Tag Archives: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

12 May 1938

U.S. Army Air Corps YB-17 Flying Fortresses numbers 80 and 82 fly alongside SS Rex, 620 nautical miles east of Sandy Hook, 12 May 1938. (Photograph by Major George W. Goddard, U.S. Army Air Corps)

12 May 1938: Three Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine bombers of the 49th Bombardment Squadron, 2nd Bombardment Group, departed Mitchel Field, Long Island, New York in heavy rain and headed eastward over the Atlantic Ocean. Their mission, assigned by Major General Frank M. Andrews, commanding General Headquarters, U.S. Army Air Corps, was to locate and photograph the Italian passenger liner, S.S. Rex, then on a transatlantic voyage to New York City. The purpose was to demonstrate the capabilities and effectiveness of long-range bombers.

Boeing YB-17 Flying Fortress 36-151, 42nd Bombardment Squadron, 2nd Bombardment Group, Number 80, in flight over New York City, 28 March 1937. The Art Deco skyscraper behind the bomber is the Chrysler Building, 1,046 feet (319 meters) tall.  (American Air Museum in Britain)

The flight was led by Major Caleb Vance Haynes, commanding officer of the 49th Bombardment Squadron, flying B-17 number 80. The 2nd Bomb Group commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Olds, was aboard Haynes’ B-17, along with an NBC radio crew to broadcast news of the interception live across the country. Reporters from the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune were aboard the other airplanes.

1st Lieutenant Curtis Emerson LeMay, Air Corps, United States Army.

The planning of the interception and in-flight navigation was performed by First Lieutenant Curtis E. LeMay. Position reports from SS Rex were obtained and forwarded to LeMay as the aircraft were taxiing for takeoff.

The flight departed Mitchel Field at 8:45 a.m. They encountered heavy rain, hail, high winds and poor visibility, but at 12:23 p.m., the Flying Fortresses broke out of a squall line and the passenger liner was seen directly ahead. They flew alongside the ship at 12:25 p.m., 620 nautical miles (1,148.24 kilometers) east of Sandy Hook, New York. They were exactly on the time calculated by Lieutenant LeMay.

The B-17s made several passes for still and motion picture photography while NBC broadcast the event.

Colonel Olds would rise to the rank of Major General and command 2nd Air Force during World War II. He was the father of legendary fighter pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds. Major Hayes served in various combat commands and retired at the rank of Major General in 1953.

Curtis LeMay would be a Major in command of the 305th Bombardment Group, a B-17 unit, at the beginning of World War II. He personally led many combat missions over Europe, and would command the 4th Bombardment Wing and then the 3rd Air Division. By the end of the war, he was in command of the XXI Bomber Command based in the Marianas Islands. From 1948 to 1957, General LeMay commanded the Strategic Air Command, then served as Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. From 1961 to 1965, LeMay was Chief of Staff.

At the time of the interception of the Rex, there were only 12 B-17s in the Air Corps inventory: the original Y1B-17 development aircraft. By the end of production in 1945, 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortresses had been built by three aircraft manufacturers.

Boeing YB-17 Flying Fortress 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing Y1B-17 Flying Fortress 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

The Boeing B-17 (Model 299B, previously designated Y1B-17, and then YB-17) was a pre-production service test prototype. Thirteen had been ordered by the Air Corps. It was 68 feet, 4 inches (20.828 meters long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9 inches (31.633 meters) and the overall height was 18 feet, 4 inches (5.588 meters).

Boeing YB-17 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

The YB-17 was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.876 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone G59 (R-1820-51) nine-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.45:1. The R-1820-51 had a Normal Power rating of 800 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,000 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m. for Takeoff, burning 100-octane gasoline. A long carburetor intake on top of the engine nacelles visually distinguishes the YB-17 from the follow-on YB-17A. The engines drove three-bladed Hamilton Standard constant-speed propellers through a 0.6875:1 gear reduction. The R-1820-51 was 3 feet, 9.06 inches (1.145 meters) long and  4 feet, 6.12 inches (1.375 meters) in diameter. It weighed 1,200.50 pounds (544.54 kilograms).

Boeing YB-17 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

The YB-17 had an empty weight of 24,465 pounds (11,097 kilograms), gross weight of 34,880 pounds (15,821 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 42,600 pounds (19,323 kilograms). The maximum speed was 256 miles per hour (412 kilometers per hour) at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). Its service ceiling was 30,600 feet (9,327 meters) and the maximum range was 3,320 miles (5,343 kilometers).

The YB-17 could carry 8,000 pounds (3,629 kilograms) of bombs. Defensive armament consisted of five air-cooled Browning .30-caliber machine guns.

Boeing YB-17 36-149. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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29 April 1945

Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster Princess Patricia of No. 514 Squadron at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, UK, being loaded with food for Operation Manna, 29 April 1945, (Pilot Officer Penfold, Royal Air Force official photographer)
Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster “Princess Patricia” of No. 514 Squadron at RAF Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, England, being loaded with food for Operation Manna, 29 April 1945. (Pilot Officer Penfold, Royal Air Force Official Photographer/Imperial War Museum)
A Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster heavy bomber drops food packages over The Netherlands.
A Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster heavy bomber drops food packages over The Netherlands.

29 April 1945: With the defeat of Nazi Germany imminent, millions of Dutch citizens were still under the control of the occupying German army. Food was very scarce. The Allies tried to negotiate a cease fire so that American and British airplanes could fly into The Netherlands and drop food to the people.

The truce had not yet been agreed to by Germany, but on 29 April, Operations Manna and Chowhound began.

The first night, to test the feasibility of the project, two Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster four-engine long range heavy bombers of No. 101 Squadron—Bad Penny, crewed by Canadians, and a second ship flown by an Australian crew—were loaded with food at RAF Ludford Magna and flew into The Netherlands at barely 50 feet (15 meters) above the ground.

To drop the food they simply opened the bomb bay doors and the bags and packages fell to the starving people below.

A Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster drops bundles of food in The Netherlands during Operation Manna, 1945. (International Bomber Command Center)

With Flight Sergeant Robert Fairful Upcott, D.F.M., Royal Canadian Air Force, [service number R187858] leading with Bad Penny, the two Lancasters ¹ dropped their food on the Racetrack Duindigt at Wassernaar, near The Hague, then returned along the same corridor they had flown on the way in. At 2:00 p.m. that afternoon, another 200 Lancasters followed.

Flight crew of Avro Lancaster, “Bad Penny.” Standing, left to right: Wireless Operator Stan Jones; Flight Engineer John Corner; Aircraft Commander, Flight Sergeant Robert F. Upcott,D.F.M.; and Navigator Bill Walton. Kneeling, Aerial Gunner Bill Demo; Mid-Upper Gunner Ossie Blower; and Bomb Aimer Bill Gray. (Canadian Historical Aircraft Association)

Over the next ten days, approximately 11,000 tons (9,979 Metric tons) of food were dropped by Royal Air Force Lancasters and U.S. Army Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress bombers.

A Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster drops food packages from its bomb bay while flying at very low level over The Netherlands during Operation Manna.
A Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster drops food packages from its bomb bay while flying at very low level over The Netherlands during Operation Manna.

¹ The second Lancaster was commanded by Flight Officer P.G.L. Collett, Royal Australian Air Force (A424149).

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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7 December 1936

Boeing YB-17 36-149 nosed over on landing at Seattle, 7 December 1936. (Unattributed)
Boeing YB-17 36-149 nosed over on landing at Seattle, 7 December 1936. (Unattributed)
Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Umstead
Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Umstead

7 December 1936: On landing at Boeing Field, Seattle, Washington, after its third test flight, the first Boeing YB-17, 36-149, nosed over. The pilot was Lieutenant Colonel Stanley M. Umstead, U.S. Army Air Corps, who was considered to be the Army’s most experienced and capable pilot.

When the airplane touched down, the main wheels locked and after skidding a short distance, the B-17 nosed over. The bomber’s brakes had welded. No injuries were reported. 36-149 suffered moderate damage.

Boeing repaired the bomber. On 11 January 1937, the YB-17 was  flown to Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, for continued testing. 36-149 was then assigned to the 2nd Bombardment Group at Langley Field, Virginia, 1 March 1937. In October 1940 the bomber was transferred to the 19th Bombardment Group at March Field, California. On 11 February 1942 it was transferred to the Air Park at Amarillo Army Air Field, a B-17 training base in Texas. 36-149 was written off 11 December 1942.

A contemporary newspaper article reported the incident:

Landing from a test flight in Seattle, Wash., the new 16 ton army bombing plane YB-17 nosed over and was badly damaged. Capt. E.R. McReynolds, an army air corps observer who was aboard, said the air brakes locked, preventing the landing wheels from rolling when the plane touched the ground. It was reported subsequently in Washington, D.C. that the accident might result in suspending construction of 13 bombing planes of similar type pending an investigation. The YB-17, largest land plane ever built in America, was designed to carry a ton of bombs and had a cruising range of 3,000 miles.

Chicago Sunday Tribune, 13 December 1936, Part 2, Page 8, Column 8.

Boeing YB-17 resting on its nose after brakes locked while landing. —LIFE Magazine, 21 December 1935, at page 15
Boeing YB-17 36-149 resting on its nose after its brakes locked while landing. —LIFE Magazine, 21 December 1936, at page 15.

The YB-17 had several improvements over the Model 299, which was retroactively designated XB-17. There was a long carburetor intake on top of the engine nacelles which visually distinguishes the YB-17 from the follow-on YB-17A. The main landing gear has one strut rather than the two of the Model 299.

The Boeing Model 299B, designated YB-17 by the Army Air Corps, was 68 feet, 4 inches (20.828 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9 inches (31.633 meters) and the overall height was 18 feet, 4 inches (5.588 meters). It had an empty weight of 24,465 pounds (11,097 kilograms), gross weight of 34,880 pounds (15,821 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 42,600 pounds (19,323 kilograms).

Instead of the Pratt & Whitney engines installed on the 299, the YB-17 had four air-cooled, supercharged 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.875 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 9 R-1820G5 (R-1820-39) nine-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.45:1. They turned three-bladed Hamilton Standard constant-speed propellers through a 16:11 gear reduction drive, in order to match the engines’ effective power range with the propellers. The R-1820-39 was rated at 805 horsepower at 2,100 r.p.m., at Sea Level, and 930 horsepower at 2,200 r.p.m., at Sea Level, for takeoff. The R-1820-39 was 45-7/16 inches (1.154 meters) long and 54¼ inches (1.378 meters) in diameter, and weighed 1,198 pounds (543.4 kilograms).

The cruise speed was 217 miles per hour (349 kilometers per hour) and the maximum speed was 256 miles per hour (412 kilometers per hour) at 14,000 feet (4,267 meters). Its service ceiling was 30,600 feet (9,327 meters) and the maximum range was 3,320 miles (5,343 kilometers).

The YB-17 could carry 8,000 pounds (3,629 kilograms) of bombs. Defensive armament consisted of five .30-caliber air-cooled machine guns.

Boeing YB-17 36-139 after landing accident, 7 December 1936.
Boeing YB-17 36-149 after landing accident, 7 December 1936. (Unattributed)

© 2016, Bryan R. Swopes

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14 October 1943: “Bloody Thursday”

B-17 Flying Fortresses attack Schweinfurt, Germany, 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

14 October 1943: A large force of 8th Air Force heavy bombers and escorting fighters attack the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt, Germany, for the second time. Five bombardment groups sent 291 B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers on the raid.

A B-17F Flying Fortress going down over Europe. The left outboard engine is on fire and the right wing has been shot off. There are ten men in this airplane. (U.S. Air Force)

60 B-17s were shot down by German fighters or anti-aircraft artillery (“flak”). Another 17 were so heavily damaged that they crashed on landing back at their bases, or were so severely damaged that they were beyond repair. 121 B-17s received lesser damage. 594 crewmen were listed as Missing In Action (presumably Killed In Action). 65 men were captured and held as Prisoners of War. Of the bombers that returned to England 5 crewmen were killed and 43 were wounded. B-17 gunners shot down 35 to 38 Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulk Fw 190s. Another 20 fighters were damaged.

A B-17G Flying Fortress with its bomb bay doors open. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2015, Bryan R. Swopes

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17 August 1943

Boeing B-17F Flying Fortresses of the 1st Bombardment Wing (Heavy) over Schweinfurt, Germany, 17 August 1943. (U.S. Air Force)

17 August 1943: Mission No. 84. One year after the Eighth Air Force first attacked occupied Europe with its B-17 Flying Fortress four-engine heavy bombers, a mass attack of 376 B-17s attacked the Messerschmitt Bf-109 factory at Regensburg, Germany, and the ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt.

Over Germany for over two hours without fighter escort, 60 bombers were shot down and as many as 95, though they made it to bases in Allied territory, were so badly damaged that they never flew again. 55 air crews (552 men) were listed as missing in action.

Of the 146 B-17s of the 4th Bombardment Wing which attacked Regensburg, 126 dropped their bombs, totaling 298.75 tons (271.02 Metric tons), destroying the factory and seriously slowing the production of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter. After the attack, the 4th Bomb Wing headed for bases in North Africa. 122 B-17s landed there, half of them damaged.

The 1st Bombardment Wing (Heavy) sent 230 B-17s to Schweinfurt. Weather delays caused the planned diversion of two separate attacks to be unsuccessful. Cloud buildup over the Continent forced the bombers to fly at 17,000 feet (5,182 meters), nearly 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) lower than planned, increasing their vulnerability. Just 183 bombers made it to the target and dropped 424.3 tons (383.9 Metric tons) on the five factories in the target area. Then they headed back to their bases in England, under fighter attack most of the way. The 1st Bombardment Wing lost 36 bombers.

Though the raid did cut production of ball bearings as much as 34%, the losses were quickly made up from stockpiles. The two attacking forces succeeded in shooting down 25–27 German fighters.

A B-17 Flying Fortress, its right wing shot off and the left outboard engine on fire, goes down over Europe. (U.S. Air Force)

© 2017, Bryan R. Swopes

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