Inside a Flying Fortress

Look inside one of the only surviving B-17Gs with a combat record

b-17g nose art
Eric Long and Mark Avino

The B-17 Flying Fortress shaped the air war over Western Europe like no other World War II aircraft. From the outset of fighting, it provided a strategic bombing capability that the Axis could never match. Its heavy payload, defensive armament, and rugged construction allowed the Army Air Forces to bomb heavily defended targets in Western Europe, unescorted, in daylight. While the strategic bombing campaign suffered its share of missteps and the legacy of civilian casualties is still hotly debated, the efficacy of the Flying Fortress in crippling German industry and infrastructure is not in doubt. Eighth Air Force B-17s alone dropped well over 400,000 tons of bombs on Axis-held territory from August 17, 1942 to May 8, 1945. However, 4,754 Flying Fortresses were lost or written off in the course of operations, constituting 37 percent of the production run of 12,731 airframes.

See below for a gallery of B-17 photos. Text and images are from the Smithsonian book In the Cockpit II: Inside History-Making Aircraft of World War II (Collins Design, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, 2010), photography by Eric F. Long and Mark A. Avino, text by Roger D. Connor and Christopher T. Moore. Reprinted with permission.

Cockpit

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(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

Boeing built its prototype Model 299 to a 1934 Air Corps specification for a bomber with a 2,000-lb bomb load and a radius of action of more than 1,000 miles. By 1940, the B-17, as it had come to be designated, had evolved into a capable combat aircraft. The American heavy bomber doctrine that evolved through the 1930s centered on daylight precision bombing, though in operations “precision” would be a relative term, with Eighth Air Force heavy bombers dropping 50 percent of their bombs more than 1,500 feet from their targets. The solution was to fly larger formations, putting even more aircraft under the guns of capable German fighters. B-17 armament proliferated with later models mounting up to 13 .50 caliber machine guns and carrying a crew of 10. The defensive fire of B-17s took its toll on the Luftwaffe attackers, but the survival of these formations would ultimately depend on the ability of escorts to minimize the exposure to German air defense fighters.

Survivor with a Combat Record

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(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby is one of the only surviving B-17Gs with a combat record. It entered service with the Ninety-first Bomb Group in March 1943. On May 29, 1944, after an extensive period of combat, the aircraft departed for a raid on the Focke-Wulf plant in Poznan, Poland. After its bomb run, the aircraft suffered flak damage and was forced to land in neutral Sweden, where the aircraft was interned with its crew. The Swedish government sold the aircraft to SAAB, who turned the Flying Fortress into an airliner. The U.S. Air Force later rescued the aircraft after it had been abandoned and eventually undertook a massive program to restore it.

Bombardier

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(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

The bombardier operated the Norden M-9 bombsight during the bomb run, but could also defend the aircraft with the chin turret located beneath his seat by using the roof-mounted N-6 sight to track targets and a flexible hand controller, mounted on the right side of his position, to direct the turret.

Navigator

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(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

Compared with the B-29, the B-17’s navigation equipment was basic. Navigational equipment visible here includes a gyro flux gate compass, a radio compass, and an astrodome to take celestial sightings (rarely used over Europe). The navigator could also assist the bombardier in fending off deadly head-on attacks by manning the two ANM2 .50 caliber machine guns mounted on either side of the nose.

Communication Duties

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(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

The radio operator employed a range of liaison and command radio sets in the course of his communications duties and tuned in electronic assembly beacons and landing aids to assist with navigation.

Spacious Position

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(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

The radio operator manned his relatively spacious position between the bomb bay and the waist gun compartment. Looking aft, he could see the top of the ball turret.

Ball Turret Gunner

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(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

One of the most grueling assignments in the air war was that of the ball turret gunner. The gunner entered the cramped turret after takeoff by rotating the guns downward. Unless tracking a target, the gunner reclined on his back with the guns parallel to the fuselage.

Physical Challenges

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(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

Manning the waist guns was uncomfortable and hazardous. Operating at altitudes up to 25,000 feet in an unpressurized cabin, temperatures often plunged to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Frostbite, hypoxia, and the challenge of operating in bulky flight gear and flak jackets made aiming and firing the guns a constant challenge.

Target Spot

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(Eric Long and Mark Avino)

The nature of bomber interception made the tail of the aircraft a frequent target and the B-17 tail gunner had to trust in the armor plate in front of his kneeling position to protect him.