Inside a Flying Fortress

Look inside one of the only surviving B-17Gs with a combat record

(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

The B-17 Flying Fortress shaped the air war over Western Europe like no other World War II aircraft. From the outset of fighting, it provided a strategic bombing capability that the Axis could never match. Its heavy payload, defensive armament, and rugged construction allowed the Army Air Forces to bomb heavily defended targets in Western Europe, unescorted, in daylight. While the strategic bombing campaign suffered its share of missteps and the legacy of civilian casualties is still hotly debated, the efficacy of the Flying Fortress in crippling German industry and infrastructure is not in doubt. Eighth Air Force B-17s alone dropped well over 400,000 tons of bombs on Axis-held territory from August 17, 1942 to May 8, 1945. However, 4,754 Flying Fortresses were lost or written off in the course of operations, constituting 37 percent of the production run of 12,731 airframes.

See below for a gallery of B-17 photos. Text and images are from the Smithsonian book In the Cockpit II: Inside History-Making Aircraft of World War II (Collins Design, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, 2010), photography by Eric F. Long and Mark A. Avino, text by Roger D. Connor and Christopher T. Moore. Reprinted with permission.


(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

Boeing built its prototype Model 299 to a 1934 Air Corps specification for a bomber with a 2,000-lb bomb load and a radius of action of more than 1,000 miles. By 1940, the B-17, as it had come to be designated, had evolved into a capable combat aircraft. The American heavy bomber doctrine that evolved through the 1930s centered on daylight precision bombing, though in operations “precision” would be a relative term, with Eighth Air Force heavy bombers dropping 50 percent of their bombs more than 1,500 feet from their targets. The solution was to fly larger formations, putting even more aircraft under the guns of capable German fighters. B-17 armament proliferated with later models mounting up to 13 .50 caliber machine guns and carrying a crew of 10. The defensive fire of B-17s took its toll on the Luftwaffe attackers, but the survival of these formations would ultimately depend on the ability of escorts to minimize the exposure to German air defense fighters.


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