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What is a B-17 Flying Fortress?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2016
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The B-17 Flying Fortress is an iconic aircraft in the history of American aviation, as well as being a well-known plane of the Second World War. These rugged aircraft performed extremely well in both the European and Pacific theaters, and they became so visually distinctive that the image of a B-17 flying overhead came to be very iconic for many people in the 1940s. In a simple illustration of the powerful role the Flying Fortress played in the Second World War, approximately one third of the bombs dropped on Germany came from the bellies of B-17 bombers.

This aircraft was designed by the Boeing company in 1934, in response to a call for a new long-range bomber. Although the original B-17 prototype did not perform very well, the potential of the aircraft was obvious, and an order for a fleet was made. Over the course of the 1930s and 1940s, Boeing repeatedly modified the plane, responding to feedback from aircrews and pilots as they worked with the plane in combat situations. The last B-17 used for military purposes was decommissioned in 1968, but with 12 operational B-17s in existence as of 2008, it is still possible to see these magnificent planes in the air, and people can also purchase tickets for a flight on a B-17.

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The Flying Fortress had a distinctive four engine design, with an extremely durable body which was intended to sustain a great deal of damage. A heavily damaged B-17 could still reach its target, drop its payload, and fly home, and several planes which were reported as downed later turned up at their home airfields, with the crew intact. Images of severely damaged B-17s which made it home, sometimes without fully functional engines or landing gear, were widely published in the 1940s to boost public morale. B-17s were also capable of defending themselves, with hefty turret guns and heavy armor to protect them from flak and attack by other aircraft.

Often, B-17s flew in massive combat formations which were designed to protect the planes while maximizing their bombing effect. The planes were known for extremely precise bombing mechanisms, allowing them to target areas with great precision, and a full combat formation of B-17s would have been an intimidating sight. The use of the combat formation also greatly reduced losses in B-17 fleets, with most downed planes being the result of separation from the rest of the fleet.

Several aviation museums have B-17 Flying Fortresses on display, and it is often possible to actually enter the plane to see what it is like inside. Of the B-17s still in operation, some are used by private companies for transport, while others are kept as working museum pieces, showing up at air shows and other events. For those who have been able to see a B-17 in action, the distinctive heavy thrum of the plane's four engines is something to remember.

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