16 July 1935: Just over a year after design began, the Boeing Model 299, NX13372, a prototype four engine long range heavy bomber, was rolled out of its hangar at Boeing Field, Seattle, Washington for the first time. The largest land airplane built up to that time, it seemed to have defensive machine guns aimed in every direction. A Seattle Times reporter, Roland Smith, wrote that it was a “flying fortress.” Boeing quickly copyrighted the name.
After several years of testing, the Model 299 went into production as the B-17 Flying Fortress. By the end of World War II, 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortresses had been built by Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed Vega.
The Boeing Model 299 was a four-engine bomber operated by a crew of eight. It was designed to meet a U.S. Army Air Corps proposal for a multi-engine bomber that could carry a 2,000 pound (907 kilogram) bomb load a distance of 2,000 miles (3,219 kilometers) at a speed greater than 200 miles per hour (322 kilometers per hour). Design of the prototype began in June 1934 and construction was started 16 August 1934. The Air Corps designated it B-299, and later, XB-17. It did not carry a military serial number, being marked with civil registration NX13372.
The Model 299 was 68 feet, 9 inches (20.955 meters) long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9–3/8 inches (31.633 meters) and height of 14 feet, 11–5/16 inches (4.554 meters). Its empty weight was 21,657 pounds (9,823 kilograms). The maximum gross weight was 38,053 pounds (17,261 kilograms).
The prototype was powered by four air-cooled, supercharged, 1,690.537-cubic-inch-displacement (27.703 liter) Pratt & Whitney Hornet S1E-G nine-cylinder radial engines with a compression ratio of 6.5:1. The S1E-G was rated at 750 horsepower at 2,250 r.p.m., and 875 horsepower at 2,300 r.p.m. for takeoff, using 87-octane gasoline. They turned 11 foot, 6 inch (3.505 meters) diameter, three-bladed Hamilton Standard Hydromatic constant-speed propellers through a 3:2 gear reduction. The S1E-G was 4 feet, 1.38 inches (1.254 meters) long, 4 feet, 6.44 inches (1.383 meters) in diameter and weighed 1,064 pounds (483 kilograms)
In flight testing, the Model 299 had a cruise speed of 204 miles per hour (328 kilometers per hour) and a maximum speed of 236 miles per hour (380 kilometers per hour) at 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). The service ceiling was 24,620 feet (7,504.2 meters). The maximum range was 3,101 miles (4,991 kilometers). Carrying a 2,573 pounds (1,167 kilograms) load of bombs, the range was 2,040 miles (3,283 kilometers).
The XB-17 could carry eight 500 pound (227 kilogram) bombs in an internal bomb bay. Defensive armament consisted of five air-cooled .30-caliber Browning machine guns.
NX13372 was destroyed when it crashed on takeoff at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, 30 October 1935. An Army Air Corps pilot making his first familiarization flight neglected to remove the control locks. This incident led directly to the creation of the “check list” which today is used by all aircraft crew members.
14 July 1922: Brigadier General Robin Olds, United States Air Force, was a fighter pilot and triple ace with 16 official aerial victories in two wars. Robin Olds was born Robert Oldys, Jr., at Luke Field Hospital, Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii. He was the first son of Captain Robert Oldys, Air Service, United States Army, and Eloise Wichman Nott Oldys. In 1931, the family name was legally changed from Oldys to Olds. As a child, Robert, Jr., was known as “Robin,” a dimunuitive of Robert.
Robin Olds entered the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, on 1 July 1940. During the summer months, he received primary, basic and advanced pilot training. With training at West Point accelerated because of wartime needs, Cadet Olds and his class graduated one year early, 1 June 1943. Olds was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, Air Corps, United States Army, (number 589 of 620 on the Air Corps list of second lieutenants), and was assigned to fighter training in the Lockheed P-38 Lightning at Williams Field, Arizona. On 1 December 1943, Second Lieutenant Olds was appointed to the rank of First Lieutenant, Army of the United States (A.U.S.). (His permanent rank remained Second Lieutenant, Air Corps, until after the War.)
On completion of all phases of training, Lieutenant Olds was assigned to the 434th Fighter Squadron, 479th Fighter Group, and deployed to England aboard the former Moore-McCormack Lines passenger liner S.S. Argentina, which had been converted to a troop transport.
The 434th Fighter Squadron was based at RAF Wattisham in East Anglia. First Lieutenant Olds was promoted to Captain (A.U.S.) on 24 July 1944. He became an ace during his first two combat missions, shooting down 2 Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters on 14 August 1944 and 3 Messerschmitt Bf 109s on August 23.
The squadron re-equipped with North American P-51 Mustangs and Captain Olds continued to destroy enemy fighters. On 9 February 1945, just 22 years old, he was promoted to Major. On 25 March 1945, Major Olds was placed in command of the 434th Fighter Squadron. Major Olds completed the war with a record of 12 aerial victories,¹ and another 11.5 enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground. He had flown 107 combat missions.
When the United States Air Force was established as a separate military service on 18 September 1947, Major Olds (along with hundreds, if not thousands of other officers) reverted to their permanent rank of First Lieutenant, with his date of rank retroactive to 1 June 1946. Olds retained the temporary rank of Major.
After World War II, Major Olds transitioned to jet fighters with the Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star at March Field, near Riverside, California. He flew in an aerobatic demonstration team, and on 1 September 1946, flew a Lockheed P-80A to second place in the Thompson Trophy Race, Jet Division, at Cleveland, Ohio. Olds averaged 514.715 miles per hour (828.354 kilometers per hour) over ten laps around the 30-mile (48.3 kilometers), four pylon course.
While stationed at March Field, Olds met his future wife, actress Ella Wallace Raines (formerly, Mrs. Kenneth William Trout). They married on 6 February 1947 at the West Hollywood Community Church, just south of the Sunset Strip in the West Hollywood area of Los Angeles County, California. Rev. Gordon C. Chapman performed the ceremony. They would have two daughters, Christina and Susan. They divorced 15 November 1976.
In October 1948, Major Olds returned to England as an exchange officer in command of No. 1 Squadron, Royal Air Force, at RAF Tangmere. He was the first non-Commonwealth officer to command a Royal Air Force squadron. The squadron flew the Gloster Meteor F. Mk.IV jet fighter.
Following the tour with the R.A.F., Olds returned to March Air Force Base as operations officer of the 94th Fighter Squadron, Jet, 1st Fighter-Interceptor Group, which had been equipped with the North American Aviation F-86A-1-NA Sabre. Soon after, he was placed in command of the 71st Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, another squadron within the 1st Fighter-Interceptor Group.
Olds was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel, 20 February 1951, and to colonel 15 April 1953. From 8 October 1955 to 10 August 1956 he commanded the 86th Fighter-Interceptor Group based at Landstuhl Air Base, Germany. The group flew the rocket-armed North American Aviation F-86D Sabre. The 86th was inactivated 10 August 1956. Colonel Olds then was assigned as chief of the Weapons Proficiency Center for the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) at Wheelus Air Base, near Tripoli, Libya.
After assignment as Deputy Chief, Air Defense Division, Headquarters USAF, from 1958 to 1962, Colonel Olds attended the National War College, graduating in 1963. From 8 September 1963 to 26 July 1965, Colonel Olds commanded the 81st Tactical Fighter Wing, at RAF Bentwaters, England.
Robin Olds returned to combat as commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in September 1966. Flying the McDonnell F-4C Phantom II, Colonel Olds scored victories over two Vietnam Peoples Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17s and two MiG-21s, bringing his official score to 16 ² aerial victories. ³ He was the only Air Force fighter ace with victories in both World War II and the Vietnam War. (There have been rumors that he actually shot down seven MiGs, but credited those to other pilots to avoid being pulled out of combat and sent back to the United States.)
For his actions during the attack against the Paul Doumer Bridge, 11 August 1967, Colonel Olds was awarded the Air Force Cross. He flew 152 combat missions during the Vietnam War. His final combat mission was on 23 September 1967.
On 1 June 1968, Robin Olds was promoted to the rank of brigadier general and assigned as Commandant of Cadets at the United States Air Force Academy. In February 1971, he was appointed Director of Aerospace Safety in the Office of the Inspector General at Norton Air Force Base, near San Bernardino, California. He retired from the Air Force 31 May 1973.
During his military career, Brigadier General Robin Olds had been awarded the Air Force Cross, Distinguished Service Medal, Silver Star with three oak leaf clusters (four awards), Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with five oak leaf clusters (six awards), Air Medal with 39 oak leaf clusters (40 awards), Air Force Commendation Medal, as well as the Distinguished Flying Cross of the United Kingdom, the Croix de Guerre (France), and the Republic of Vietnam’s Distinguished Service Medal, Air Gallantry Medal with Gold Wings, Air Service Medal and Vietnam Campaign Medal.
In 1978, Robin Olds married his second wife, Abigail Morgan Sellers Barnett. They were divorced in 1993.
Brigadier General Robin Olds passed away 14 June 2007 at the age of 84 years. He is buried at the United States Air Force Academy Cemetery, Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Note: Thanks to Ms. Christina Olds and Lieutenant Colonel R. Medley Gatewood, U.S. Air Force (Retired), for their input to this article.
¹ Source: USAF CREDITS FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF ENEMY AIRCRAFT, WORLD WAR II, Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University. Office of Air Force History, Headquarters, USAF, 1978. Pages 143–144:
² Source: ACES and AERIAL VICTORIES, The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia 1965–1973, Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University. Office of Air Force History, Headquarters, USAF, 1976. Page 135:
³ Under the rules in effect at the time, a pilot and WSO shared credit for an enemy aircraft destroyed, with each being credited 0.5 kills. Colonel Olds was officially credited with 2.0 kills. The rules were changed in 1971, retroactive to 1965. This gave Olds an official score of 4.0. —Source: To Hanoi and Back: The United States Air Force and North Vietnam 1966–1973, by Wayne Thompson. Air Force History Office, 2000. Chapter 4 at Page 11.
10 July 1943: Following the defeat of Germany and Italy by the Allies in North Africa, the next phase of the war plan was the invasion of Sicily. This began with the largest airborne assault ever attempted by U.S. and British paratroopers up to that time.
Shortly after midnight, a Regimental Combat Team (RCT) under command of Colonel James M. Gavin, United States Army, and consisting of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment with the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, dropped out of a moonlit sky around Gela on the southern shore of the island and achieved reasonable success. 226 C-47 Skytrains of the 52d Troop Carrier Wing dropped 3,405 U.S. paratroopers. A second airborne assault by the remaining 1,900 paratroopers of the 504th PIR was carried into battle by 144 C-47s from the 52d TCW.
The British Army 1st Air Landing Brigade under Brigadier Philip Hicks arrived on gliders to capture landing zones in the interior of the island.
As the Allied formation of 144 Douglas C-47 Skytrain transports approached the Sicilian shoreline, ships of the invasion force mistook them for enemy aircraft and opened fire. 22 C-47s were shot down and many others damaged. 83 men were killed and 318 wounded.
As a result of the friendly fire incident, the airborne assault was widely scattered, missing assigned drop zones and objectives. However, small groups of airborne troopers acting on their own initiative attacked targets of opportunity and kept the island’s defenders off balance.
The British glider assault, Operation Ladbroke, consisted of 8 Airspeed Horsa and 136 American Waco CG-4 transport gliders. Only 12 of these landed at their targets. At least 65 went into the sea with the loss of over 250 British soldiers.
Operation Fustian was the airborne assault by the 1st Parachute Brigade under the command of Brigadier Gerald Lathbury was carried by 105 C-47s, 11 Armstrong Whitworth Ablemarle paratroop transports, 11 Horsa and 8 Waco gliders. Approximately 40 of these were shot down by Allied and Axis anti-aircraft fire and several were lost to mid-air collisions. Many transports were badly damaged and had so many wounded paratroops that they aborted the mission and returned to North Africa.
Despite significant problems, the airborne troops kept the island’s defenders off guard and had a “positive effect” on the outcome of the invasion.
Before Germany could mount Operation Sea Lion, a cross-channel invasion of the British Isles, it needed to have complete air superiority over the invasion fleet. Because of the Luftwaffe‘s greater numbers and modern aircraft, German military leadership believed this could best be accomplished by defeating the Royal Air Force in air-to-air combat.
The Royal Air Force had been conserving their limited numbers of pilots and aircraft up to this point in the war. Germany’s plan was to send its bombers against targets that the R.A.F. would be forced to defend. The escorting Messerschmitt Bf 109s (also referred to as the Me 109) would then shoot down the Boulton Paul Defiants and Bristol Blenheims. But the Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires were up to the task. While the Hurricanes went after the Luftwaffe’s Dornier 17 and Heinkel He 111 bombers, the Spitfires engaged their Bf 109 fighter escorts.
Britain used a system of radar-directed ground control of its fighter squadrons. The result was that though both sides lost about the same number of aircraft, the Battle of Britain was a decisive victory for Great Britain. Germany was forced to give up on its plans for an invasion of England.
During a speech the House of Commons, 20 August 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to the pilots of Fighter Command when he said,
“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
Ever since, the Royal Air Force has been known as “The Few.”
Royal Air Force aircraft:
Highly recommended:Duel of Eagles, by Group Captain Peter Townsend, CVO, DSO, DFC and Bar, Royal Air Force. Cassell Publishers Limited, 1970 and Castle Books, 2003.
8 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.)
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.
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.
The Boeing B-17C/Fortress Mk.I was 67 feet, 10-9/16 inches (20.690 meters long with a wingspan of 103 feet, 9⅜ 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).
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.