The B-17 bomber, also known as the Flying Fortress, was developed by Boeing and went on to become perhaps the most widely recognized plane used in World War II. Its prototype, designated Boeing Model 299 flew for the first time in July of 1935.
Following changes to the model 299, 13 B-17s were ordered in January 1936 and began service in 1938. Although few were used before the attack on Pearl Harbor, production picked up quickly following America’s entrance into WWII. The planes were used in every combat zone during the war, mostly for strategic daylight bombing of German industrial targets. In May of 1945 production of the B-17ended; there were 12,700 of the fly fortresses built during the war. During that short period, a number of design changes were implemented.
Eight major changes in design starting with B-17A and culminating in B-17G took place during the war. Boeing engineers engaged in a non-stop effort to improve the plane. More powerful engines as well as changes in gun stations were among the most popular innovations. The first mass produced of the B-17s was the B-17F, of which 8680 were built. By the time the B-17G was made guns had been increased from seven to thirteen and a new nose and larger flaps had appeared.
Dozens of B-17 bomber groups were stationed in Europe but only three in the Pacific theater due to the plane’s short range. It also had a relatively smaller bomb load capacity. What made it so popular was it durability. It had a well-earned reputation for being able to reach its target and return safely with its crew despite taking serious battle damage. The B-17 could not go far or carry very large payloads but it almost always made it through.
Attempts to use the B-17s as missiles toward the end of the war failed. The planes were fitted with radio controls and carried 12,000 lb of explosives. Called the BQ-7 Aphrodite missiles, the plan was to utilize these planes against hard to destroy enemy fortifications and U-boat pens, however the radio controlled guidance was unreliable.
The Royal Air Force’s attempts at using the B-17 failed because the planes’ strength and weaknesses were not taken into account. The British used the B-17s for patrol bombing instead of heavy bombing because they felt using the plane the American way was not cost efficient.