The inherent stability of the B-17 Flying Fortress airframe enabled the headless bomber to remain in loose formation with the Group for several minutes.
The Flying Fortress is one of the most famous airplanes ever built. The B-17 prototype first flew on July 28, 1935. The B-17 was a low-wing monoplane that combined aerodynamic features of the XB-15 giant bomber, still in the design stage, and the Model 247 transport. The B-17 was the first Boeing military aircraft with a flight deck instead of an open cockpit and was armed with bombs and five .30-caliber machine guns mounted in clear “blisters.”
The first B-17s saw combat in 1941, when the British Royal Air Force took delivery of several B-17s for high-altitude missions. As World War II intensified, the bombers needed additional armament and armor.
The B-17E, the first mass-produced model of the Flying Fortress, carried nine machine guns and a 4,000-pound bomb load. It was several tons heavier than the prototypes and bristled with armament. It was the first Boeing airplane with the distinctive — and enormous — tail for improved control and stability during high-altitude bombing. Each version was more heavily armed.
In the Pacific, the planes earned a deadly reputation with the Japanese, who dubbed them “four-engine fighters.” However, the B-17 is best known for the daylight strategic bombing of German industrial targets.
As explained by Brent William Perkins in his book Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress, without a doubt the B-17 is also known to have been one of the most stable platforms in the air. The photos in this post demonstrate this fact. As seen from the right waist of an accompanying B-17, this 463rd Bomb Group plane received a direct hit beneath the pilot’s feet from what is believed to have been an 88mm shell, which entered the airplane and then detonated. The results are terribly obvious. The mortally wounded B-17 begins a level descent with all four engines still running. Everyone forward of the top turret was killed instantly.
The inherent stability of the airframe enabled the headless bomber to remain in loose formation with the Group for several minutes. Because of the smooth flight attitude those who survived the explosion from the radio room back were able to bail out safely.
Seeing friends lose their lives day after day created staunch and fatalistic outlook, among the crews. To make twenty-five missions was much more than a milestone for them. Everyone looked forward to flying that final raid, but many feared that they would never live to make it. The odds were simply stacked against the airmen of the Mighty Eighth Air Force at this time. They all knew that after their fifteenth mission, they were living on borrowed time. Superstitions ran wild; rabbits feet, horseshoes, ribbons from girlfriends, and other things all found their way onto many bombers. Many even refused to fly a thirteenth mission-they simply referred to that run as their mission number 12A.
Memphis Belle: Biography of a B-17 Flying Fortress is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Frank Donofrio via Schiffer Publishing