The history of the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress planes from WWII

Flying Fortress WWII planes

Note: This article may feature affiliate links, and purchases made may earn us a commission at no extra cost to you. Find out more here.


Along with more than a dozen pictures of the aircraft, find out the history of the famous B-17 Flying Fortress planes from WWII — how they were invented, built, tested and used… and what happened to these airplanes after the war was finally over.

Boeing XB-17 (Model 299) nose turret with gun. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Boeing XB-17 (Model 299) nose turret with gun. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Vintage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress facts & figures

Crew: 10
Armament: Up to thirteen .50-cal machine guns and 8,000 lbs of bombs
Engines: Four 1,200 hp Wright R-1820-97 turbosupercharged radials
Maximum speed: 325 mph
Range: 2,800 miles
Combat radius: 600+ miles
Maximum ceiling: 37,500 ft
Empty weight: 35,728 lbs
Maximum gross weight: 48,720 lbs

View from front of a B-17 Flying Fortress planes (1943)


Bomber cruises high altitudes: Story of Flying Fortresses one of long experiment by Boeing experts (1942)

By William F. Boni, Associated Press military editor – Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Washington) November 11, 1942

SEATTLE, Nov. 10. — One of the things that makes the Flying Fortresses such a headache to Jap and Nazi alike is its ability to bomb with deadly effect from high altitudes.

The accuracy of the bombsight has something to do with that, of course, but first, the Flying Fortress had to get up to those high altitudes. So this is the story of how it got there.

Forerunners broke records

Even the original Boeing 299, forerunner of the present-day Fortresses, was an exceptional high-altitude ship. It could go to 27,000 feet, and it and its immediate successors, the early B-17s and B-17As, enabled army air corps pilots to smash one international record after another, for altitude with load, and speed with load.

Boeing B-17F
Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The B-17A was the first to use turbo-superchargers, which, driven by the exhaust gases, feed compressed air into the motors in the upper reaches where the air is thin.

It was an installation that cost Boeing and the Army many headaches, for until then turbos had been installed successfully only in single-motored aircraft.

“In addition to its order for 13 of the first B-17s,” explains Wellwood Beall, Boeing’s chief engineer, “the Army ordered one extra plane as what is known as a ‘static test article.'”

Boeing B-17E
Boeing B-17Es under construction. This is the first released wartime production photograph of Flying Fortress heavy bombers at one of the Boeing plants, at Seattle, Wash. Boeing exceeded its accelerated delivery schedules by 70 percent for the month of December 1942. (U.S. Air Force photo)

14th as test model

“Finally, though, General Echols (Major General O P Echols), chief of the materiel center at Wright field, told us to go ahead and fly that plane, using it as a test model for the turbo-superchargers.”

The turbos first were installed on top of the engine nacelles. But they caused so much buffeting on the first flight that it wasn’t deemed safe even to try them there again. The turbos were shifted to the underside of the nacelles.

The job of finding out the causes of the turbos’ failure at extreme altitudes went to Eddie Allen, a genial wizard who carries the burdensome title of “director of the flight and aerodynamics division,” and his staff.

About a year ago, they found the answer, and today, at peak altitude, the four motors still deliver the full-rated military power.

Boeing B-17G
Flak damage completely destroyed the nose section of this Boeing B-17G, a 398th Bomb Group aircraft flown by 1Lt. Lawrence M. Delancey over Cologne, Germany. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Rubber, oil, controls freeze

At those extreme altitudes, where rubber tail wheels have been shattered by machine-gun fire because they were frozen solid, oil and other lubricants also froze, the controls froze, the propellers stopped or ran away.

(Today, at 35,000 feet, the props can be feathered — important not only in case engine trouble should develop at that height, but also because it means that now props can be feathered at ground temperatures of 50 degrees below zero.)

Spark plugs are, at the moment, the “bottleneck” of substratosphere flying, Allen explains. That is because, in those high reaches, there are so many peculiar electrical manifestations.

Human ability to perform up to standard is another difficulty, one which the Boeing pilots are helping to solve for the Army.

SEE MORE: 100+ D-Day pictures: See WWII’s Operation Overlord in June 1944, plus get historical insight from 25 years later

Boeing B-17E
Three aircraft formation of Boeing B-17Es (S/N 41-2512, 41-2511 and 41-2509). (U.S. Air Force photo)

Drive nitrogen from blood

They have their own strato-chamber (just as Lockheed has for its pilots who fly the high-climbing P-38).

Before a flight to 35,000 feet or beyond, the engineering crews must don full equipment, including pressurized suits and oxygen masks, and, while breathing in oxygen, must exercise for 45 minutes.

In that way, nitrogen is driven out of the bloodstream, for it is the nitrogen reaction in the blood that creates area-embolism, to altitude flyers what “the bends” are to deep-sea divers.

ALSO SEE: Consolidated B-36: The world’s biggest bomber in the ’40s & ’50s could drop a 10,000-pound atomic bomb

Allen’s department also has worked out detailed cruising and performance charts, from which a ferrying pilot of the army air forces air transport command can figure out almost to the gallon the amount of fuel it will require to fly a Fortress from San Francisco to Hawaii under the prevailing conditions of weather, load, cruising speed, etc. — and even can tell how far he can get in case one or even two engines should conk out. The engineering test flights continue all the time.

At present, Eddie, Allen and his staff have three planes turned hack to them by the A A F for just that purpose. One plane is used purely for ignition tests at 35,000 feet and higher, tests which may result in standard installations in all A A F high-altitude planes. The other two are reserved for performance tests on army-requested equipment and installations.

Vintage B-17 Bomber - Flying Fortress WWII airplane - Sentimental Journey Mesa Az
Vintage B-17 Bomber – Flying Fortress WWII airplane – Sentimental Journey Mesa Az

WWII plane – Flying Fortress B-17 radar tactical info diagrams

WWII plane - Flying Fortress B-17 radar tactical info (2)

WWII plane - Flying Fortress B-17 radar tactical info (1)

How the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress planes were still flying in 1966

Article by O K Boyington – The Miami Herald (Florida) May 1, 1966

SEATTLE — The Boeing B17, that “wing and a prayer” bomber which contributed so much to victory in World War II, still hasn’t breathed her last.

The Flying Fortress still sees action in fire fighting operations, pest control, aerial surveying, cargo hauling, aerial exhibitions and research and development work.

Bob Sturges of Troutdale, Ore., who rightly could be called the “stepfather of the B17,” estimates about 150 of the planes are still flying. At last count, he said 26 were in use in the United States.

Boeing B-17E
Boeing B-17Es (S/N 41-2557 and 41-9182) in formation. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“The rest are scattered all over the world,” he said. “There are about 35 in South America, and quite a few in France and northern Africa.”

Sturges, 49, operator of Columbia Airmotive, is the main supplier of B-17 parts, and is in a position to keep track of the trustworthy old four-engine bombers he came to love as a Boeing engineer in the 1940s.

ALSO SEE: How the Boeing 747 jumbo jet made history

“I guess I supply about 99 percent of the parts for them now,” Sturges said. Hardly a day goes by that we don’t get an order for something. When we get down to one of any part, then we try to figure out a way to manufacture it. So far we’re doing all right.

“A few years ago I was in Seattle, and stopped at Boeing to ask if they had a certain part,” Sturges added. “I talked with a man and he told me to wait. About an hour later he came back and said Boeing didn’t have what I needed, and that there was only one man to see about B17 parts. He gave me a card with my name on it.”

Boeing B-17E
Nose detail of Boeing B-17E “Typhoon McGoon II” (S/N 41-9211) of the 11th Bomb Group, 98th Bomb Squadron, taken in January 1943 in New Caledonia. Note the antennas mounted above the nose plexiglass used for radar tracking of surface vessels. (U.S. Air Force photo)

THE PLANE was developed by the Boeing Co. here in 1935, and later was adopted by the Army Air Corps, predecessor of the Air Force.

By the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, 60 forts per month were rolling off the production lines. The Air Corps made arrangements for Douglas and Vega (now Lockheed) to participate in building the planes and, in all, 12,731 of them were turned out.

Boeing B-17F Memphis Belle
Boeing B-17F Memphis Belle on display in the WWII Gallery at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. B-17’s flew in every combat zone during World War II, but its most significant service was over Europe. Along with the B-24 Liberator, the B-17 formed the backbone of the USAAF strategic bombing force, and it helped win the war by crippling Germany’s war industry. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ken LaRock)

Boeing built nearly 7,000 — with the help of Rosie the Riveter, the name coined for the hundreds of women working in aircraft production.

The airplane was de-scribed by Gen. H. H. “Hap” Arnold as “the backbone of our worldwide aerial offensive.” Writing about the B17, Author Edward Jablonski called it “the greatest battleplane of its time and perhaps of all time.”

By present-day standards, the Flying Fortress is a relatively small plane, but in its day it was very big indeed, in size and in accomplishment. It has a wingspan of 103 feet and is just under 75 feet long.

ALSO SEE: How Glenn Miller got the world ‘In the Mood’ – and then disappeared forever during WWII

Boeing B-17E
Boeing B-17E. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Its top speed is listed at 350 miles an hour and its ceiling at 38,000 feet. Nearly 10 tons of bombs could be crammed aboard. However, on bombing missions, the plane usually carried about three tons of bombs at about 150 miles an hour and at about 30.900 feet.

Bruce Penny, Sunday editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, knows what the B17 was like in combat. He piloted the bombers on 30 missions over France, Holland, and Germany.

Reviewing Jablonski’s book, “Flying Fortress,” Penny wrote: “The B17… was more than a metal monster to those who flew her. She was as rugged as a rock, could absorb more punishment and battle damage, and still get the 10 men aboard home safely, than was conceivable or believable.

ALSO SEE: The mystery of Amelia Earhart: She disappeared on her ’round-the-world flight, and was never seen again

“She reacted to the care and caresses of her pilots as faithfully as a lap dog; she was as forgiving as a doting mother of the errors and insufficiencies of the under-trained men who flew her — kids just out of high school or college, farm boys, mechanics, soda jerks, shoe clerks and carpenters — even newspapermen — who had the temporary job of killing, more than a quarter of a century ago.”

Many of the planes didn’t make it back. Records indicate that 4,750 of them were lost on combat missions in months of fighting over the Pacific, Europe and Africa.

Installing fixtures and assemblies to a tail fuselage section

WHEN STURGES talks, it becomes clear that peacetime has done nothing to dim the rapture that men feel for the B17.

“After the war, I just couldn’t stand to see them being chopped up and pushed into a smelter,” he said, telling of his decision to buy a surplus bomber. He bought his nearly new Fort for $1,050, and later sold it for $12,000.

It was used in three Warner Bros. motion pictures, “12 O’Clock High,” “Command Decision” and “Fighter Squadron.”

He said in 1947 and 1948, he began to collect parts, and just drifted into his present business.

Sturges said he has undertaken some major rebuilding jobs to put Flying Fortresses back in the air.

Fueling a new B-17F (Flying Fortress) bomber
Fueling a new B-17F (Flying Fortress) bomber at the airfield of Boeing’s Seattle plant- December 1942

SEE THESE PLANES BEING BUILT: 46 pictures of real-life Rosie the Riveters & other women war workers from WWII

“You can make anything fly if you want to,” he said. “We rebuilt one near Lewiston, Idaho, in 1954, that was just beat to pieces. When we started there wasn’t even a tank that would hold gasoline.”

He said that plane was sold to Aero Enterprises at Fresno, Calif., for use in fighting forest fires and spraying. “It is a unique airplane that will do jobs that no other plane will do,” he said.

“Down in Bolivia, for instance, they are used to flying meat from sea level up to La Paz, where it’s 16,000 feet. With its turbo superchargers, the B17 is especially good for high-altitude take-offs. There aren’t too many planes that can get airborne at those high altitudes.”

Boeing B-17E
Boeing B-17E (S/N 41-9061) in flight. (U.S. Air Force photo)

SOME B17S are used for high-level photography. One owned by Aero Service Corp. of Philadelphia is currently on such an assignment in King Salmon, Alaska.

Dale Newton, 36, operator of Aero Union Corp., at Chico, Calif., has one of the bigger fleets of B-17s. He currently owns four, which are used almost exclusively for fighting fires.

“There’s really no life limit to them,” Newton said. “It’s just a question of how well you keep them up.”

Arnold Kolb, operator of Black Hills Aviation of Spearfish, S.D., says. “Boeing really built a plane when they built this one. It’s real easy to fly. Just like a Piper cub with four engines.”

He uses his plane for dropping fire retardants on forest fires and for spraying jobs. He helped spray sage-brush and rangeland in Wyoming last year during a grasshopper infestation.

“We can go as slow as 100 or 80 miles an hour and the plane will fly itself out of the situation,” he said.

“The guys tell me they’ll keep flying B17s as long as I’ll keep supplying parts,” Sturges said. He sounds as if he hopes to keep them flying for a good long time.

ALSO SEE: WWII newspaper headlines from the D-Day invasion of France (1944)

Boeing B-17
B-17 going down after severe flak damage. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The history of the B-17s: Swarms of Flying Fortress planes

… fly on Studebaker-built Cyclone engines (May 1943)

WWII - Swarms of Flying Fortress planes (1943)

More and more Flying Fortresses…

…are powered by Studebaker-built Cyclone engines (August 1943)

Clear-eyed, clean-hearted young Americans are up there in those Flying Fortresses — writing new chapters of a free world’s destiny.

Many of them were carefree schoolboys only yesterday. Today, they’re pouring cringing fear into the souls of once boastful “supermen.”

To these gallant youngsters — and to their expert crews below that keep them flying — we of Studebaker pledge ourselves to go on producing more and still more of the mighty Wright Cyclone engines for these devastating Boeing bombers.

ALSO SEE: Look back at the early days of American Airlines – doing what they did best

We recognize and respect the responsibility for maintaining quality that the Army-Navy “E” Award has placed upon the Studebaker Aviation Division plants. We’ll “give more than we promise” in the best Studebaker tradition.

Meanwhile, civilian needs must and will wait . . . until Studebaker completes this wartime assignment . . . until the finer Studebaker cars and trucks of a brighter day can be built.

WWII Flying Fortresses powered by Studebaker-built Cyclone engines (1943)

About the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress planes

Heading five miles high …on engines that Studebaker craftsmen built (October 1943)

Flying Fortress WWII plane from Studebaker (1943)

Studebaker engines for the Flying Fortress planes

Studebaker craftsmen build cyclone engines for this latest model Flying Fortress (February 1944)

Here’s the mightiest Boeing Flying Fortress of years in the fine power plants of the famous them all — the brand-new B-176.

At first glance, it doesn’t look much different from previous Fortress models — until you notice that new turret under the bombardier’s platform armed with its two devastating 50-caliber machine guns.

Studebaker has the responsibility of building Wright Cyclone engines for this invincible Boeing bomber. And the assignment is a logical recognition of Studebaker’s great engine-building reputation, so brilliantly exemplified for many years in the fine power plants of the famous Studebaker Champion, Commander and President cars.

Studebaker engineers, production experts and craftsmen fully recognize the urgent needs of our armed forces for more and more of the war equipment required for decisive victory.

That’s why they’re sparing no effort on any of their wartime assignments — the Wright Cyclone engines for the Flying Fortress, the big multiple-drive military trucks and the other vital matériel they’ve been delegated to produce.

Studebaker engines for the Flying Fortress planes (1944)

SEE THESE PLANES BEING BUILT: 46 pictures of real-life Rosie the Riveters & other women war workers from WWII

Designing Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress planes (1943)

Designing Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress planes

PS: If you liked this article, please share it! You can also get our free newsletter, follow us on Facebook & Pinterest. Thanks for visiting and for supporting a small business! 🤩 


You might also like...

The fun never ends:

Comments on this story

Leave a comment here!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.