The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress flew in every combat zone during World War II, but its most significant service was over Europe. Along with the B-24 Liberator, the B-17 formed the backbone of the USAAF strategic bombing force, and it helped win the war by crippling Germany’s war industry.
The B-17’s design emphasized high altitude flight, speed, and heavy defensive armament in order to survive enemy defenses. Advanced turbosupercharged engines allowed it to fly up to about 30,000 feet with a combat load, while powered turrets and flexible guns covered all areas around the aircraft.
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.
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