On Jul. 28, 1935, a four-engine plane took off from Boeing Field in south Seattle on its first flight. Rolling out of the Boeing hangar, it was simply known as the Model 299. Seattle Times reporter Richard Smith dubbed the new plane, with its many machine-gun mounts, the “Flying Fortress,” a name that Boeing quickly adopted and trademarked. The US Army Air Corps designated the plane as the B-17.
In response to the Army’s request for a large, multiengine bomber, the prototype, financed entirely by Boeing, went from design board to flight test in less than 12 months.
Although few B-17s were in service on Dec. 7, 1941, production quickly accelerated after the US entry into World War II. The aircraft served in every combat zone, but it is best known for the daylight strategic bombing of German industrial targets. Production ended in May 1945 and totaled 12,726.
The Flying Fortress is one of the most famous airplanes ever built, but before the aircraft could form the backbone of the USAAF strategic bombing force and help win the war by crippling Germany’s war industry, the early B-17 had an issue to overcome.
‘After 400 early B-17s crashed on landing, eventually blamed on the pilot, when every part of the B-17 seemed to be just perfect, Air Force Psychiatric examiners discovered…
‘…that the controls for the Wing Flaps and Landing Gear looked exactly the same AND were positioned close to each other.
‘(Left — right): Switches for Landing Gear & Wing Flaps, identical and almost next to each other-400 crashes later the problem was discovered.)
‘So close to each other in fact, that exhausted pilots approached the runway and flipped the switch for what they believed to be the landing gear, but instead flipped the wing flaps switch, slowing their descent and then grounding the plane, crashing it into the ground.
‘This breakthrough led to the coining of the term “Designer Error”, essentially absolving the pilots of blame. These Air Force psychiatrists went on to pioneer ‘Shape Coding’, a system that ensured all knobs and levers were different shapes and sizes, redesigning the cockpit and ensuring there was little to no room for confusion for pilots reaching for their controls. No similar incidents took place after this adjustment.’
‘Today, not only are the two controls fairly far apart in the cockpit, the lever for the Flaps is large and squared, while the Landing Gear’s knob is shaped like a wheel.’
Photo credit: US Department of Defense and Unknown
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