the most surprising thing was that the B-17 was completely empty with no sign of a crew.
Markings on the B-17 indicated that it was part of the 91st Bomber Group returning from a raid against German oil refineries. As the ground crews conducted an investigation they found signs of life such as half-eaten chocolate bars and a written log which mentioned that the plane had taken damage from Flak.
“The aircraft log was open and the last words, written sometime before were ‘Bad Flak.’” – John V. Crisp
The parachutes were still onboard and no indication of gunfire or blood caused by hostile attacks were seen on the plane. There have been theories surrounding the event for decades but never a definitive answer. The odds of a plane landing on an Allied airfield without a crew or sustaining damage are next to impossible yet it happened. This video dives further into the mystery by addressing some of the known details surrounding the Ghost B-17.
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