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The Boeing B Flying Fortress

Of all the heavy bombers that flew in WWII, the B-17 Flying Fortress was without a doubt one of the two most famous, the other being the Lancaster. The prototype first flew in 1935 but it would be another five years before the B-17 was delivered in any quantity. They first saw action with the RAF in 1941. The first order filled by Boeing was for 39 B-17Bs with turbo-charged Wright Cyclone radial engines. The 17C followed with seven machine guns instead of the original five; this modification together with better armor and self-sealing tanks in the 17d resulted from lessons learned in the early bombing raids over Europe.

The B-17E and 17F soon followed with a larger tail.The final version came out when head-on attacks by enemy fighters proved to be a definite problem, which the B-17G countered with a chin turret with dual machine guns. This gave the B-17 a defensive armament of 13 machine guns in all.The Flying Fortress flew with a crew of ten in the 17G model.

These were: Pilot, Co-pilot, Bombardier, Nose Gunner, Flight Engineer/Top Turret Gunner, Radio Operator/Gunner, Ball Turret Gunner, Right Waist Gunner, Left Waist Gunner and Tail Gunner.The B-17 was a heavy aircraft weighing in at 36,000 lbs, with a maximum takeoff weight of 65,500 lbs. With a wing span of 103ft 9in, the length was 74ft 4in while the roof of the cockpit sat 19 feet above ground. The Fortress could operate at 35,800 feet although best operating altitude was in the 25,000 foot range where it could achieve its maximum speed of 287 mph. With a cruising speed of 182 mph, it could carry a 6000 lb bomb load with a range of 2,000 miles.

Its maximum bomb load was actually about 17,000 lbs but this was with a minimum fuel load on a short-range raid.The Flying Fortresses flew in defensive formations that presented an overall curtain of withering machine gun fire to enemy fighters.One German F-109 pilot who shot down 28 fighters but only four light bombers (not B-17s), said that he never returned from an attack on a formation of B-17s without numerous holes in the fuselage of his aircraft. Most of the bombers of any type downed by fighters were stragglers; those that could not maintain or regain their position in formation as a result of damage from flak encountered during their bombing runs.

Built mostly over 3 years from mid-1942 to mid-1945, these four engine heavy bombers once filled the skys. Workers across the US built a total of 12,731 B-17s.After the war, several dozen B-17s lived on as fire-bombers and aerial surveyors until the last one was retired in the 1970s.

Today, a few B-17s have been restored to their wartime splendor. Eleven are currently flying in the United States, one in the UK and another one in France.Keeping a B-17 flying these days is an expensive proposition.Someone once said that a B-17 operates on gas, oil and money. Especially money. A B-17 will easily burn 200 gallons of fuel per hour, plus about 10 gallons of oil per hour.

Consumables and wear items cost an estimated $3,000 per flight hour.For each hour a Flying Fortress spends in the air, ten are spent on the ground in maintenance. An engine overhaul can cost $40,000 and FAA required wing-spar inspections and repairs will cost each Flying Fortress in excess of $100,000.

Consequently operating a B-17 is more than any one person can do.As a result, foundations own most of them, or museums set up specifically to keep the Flying Fortress in the air. These organizations are partly funded by corporate donations and air show fees, but most depend on touring.

A B-17 tour will take the Flying Fortress from city to city across the USA and Canada, where she will be on display for tours and a lucky few have a chance to take a flight on the B-17. If you hear that a B-17 tour is stopping in your city, please do go check it out, contribute a few dollars and consider taking a B-17 flight. You'll find it will be the thrill of a lifetime.Keep 'em flying.

.Michael Russell Your Independent guide to Aviation.

By: Michael Russell

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