Tag Archives: Boeing B-17C Flying Fortress

8 July 1941

Fortress Mark I, AN521 ‘WP-K’, of No. 90 Squadron RAF based at West Raynham, Norfolk, preparing for take off at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, during an inspection of newly-arrived American aircraft by the Chief of the Air Staff and the US Air Attache. (Photograph by Flight Lieutenant Bertrand John Henry Daventry, Royal Air Force/CH 2873, Imperial War Museum)
Boeing Fortress Mark I AN521, ‘WP-K’, (U.S.A.A.F. serial number 40-2052) of No. 90 Squadron R.A.F., based at West Raynham, Norfolk, preparing for take off at Hatfield, Hertfordshire, during an inspection of newly-arrived American aircraft by the Chief of the Air Staff and the U.S. Air Attache. Photograph by Flight Lieutenant Bertrand John Henry Daventry, Royal Air Force. © IWM (CH 2873)

00DD3437_5056_A318_A85F9DA3980B669B8 July 1941: Three Royal Air Force Boeing Fortress Mk.I heavy bombers departed from their base at RAF Watton to attack Wilhelmshaven, Germany. This was a daylight bombing mission, with the airplanes flying at 30,000 feet (9,144 meters). One bomber diverted to a secondary target because of engine trouble, while the remaining two Fortresses continued to the primary target.

At the very high altitudes flown, the defensive heavy machine guns that gave the airplane its name froze due to the low temperatures and could not be fired. (In standard atmospheric conditions, the temperature at 30,000 feet would be -45 °C., or -49 °F.)

"Vertical aerial reconnaissance of Wilhelmshaven." © IWM (HU 91201)
“Vertical aerial reconnaissance of Wilhelmshaven.” © IWM (HU 91201)

All three aircraft returned safely to their base. The mission was completely ineffective, however.

This was the very first use of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in combat.

Fortress B.I WP-F
Fortress B.I AN530, WP-F (U.S.A.A.F. B-17C 40-2066) (Royal Air Force)

The Boeing Model 299H, designated B-17C, was the second production variant ordered by the U.S. Army Air Corps. 38 were built by Boeing for the U.S. Army Air Corps, but 20 were transferred to Great Britain’s Royal Air Force, designated Fortress Mk.I. (Boeing Model 299T.) They were initially assigned to No. 90 Squadron, Bomber Command. (A 1941 book, War Wings: Fighting Airplanes of the American and British Air Forces, by David C. Cooke, Robert M. McBride & Company, New York, refers to the B-17C in British service as the “Seattle,” which is in keeping with the R.A.F.’s system of naming bombers after cities.)

Of the 20 Fortress Mk.I bombers, 8 were lost in combat or in accidents.

Boeing Fortress Mk.I AN529 at Heathfield, Scotland, after arrival from United States, May 1941. © Imperial War Museum E(MOS) 276

The Boeing B-17C/Fortress Mk.I was 67 feet, 10-9/16 inches (20.690 meters long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9 inches (31.633 meters) and the overall height was 15 feet, 4½ inches (4.686 meters). The B-17C had an empty weight of 30,900 pounds (14,016 kilograms). The maximum design gross weight was 47,500 pounds (21,546 kilograms).

The B-17C was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.876 liters) Wright Cyclone G666A (R-1820-65)¹ nine-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.70:1. The engines were equipped with remote General Electric turbochargers capable of 24,000 r.p.m. The R-1820-65 was rated at 1,000 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. at Sea Level, and 1,200 horsepower at 2,500 r.p.m. for takeoff. The engine could produce 1,380 horsepower at War Emergency Power. 100-octane aviation gasoline was required. The Cyclones turned three-bladed, constant-speed, Hamilton-Standard Hydromatic propellers with a diameter of 11 feet, 7 inches (3.835 meters) though a 0.5625:1 gear reduction. The R-1820-65 engine is 3 feet, 11.59 inches (1.209 meters) long and 4 feet, 7.12 inches (1.400 meters) in diameter. It weighs 1,315 pounds (596 kilograms).

Crew members of a No. 90 "RAF Fortress crew at RAF Polebrook July 19, 1941." (IWM CH 3090)
“RAF Fortress crew at RAF Polebrook July 19, 1941.” © IWM (CH 3090)

The B-17C had a maximum speed of 323 miles per hour (520 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). Its service ceiling was 37,000 feet (11,278 meters) and the maximum range was 3,400 miles (5,472 kilometers).

The Fortress Mk.I could carry 4,800 pounds (2,177 kilograms) of bombs in an internal bomb bay. Defensive armament consisted of one Browning AN-M2 .30-caliber air-cooled machine gun at the nose and four Browning AN-M2 .50-caliber heavy machine guns in dorsal, ventral and waist positions.

Fortress I AN528 (Getty Images/Three Lions)
Royal Air Force Fortress Mk.I AN528 (B-17C 40-2064) prior to being camouflaged. (Getty Images/Three Lions)

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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10 December 1941

Captain Colin P. Kelly, Jr., U.S. Army Air Corps, by Deane Keller, 1942.
Captain Colin Purdie Kelly, Jr., Air Corps, United States Army, by Deane Keller, 1942. (U.S. Air Force)

10 December 1941:¹ A single B-17C Flying Fortress heavy bomber, 40-2045, departed from Clark Field, on the island of Luzon, Commonwealth of the Philippines, alone and without escort, to search for an enemy aircraft carrier which had been reported near the coastal city of Aparri, at the northern end of the island. The aircraft was under the command of Captain Colin P. Kelly, Jr., Air Corps, United States Army, of the 14th Bombardment Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group.

Kelly’s Flying Fortress had not been fully fueled or armed because of an impending Japanese air raid. It carried only three 600-pound (272 kilogram) demolition bombs in its bomb bay.

While enroute to their assigned target area, Captain Kelly and his crew sighted a Japanese amphibious assault task force north of Aparri, including what they believed was a Fusō-class battleship. The crew was unable to locate the reported aircraft carrier and Kelly decided to return to attack the ships that they had seen earlier.

A 19th Bombardment Group Boeing B-17C at Iba Airfield, Philipiine Islands, September 1941.
A Boeing B-17C assigned to the 19th Bombardment Group at Iba Airfield, approximately 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Manila on the island of Luzon, Commonwealth of the Philippine Islands, October 1941. (U.S. Air Force Historical Research Agency)

Kelly made two passes at 20,000 feet (6,096 meters) while the bombardier, Sergeant Meyer Levin, set up for a precise drop. On the third run, Sergeant Meyer released the three bombs in trail and bracketed the light cruiser IJN Natori. It and an escorting destroyer, IJN Harukaze, were damaged by near misses.

“. . . The battleship [actually, the light cruiser IJN Natori] was seen about 4 miles offshore and moving slowly parallel with the coastline. . . A quartering approach to the longitudinal axis of the ship was being flown. The three bombs were released in train as rapidly as the bombardier could get them away. The first bomb struck about 50 yards short, the next alongside, and the third squarely amidship. . . A great cloud of smoke arose from the point of impact. The forward length of the ship was about 10 degrees off center to portside. The battleship began weaving from side to side and headed toward shore. Large trails of oil followed in its wake. . . .”

Narrative Report of Flight of Captain Colin P. Kelly, Air Corps, O-20811 (deceased) on Dec 10, 1947, by Eugene L. Eubank, Colonel, Air Corps, Commanding, Headquarters, 5th Bomber Command, Malang, Java, Feb 19, 1942

A Natori-class light cruiser, IJN Yura, photographed circa 1937. (U.S. Navy)

A group of Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2 Type 0 (“Zero”) fighters of the Tainan Kokutai, including the famed fighter ace Petty Officer First Class Saburō Sakai, attacked Kelly’s bomber as it returned to Clark Field, with the first pass killing Technical Sergeant William J. Delehanty and wounding Private First Class Robert E. Altman. The instrument panel was destroyed and oxygen tanks exploded. A second pass by the fighters set the bomber’s left wing on fire. This quickly spread to the fuselage. The two engines on the right wing failed.

坂井 三郎 PO1 Saburō Sakai, Imperial Japanese Navy

Captain Kelly ordered his crew to bail out and though the fire had spread to the flight deck, Kelly remained at the bomber’s controls. Staff Sergeant James E. Halkyard, Private First Class Willard L. Money, and Private Altman were able to escape from the rear of the B-17. The navigator, Second Lieutenant Joe M. Bean, and the bombardier, Sergeant Levin, went out through the nose escape hatch. As co-pilot Lieutenant Donald Robins tried to open the cockpit’s upper escape hatch, the Flying Fortress exploded. Robins was thrown clear and was able to open his parachute.

Boeing B-17C 40-2045 crashed approximately three miles (4.8 kilometers) east of Clark Field. The bodies of Captain Kelly and Sergeant Delehanty were found at the crash site.

“The wreckage was found along a rural road 2 miles west of Mount Aryat (Mount Aryat is about 5 miles east of Clark Field). The tail assembly was missing. Parts . . . were scattered over an area of 500 yards. The right wing with two engines still in place remained almost intact although it was burning when the search party arrived. The fuselage and left side of the plane were badly wrecked and burned. T/Sgt Delehanty’s body was lying about 50 yards north of the wreckage. Capt Kelly’s body . . . was found very near the wreckage with his parachute unopened. . . .”

Narrative Report of Flight of Captain Colin P. Kelly, Air Corps, O-20811 (deceased) on Dec 10, 1947, by Eugene L. Eubank, Colonel, Air Corps, Commanding, Headquarters, 5th Bomber Command, Malang, Java, Feb 19, 1942

Captain Colin Purdie Kelly, Jr., Air Corps, United States Army. (The New York Times)

Colin Purdie Kelly, Jr., was born in Madison County, Florida, 11 July 1915. He was the first of two children of Colin Purdie Kelly, a fresco artist, and Mary Eliza Mays (“Mamie”) Kelly. He had a younger sister, Emmala Mays Kelly. Kelly attended Madison High School, graduating in 1932.

Kelly was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. His stated intention was to become a bomber pilot.

Cadet Colin Purdie Kelly, Jr., United States Military Academy, circa 1937. (The Howitzer)

According to his West Point yearbook, “C.P.” Kelly,

“. . . has not devoted all his effort to study and consequently not achieved high academic rank, but he has participated in sports and other activities and has found additional time to enjoy thoroughly West Point. He’s positive in his opinions; vigorous in his actions. All-around ability and a knack for making friends bespeak a bright future for him. . . .”

The Howitzer of 1937, United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, 1937, at Page 218.

Cadet Kelly participated in football, boxing, cross country and track, and sang with the Cadet Chapel choir. Colin Purdie Kelly, Jr., graduated from West Point and was commissioned a second lieutenant, Infantry, United States Army, on 12 June 1937.

On 1 August 1937, Lieutenant Kelly married Miss Marion Estelle Wick. The ceremony was held in the Cadet Chapel at West Point. They would have a son, Colin Purdie Kelly III, born at Riverside, California, 6 May 1940. In 1963, “Corky” Kelly would also graduate from the United States Military Academy.

2nd Lieutenant Kelly was assigned to flight training at Randolph Field, Texas. He graduated 13 January 1939, was awarded his pilot’s wings and was transferred from Infantry to the Air Corps. Kelly was then ordered to join the 19th Bombardment Group (Heavy) at March Field, near Riverside, California. He was promoted to first lieutenant 4 June 1940.

A Boeing B-17B Flying Fortress at March Field, Riverside, California, 1940. (LIFE Magazine)

Lieutenant Kelly was assigned to the 11th Bombardment Group (Heavy) at Hickam Field, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii, in April 1941. At about this time, he was promoted to the temporary rank of captain. Kelly served as a squadron operations officer and B-17 check pilot. Nine B-17s of the 14th Bombardment Squadron of the 11th Group were sent to Clark Field in the Philippine Islands, to join the 19th Bombardment Group. Flying to Midway Island, Wake Island, Port Moresby, New Guinea, and Darwin, Australia, they traveled approximately 10,000 miles (16,093 kilometers), 5–12 September 1941. For his actions during this transoceanic flight, Captain Kelly was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

During a reconnaissance mission to Formosa (Taiwan) on 5 December 1941, Captain Kelly observed a large number of Japanese ships steaming toward Luzon. His squadron was then relocated to Del Monte Field on the island of Mindanao.

The Distinguished Service Cross

General Douglas MacArthur later said, “It is my profound sorrow that Colin Kelly is not here. I do not know the dignity of Captain Kelly’s birth, but I do know the glory of his death. He died unquestioning, uncomplaining, with a faith in his heart and victory his end. God has taken him unto Himself, a gallant soldier who did his duty.”

Colin Purdie Kelly, Jr. was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, posthumously. The medal was presented to Mrs. Colin P. Kelly, Jr., by Major General Barney McKinney Giles, U.S. Army Air Corps.

Following the war, Captain Kelly’s remains were returned to the United States, and interred at the Oak Ridge Cemetery, Madison, Florida.

Kelly’s B-17 was the first Flying Fortress in U.S. service to be lost in air combat in World War II.

Boeing B-17C 40-2049, similar to Colin Kelly's 40-2045. (U.S. Air Force)
Boeing B-17C 40-2049, similar to Colin Kelly’s 40-2045. (U.S. Air Force)

The Boeing Model 299H, designated B-17C, was the second production variant ordered by the U.S. Army Air Corps. 38 were built by Boeing, however 20 of these were transferred to Great Britain’s Royal Air Force, designated Fortress B.I. They were initially assigned to No. 90 Squadron.²

The B-17C was 67 feet, 10.6 inches (20.691 meters long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9 inches (31.633 meters) and the overall height was 15 feet, 5 inches (4.699 meters). The B-17C had an empty weight of 29,021 pounds (13,164 kilograms), gross weight of 39,320 pounds (17,835 kilograms) and maximum takeoff weight of 49,650 pounds (22,521 kilograms).

A Boeing B-17C assigned to Wright Field in pre-war natural metal finish. (LIFE Magazine)
A Boeing B-17C assigned to Wright Field in natural metal finish, circa 1940. (Rudy Arnold Photographic Collection, National Air and Space Museum Archives, NASM-XRA-0119)

It was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,823.129-cubic-inch-displacement (29.875 liter) Wright Aeronautical Division Cyclone 9 C666A (R-1820-65) nine-cylinder radial engines. These engines were rated at 1,000 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m., and 1,200 horsepower at 2,500 r.p.m., for takeoff. They drove three-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic constant-speed propellers through a 0.5625:1 gear reduction. The R-1820-65 was 3 feet, 11.59 inches (1.209 meters) long, 4 feet, 7.12 inches (1.400 meters) in diameter, and weighed 1,315 pounds (596 kilograms).

The maximum speed of the B-17C was 323 miles per hour (520 kilometers per hour) at 25,000 feet (7,620 meters). Its service ceiling was 37,000 feet (11,278 meters) and the maximum range was 3,400 miles (5,472 kilometers).

The B-17C could carry 4,800 pounds (2,177 kilograms) of bombs. Defensive armament consisted of one .30-caliber air-cooled machine gun and four .50-caliber machine guns.

According to one source, all eighteen B-17Cs in service with the Army Air Corps were returned to Boeing in January 1941 to be upgraded to the B-17D configuration.

A Boeing B-17C Flying Fortress, similar to 40-2045. (U.S. Air Force)
A Boeing B-17C Flying Fortress, similar to Colin Kelly’s 40-2045. The Air Corps began camouflaging its B-17s in olive drab and neutral gray during Spring 1941. (U.S. Air Force)

¹ 10 December in the Commonwealth of the Philippines, which is west of the International Date Line. This would have been 9 December in the United States of America.

² A 1941 book, War Wings: Fighting Airplanes of the American and British Air Forces, by David C. Cooke, published by Robert M. McBride & Company, New York, refers to the B-17C in British service as the “Seattle,” which is in keeping with the R.A.F.’s system of naming bombers after cities.

© 2018, Bryan R. Swopes

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