Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress
In this edition of the Plane View, we’ll take a look at the world’s favorite WWII bomber: The Boeing B-17. Aptly named, the Flying Fortress was almost just as deadly for the Allies than for the Axis Powers.
The rugged aircraft was first flown on July 18, 1935. On June 27, 1939, after a delay of nearly four years, the Flying Fortress finally was accepted. Despite clear superiority over its twin-engined competitors, the penny-pinching U.S. government refused the plane until war was nearly certain.
One main survival story of the B-17 was on a normal bombing mission. The pilot was Lieutenant Kendrick R. Bragg, the navigator was Harry C. Nuessle, the bombardier (not Bombardier) was Ralph Burbridge, the engineer was Joe C. James, the radio operator was Paul A. Galloway, the ball turret gunner was Elton Conda, the waist gunner was Michael Zuk, and the tail gunner was Sam T. Sarpolus. Also, the ground crew chief was Hank Hyland. On February 1st, 1943, a B-17 collision with a German fighter aircraft over the Tunis dock area became just another disaster for Germany. The fighter was attacking a 97th Bomber Group flight, and flew out of control. It crashed into “All American”, and broke apart, but left pieces in the aircraft. The left horizontal stabilizer and the left elevator were completely torn away. Both right engines were out, and one of the left engines had a major oil leak. The vertical tail fin and the rudder were damaged, and the fuselage had been destroyed and was only connected by two small parts of the frame and the radios. Electrical and oxygen systems were damaged, and there was a hole in the top which was over sixteen feet long and up to four feet wide. The split in the fuselage went up to the top gunner’s turret. The tail bounced and swayed in the wind and twisted when the plane turned. None of the cables were still in one piece except for one elevator cable, but the aircraft still flew! The tail gunner was trapped because there was no floor connecting the tail to the body of the aircraft. The waist and tail gunners used parts of the German fighter and their parachutes and harnesses to keep the tail from falling off. Also, it aided to keep the fuselage in one piece. During all of this, the pilot kept flying on the mission and released his bombs successfully over the target. When the bomb bay doors were opened, the wind turbulence was so great that one of the waist gunners was blown into the broken tail. It took several minutes to pass him ropes to get him back to his spot. When they tried the same for the tail gunner, the tail began to break off. The weight of the gunner was adding stability, so he went back to his position. The turn toward England had to be very slow to keep the tail from twisting off, and they actually covered nearly seventy miles to make the turn home. The bomber was so badly damaged that it was losing altitude and speed and was quickly alone in the sky. Then two more Messerschmitt Bf (or in this case Me)-109 fighters attacked “All American”. But the gunners drove the two aircraft off and continued flying. The waist gunners had their heads sticking up out of the 16’ by 4’ hole to fire their machine guns. The tail gunner was forced to shoot in short bursts as the recoil was causing the plane to turn. North American P-51 Mustangs intercepted the bomber when it was crossing the English Channel and took a few pictures. They also radioed to the base that the plane would not make it back and to send boats to catch the crew when they bailed out. The fighters stayed alongside the B-17 for any attacks. They also took hand signals from Bragg and relayed them to the base. Bragg signaled that 5 parachutes had been used to keep the plane going and that five of the crew could not bail out. He made the decision that if they could not bail out safely, he would land the plane. Two and a half hours after being hit, “All American” made its final turn to line up with runway despite being over forty miles away. It descended for an emergency landing and made a normal roll-out on its landing gear. When the ambulance pulled up, it was waved off because not a single member of the crew was injured. The Flying Fortress sat placidly until all the crew had exited through the door in the fuselage and the tail gunner had climbed down a ladder, at which point the entire tail section collapsed onto the ground.
Even though many stories such as that tell of the B-17 in Europe, the Flying Fortress still did well in the Pacific Theatre. Although the B-17s that flew on schedule into Pearl Harbor during the attack suffered badly, the B-17 crews quickly learned how to be successful in the Pacific Theatre. Along with the Consolidated B-24 Liberator and the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, the B-17 helped knock Japan onto its face.
After the war, the B-17 went on for many years, in war service for a few more years and then various support roles. Yes, it was a bomber classic.
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