The Fabulous Fortress

July 1, 1985

Majestic. Regal. Stately. “That’s just exactly what you felt about her,” one former pilot said. “She gave you confidence sitting there in quiet repose. You were sure she would get you there and bring you back. That’s why we called her ‘Queen of the Skies.’ “

“She” was the Boeing B-17, the World War II bomber that many say forged victory for the Allies over the Luftwaffe in Europe’s skies. Its fame is deserved, according to the late Gen. Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, who commanded all the Army Air Forces in the European theater. When hostilities were over, he said, “Without the B-17, we might have lost the war.”

That statement will probably be disputed, but not by many who flew the Flying Fortress, a name given to it originally by a newsman who saw a photo of the first one being rolled out of the Boeing hangar in 1935. The fort became a symbol of the air war in Europe—and a symbol of victory as well.

Crew members who flew Forts give them a special place in their hearts. Capt. Rowan T. Thomas, a pilot in the 513th Bomb Squadron, said in his book Born in Battle, “There is a strong belief in the minds of pilots and crews that their ships are living personalities, and they love them for having brought them safely through many dangers. Each crew believes its ship is the best in the world.

“I’ve known a crew to treat their ship as if it were a faithful dog with whom they never want to part,” he wrote. “When it growls, they know something is wrong with it; they think it doesn’t like the gas they are feeding it or that the oil is irritating it.

“Some pilots think of their ship as a ‘home.’ They had lived on it, worked over it, house-cleaned it, and kept it as spic-and-span as a family keeps its house. It’s hard to make a man change ships in which he has lived the most exciting days of his life.”

It’s ironic that an airplane that contributed so valiantly to victory and that changed the concept of aerial warfare and war itself nearly died in its infancy. The decision to produce the B-17 was a gamble for its maker. But that gamble later paid off handsomely in bigger and better planes for peace and war.

The B-17 started life as Boeing Project 299, which was designed to meet an original US Army specification for “a multi-engined, four to six place land type airplane” that had a “high speed” at 10,000 feet of 250 mph, an endurance time of ten hours, and a service ceiling of 29,000 feet. Furthermore, it was to be “capable of maintaining level flight with the design useful load at a minimum of 7,000 feet altitude with one engine out.”

The Bombardment Concept

Behind this specification were years of work on a concept for bombardment by such forward-thinkers of the early 1930s as Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, Carl A. “Tooey” Spaatz, George C. Kenney, Hugh K. Knerr, and Frank M. Andrews. Their theory was a simple one: If an enemy ground force can, by aerial bombardment, be denied access to such vital fighting needs as ammunition, fuel, and weapons, that ground force cannot function as a fighting unit. This doctrine of strategic bombardment envisioned a force of long-range, heavy bombers that could protect themselves from enemy fighters.

This concept began to become reality in 1934, when a budget for the development of a long-range bomber was approved and negotiations were begun with Martin, Douglas, and Boeing. The latter was awarded a contract for a one-of-a-kind bomber designated XBLR-1 (Experimental Bomber, Long-Range, Model 1). It was later redesignated XB-15.

The XB-15, the largest aircraft ever built in the US at that time, would prove too big and heavy for the engines then available. Concurrently, however, a second bomber specification was issued for a production multiengine aircraft capable of carrying more than a ton of bombs at speeds greater than 200 mph over a distance of 2,000 miles. The winner of this contract would get an order for 220 planes.

At the Boeing plant in Seattle, Wash., this challenge became Project 299. The designers saw it as a four-engine plane, smaller than the XB- 15 then being assembled but one that would bear a family resemblance to it. If accepted, it would be designated Y1B-17. Meanwhile, Douglas and Martin designers were looking at the same specs and came up with twin-engine designs that became the Douglas DR-1 and the Martin 146.

Rollout and Setbacks

Boeing’s answer rolled out of the factory on July 28, 1935, and on August 20 made a nonstop, 2,100-mile flight from Seattle to Dayton, Ohio, at a speed of 233 mph, breaking all previous records for that distance. A contract seemed assured until October 30, when 299 crashed on takeoff from Wright Field, killing two pilots and badly injuring three other occupants. At first, it was thought that the crash had killed Project 299 along with the project pilots. Later, it was found that the tail surface control locks had not been disengaged in the cockpit before the takeoff roll. “Pilot error” had caused the accident; the plane itself was structurally and aerodynamically sound.

A contract was subsequently issued for thirteen Y1B-17s for service tests. But more bad luck plagued the program. On December 7, 1936, the first Y1B-17 had an accident on landing, and once again the program seemed threatened. Was the airplane too big for pilots to handle, as some critics said

Cooler heads prevailed. The test program was eventually successful, with the “Y” versions being sent on a number of record-setting flights to test the advisability of the decision to build the aircraft and the viability of the strategic bombardment concept.

Setbacks still dogged the B-17 follow-on contracts, however, mainly because of cost. Boeing had used its own funds to develop the aircraft and was losing money. The program almost foundered again.

Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, however, turned around the program. The Royal Air Force requested B-17s, and the Air Corps sent the first twenty of its initial order of thirty-eight to the British. Once again, bad luck intervened. The RAF put the B-17s on daylight missions against German targets, but suffered many aborts and accidents. Only about half of the sorties scheduled resulted in bombs on primary targets. The British began to call the Forts “Flying Targets”; Joseph Goebbels referred to them to his propaganda as “Flying Coffins.”

The Believers Vindicated

Despite the seeming shortcomings, Hap Arnold and his strategic bombardment advocates would not give up. Because of prewar political pressures, the first B-17 models were built primarily to defend the United States from the coastline to 100 miles offshore. Arnold asked for improvements to make the B-17 an offensive weapon. These included more armor protection for the crew, increased firepower, self-sealing gas tanks, deicing boots, and improved engine cooling through the use of cowl flaps.

These improvements resulted in the B-17E, which sported a new profile because its empennage section had been enlarged to accommodate a tail gunner position and a ball turret underneath the belly. Heavier but faster, the E models were sent to the Pacific and to the Eighth Air Force in England after the US entered the war. The subsequent F and G models featured further improvements, the most noticeable being the chin turret in the nose.

As the Eighth Air Force grew in size and began inflicting heavy damage on German targets, the image of the B-17 as an effective offensive weapon began to grow. In addition, it proved that it could absorb tremendous punishment. Crew members developed an understandable attachment to it when they learned how much damage it could sustain in flight and still survive.

The Germans also developed a healthy respect for the Forts that increased as each new model appeared with improved firepower and as better defensive formation tactics were devised. One B-17, struggling alone over Holland and having sustained considerable battle damage, was attacked by a flight of Me-109s. The Fort’s gunners shot down two and damaged others; the Fort survived to fight another day. A German POW later confided to American intelligence interrogators that the Luftwaffe cautioned its fighter pilots to be wary of “those verdammten Forts!”

Famous Forts

Stories about the “Queen of the Skies,” as newsmen liked to call it, were legion. A mythology developed that still abounds.

Some planes received unusual news coverage. There was Alexander the Swoose, a B-17D as- signed to the 19th Bomb Group and the lone survivor of the B-17s at Clark Field when the Japanese invaded the Philippines. One of its pilots, Weldon H. Smith, named it after a popular song of the time about the legendary Swoose, which was “half swan and half goose.” Smith’s B-17 had been patched up repeatedly with parts from other B-17s, so it could no longer claim its original structure and equipment. Lt. Gen. George H. Brett, head of the US Army forces in Australia, later used it as his personal plane and VIP transport.

Another celebrity B-17 was the Suzy Q, an E model also assigned to the 19th Bomb Group. Newsmen called it “the fightingest Fortress of the war” after it served a year attacking Japanese targets. Yank correspondent Howard Maier reported: “The Suzy Q has been hit a countless number of times, engines have been knocked out and replaced; she has slugged it out with Zero fighters in superior numbers and made forced landings. But always she comes up off the ground to fight back again and again. . . . She has become something of a legend.” Still another “name” plane was the Bataan, used as Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s flying headquarters.

The European and North African theaters, with far more B-17s assigned, naturally spawned more stories to perpetuate the lore of the Flying Forts. One of the most published photos from the air war was that of All American, a B-17 of the 97th Bomb Group that had collided with a German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter. The fighter had knifed through the aft fuselage, almost severing it from the rest of the plane and clipping off the left stabilizer and elevator. The Fort landed at Biskra in North Africa one and a half hours after the collision, defying all odds that it would crash.

Perhaps the most famous Fort to survive the war was the Memphis Belle—the first B-17, along with its crew, to complete twenty-five missions. It and the ten-man crew were returned to the States in June 1943 and sent on a nationwide war-bond tour. The Belle is on permanent display in its namesake city.

Thirty-six Survive

When the last B-17 rolled out, statisticians figured that nearly 13,000 Forts had been built by Boeing, Douglas, and Vega (Lockheed) during the decade from 1935-45. About 4,750 were lost in combat. According to Boeing, thirty-six still survive today. Only seven of these are in flyable condition.

A three-day celebration on July 26-28 at the Museum of Flight in Seattle will commemorate the B-17’s golden anniversary. The event is expected to attract several thousand World War II air and ground crewmen and their families and will feature a number of Medal of Honor winners who received the award for their heroism while flying on B-17 missions.

In his excellent book Flying Fortress, Edward Jablonski pays a tribute to this “hardy, beloved, and destructive” plane. He writes:

“It had served, unlike any other heavy bomber, through all of the Second World War. It had become a legend in its time, a tribute to the men who had conceived, designed, and built it—and a monument to the remarkable young men, most of them boys, who flew it. These men, and this plane, accomplished one of the most frightening missions ever demanded of men and aircraft. Together they helped to end history’s last ‘Glorious War.’ “

C. V. Glines is a free-lance writer, a magazine editor, and the author of numerous books. His by-line appeared among the pages of this magazine many times during the 1960s. A retired Air Force colonel, he flew the B-17 while stationed in Panama. His most recent book, Round-the-World Flights, was reviewed in the December 1983 issue of AIR FORCE Magazine.