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Everything You Need To Know About The ‘Flying Fortress’ B-17 Bomber

The powerful heavy bomber can carry more than 17,000 lbs of armament

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was an iconic symbol of American aviation during World War II. It holds a storied history as a legendary bomber, revered for its robust design and strategic role in the war effort. Today, the B-17 remains a symbol of strength and resilience.

A force to be reckoned with

Designed by the Boeing Aircraft Company as a high-flying strategic bomber, the B-17 came as a response to a 1934 Army Air Corps request for a four-engined bomber. At the time, it was more common to have two engines, so the inception of this heavy bomber signified a turning point in military aviation.

A Vintage US Air Force Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Flying In The Sky.
Photo: VanderWolf Images | Shutterstock

The Flying Fortress boasts a wingspan of 103 feet 9 inches (31.62 m) and a length of 74 feet 4 inches (22.66 m). Its distinctive design features four turbo-supercharged radial engines, each driving a three-bladed propeller. The aircraft’s role in strategic precision bombing missions was emphasized by a capacity for up to 17,196 lbs (7,800 kg) of internal and external bombs.

The B-17’s strategic importance was highlighted by its ability to fly at high altitudes of 25,000 to 35,000 feet (7,500 to 10,500 meters), thanks to its powerful engines. This allowed pilots to evade enemy defenses while delivering precise and powerful strikes, with the Norden bombsight providing high levels of accuracy when it came to offloading bombs.

Attack or be attacked

The technical specifications of the B-17 underscore its place as a technological marvel of its time. With a maximum speed of around 287 miles per hour (293 km/h) and a range exceeding 2,000 miles (3,219 km) while carrying 6,000 lbs (2,700 kg) of bombload, the B-17 could penetrate deep into enemy territory, striking key targets with precision.

A B-17 Flying Fortress flying in the sky.
Photo: Benny Pieritz | Shutterstock

The aircraft’s defensive capabilities were equally impressive, with multiple machine gun positions placed strategically to repel enemy fighters. Its defensive armament included up to thirteen .50-caliber machine guns, creating a virtual wall of firepower to deter enemy fighters.

As the backbone of the United States Army Air Forces’ daylight bombing campaign, the B-17 undertook perilous missions deep into enemy territory. Typically flying in a formation of nine or 12 aircraft, the Flying Fortress squadron flew in tight defensive formations for mutual protection.

The B-17 underwent various modifications and improvements throughout its time in service, resulting in different models tailored for specific roles. One notable variant, the B-17G – which entered service in the summer of 1943 – introduced a “chin” turret for increased forward firepower, enhancing the aircraft’s defensive capabilities in head-on attacks.

A lasting legacy

In collaboration with Douglass, Lockheed, and Vega, Boeing manufactured more than 12,730 examples of the B-17 before it was rendered obsolete by the larger and more powerful B-29 Superfortress. After the war, a small number of modified Flying Fortresses went on to serve in search-and-rescue missions.

The Nose of a B-17 Flying Fortress named Yankee Lady.
Photo: Keith Bell | Shutterstock

Today, only six remain operational, but the legacy of the type lives on through carefully preserved examples in museums and airshows, allowing new generations to appreciate the significance of this wartime marvel. It stands as more than just a historic aircraft; The B-17 Flying Fortress represents a symbol of courage, resilience, and innovation that shaped the course of World War II.

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