Aviation History

The Flying Fortress Designer Error: 400 early B-17s crashed on landing because the controls for the Wing Flaps and Landing Gear looked the same And were positioned close to each other.

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.

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.

Pete Feigal, Former Pro Military Artist for 25 Years (CLICK HERE to visit his site and check out his awesome artworks), explains on Quora;

‘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.’

Feigal concludes;

‘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

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
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.

Recent Posts

Legendary F-14 pilot Joe “Hoser” Satrapa tells the story of the gun kill on an F-15 that almost sold Tomcats to Japan

Joe “Hoser” Satrapa No dissertation on present-day section tactics, or on naval aviation in general,… Read More

19 hours ago

Marine Infantry Rifleman tells why (except the VH-60 White Hawks flown by HMX-1) the USMC doesn’t use the Black Hawk Multirole Helicopter

The Black Hawk Multirole Helicopter The Black Hawk is the military's most versatile helicopter, suited… Read More

19 hours ago

USAF reveals AGM-183A ARRW with live warhead in Guam during hypersonic weapon training

AGM-183A ARRW with live warhead in Guam Andersen Air Force Base (AFB) on Feb. 27,… Read More

2 days ago

Operation Tamouré: the only time a French Air Force Mirage IV strategic bomber dropped a live nuclear bomb

The Mirage IV The Suez crisis in October 1956 prompted France to look into setting… Read More

2 days ago

Video features former Viggen pilot explaining how JA-37 fighter jocks could achieve radar lock on SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3 spy planes

JA-37 Viggen fighter jocks achieving radar lock on SR-71 Blackbird Mach 3 spy planes The… Read More

3 days ago