Aviation History

A Mighty Fortress: why the Boeing B-17 is the best bomber ever built

Little did Boeing know that with the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress they had designed an aircraft that would set the standards for high altitude bombing.

Ask anyone who has seen one, heard one, or flown one “Is the B-17 the best bomber ever built?” They will likely give you more explanations than you care to hear about this magnificent aircraft. To most warbird enthusiasts, there is just nothing like a B-17 Flying Fortress. As explained by Brent William Perkins in his book Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress, with the classic lines of the early military, the Fort typifies what a heavy aircraft ought to look like. A large sweeping tail and broad wings, along with the angled windshield and distinctive nosepiece make the B-17 stand out among other designs.

Just sitting still, a B-17 gives the appearance of a warrior, while at the same time showing the graceful curves of a Hollywood movie star. Bristling with heavy machine guns in every direction and sitting tail low as if it is ready to leap into the air where, with its broad and deep wings, it finds its home. Dubbed “The Flying Fortress” by Richard Williams, newspaper reporter for the Seattle Times, the bomber was conceived under the Boeing proposal known as the model 299. It was April 1934, and a flyable prototype had to be ready in less than one year.

With the certainty of war on the horizon, military strategists were looking towards airpower to ensure total victory. At the time, there was no bomber in the US arsenal that could meet the coming demands that aerial warfare would require. The US Army Air Corps (the USAF was not born until 1947) needed more range, precision weapons delivery, and combat survivability than the aircraft in the inventories could handle at that time. The call went out. Design a bomber that can fly for ten hours at 25,000 feet, can climb to 10,000 feet in five minutes, and can maintain 7,000 feet with the designed useful load and one engine out.

Boeing Model 299

Boeing had done it. After spending only $275,000.00, the 299 rolled out of the factory on Jul. 17, 1935. The 299 could carry up to 4,800 pounds of weapons in the bomb bay just a little more than a the year after going on the drafting tables. Little did they know that they had designed an aircraft that would set the standards for high altitude bombing through the end of the century.

Only one month and three days after roll out and accumulating some 14 hours and 5 minutes of test time, the 299 took off from Seattle, WA, bound for Wright-Patterson near Dayton, OH. Nine hours and three minutes later it put the rubber on the runway in Ohio. Average ground speed was 233 mph. This flight stole the show from the up and coming Douglas B-18, which was really just a beefed up DC-2. It also overshadowed the much worked over Martin B-10.

On Jan. 17, 1937, the Air Corps placed an order for thirteen YB-17s. Production for the plane would run a little more than eight years through August 1945, after some 12,731 Fortresses were built. It is believed that around 10,000 of these actually left the United States for assignments all over the world. Despite the Fort’s uncanny ability to survive major battle damage, roughly 4,500 B-17s were lost in combat flying mainly from the European Theatre of Operations and the unsinkable aircraft carrier known as the United Kingdom. From this island, the mighty Eighth Air Force launched the greatest air armada ever—where the sky roared for a thousand days and the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress marked its place in history.

Is the B- I 7 the very best bomber ever built’? For years, the argument has continued between the B-17 and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Was the B-24 the better plane? This question has consumed far too many for far too many years. The Liberator carried more, was faster, and could fly higher than the B-17. Although they did fly next to each other in combat, their role was a little different. The Flying Fortress and the Liberator complimented each other and were never meant to be competitors. However, competition was inevitable, as they were both successful bombing platforms. The two bombers were simply the result of an exhaustive search by the War Department through aircraft builders for the new bomber de signs that were so badly needed. Of the design submissions, the -17 and the -24 were the best. Their designs were simply the result of what was needed at the time. Consider the numbers. B-24 production ran up to 18,188 of the huge twin-tailed leviathans. However, by the end of the war, so many modifications had been made to the B-24 that it could no longer fly further or faster than the B-17.

B-17 and B-24 bombers

War Wartime Impact – The ability to penetrate hostile airspace, weather enemy threats, carry the correct bomb load, deliver the load successfully, and return home. Defensive Characteristics – From single barrel machine guns through electronic counter measures, stealth, and even speed. What bomber defends itself better than any other? Range – Could the bomber launch, ingress, loiter, deliver, and return? Available Bomb Load – What could carry the most and how many different types of weapons could it haul? Accuracy – The result of the bomb delivery system and the aircraft’s stability and control predictability. Survivability – Evading or withstanding enemy ground-fire and aerial attack. What bomber had the lowest loss to sortie ratio?

From the time that aerial bombing began through today, these aircraft stand out among the very best ever designed: the German Gotha bombers; the Heinkel 111; the B-17; B-24; Lancaster; Aichi D3A Val; the B-47 Stratojet; the B-52 Stratofortress; the FB-111; the B-58 Hustler; B-1 Lancer; B-2 Spirit and more.

Most agree, given the above criteria, that the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is the best bomber ever built. Apparently, the US military felt the same way. The baker one-seven was not fully retired from active service until the late 1960s!

The debate over which was the better plane began early in the War and continues even today. General James Doolittle wrote his studied comparisons, in which he partly stated that in an effort to improve the B-24’s defensive characteristics, performance was compromised at the expense of the added weight of the armor and armament. One very unusual example of the Army Air Corps attempt to improve on the Liberator was to graft the entire front of a B-17G onto a B-24J. The results were terribly unsuitable, and only three tests were flown by this plane. The hybrid bomber could only climb to 18,000 feet and lacked both longitudinal and directional stability. One note from the study report stated that the installation increased the already excessive basic weight of the B-24J. But the Bombardier and Navigator reported that they favored the increased room in the forward compartment over the traditional B-24 arrangement.

Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

This print is available in multiple sizes from AircraftProfilePrints.com – CLICK HERE TO GET YOURS. B-17G Flying Fortress – 42-31076, LG-V “Chief Sly’s Son” 91st BG, 322nd BS – 1944

Photo credit: Airwolfhound from Hertfordshire via Wikipedia, UK San Diego Air & Space Museum and Senior Airman Curt Beach/U.S. Air Force

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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