Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress

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The Boeing B-17, or Model 299, is the iconic American heavy bomber of the Second World War.  First flown July 28, 1935, it was produced in 12,731 units not only by Boeing in Seattle, but under license by Douglas in Long Beach, California and Lockheed in Burbank, California.

The B-17 was developed in the mid-1930s for an Army competition that was contemplated to be for 2-engined bombers.  Boeing thought that a 4-engined bomber would be required to meet the Army’s specifications and, after checking that a 4-engined layout was acceptable, created what became the Army’s first modern 4-engined bomber.  Boeing was not then in the habit of giving names to its airplanes, but it adopted the name “Flying Fortress” bestowed by the press – rather hyperbolically, because the early B-17s really were inadequately armed with defensive guns.  Early models of the B-17, in fact, were not very combat-worthy at all, having been designed according to a theory that with sufficient performance and large formations, bombers could protect themselves against enemy fighters unescorted even with only modest defensive armament on each airplane.  Fully five years after the B-17 first flew, the B-17E variant emerged as the first truly effective version of the bomber, and E, F and G models equipped the Army Air Forces in England in the strategic bombing campaign against Germany.  They also served in all theatres of fighting with the United States and in limited numbers with Britain, which shortened their name to “Fortress.”

B-17s were strongly favored by aircrew over the Consolidated B-24, the other main U.S. heavy bomber, for their easier handling, comfort, easier accessibility to crew positions, and greater toughness under certain circumstances, such as emergency landings.  It was also able to fly higher than the B-24, making a more difficult target for anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters.  Of less direct concern to aircrew, however, was the B-17’s relatively small bomb payload, generally only two-thirds of the B-24’s capacity at similar ranges.  Aircrew might not have preferred the B-17 so strongly if told that they would have to risk their lives 50% more often to do the same amount of damages flying B-17s rather than B-24s, but of course it was not put to them this way.

The B-17’s characteristics suited it better to postwar use than the B-24 and so it was retained in service postwar in much greater numbers, used as everything from a search-and-rescue aircraft to a VIP transport.  Limited numbers were provided to overseas allies around the world.  In civil use, the B-17 saw limited application as a corporate transport.  France’s Geographic Institute used several for mapping until the 1980s, providing an important source of preserved airframes.

Approximately 50 B-17s survive.  Many are still owned by the USAF through its museum branch and are dispersed at various American museums.  Nine are currently airworthy in the United States, one in Britain and one, intermittently, in France.  Most of the airworthy B-17s in America tour part or all of the country each year selling rides, so almost anyplace in the continental U.S. has a B-17 visit nearby at least once each year.  There are also two static display specimens in Britain and one in Brazil, the last country to retire the B-17 (1968).

B-17E 41-2446

Swamp Ghost.

no images were found

B-17E 41-9032 “My Gal Sal”

On June 27, 1942, this B-17 had to forced-land on the ice pack in Greenland because of mechanical problems while being ferried from the U.S. to the European combat theater.  It sat there until 1995 when it was recovered for restoration and display at the National World War II Museum.  It was assigned to the 342nd Squadron of the 97th Bomb Group and had already been given the name “My Gal Sal.” 

B-17F 42-3374 “Homesick Angel”

Preserved at Offutt Air Force Base, this B-17 was repurchased from a California museum after a long period as a movie prop.

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B-17F 42-29782 “Boeing Bee”

All currently airworthy B-17s are B-17G models, but this B-17F was the last example of an earlier version that flew until it was acquired by the Museum of Flight, where it is now displayed.  Used as a trainer during the war, this Fortress became a fire tanker, registered N17W, and appeared in movies starting in the late 1960s, including “1,000 Plane Raid,” “Tora Tora Tora” and “Memphis Belle.”   

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B-17G 42-32076 “Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby”

This B-17 is an 8th Air Force combat veteran National Museum of the USAF.  Assigned to the 91st Bomb Group at Bassingbourne, England, its crew named it “Shoo Shoo Shoo Baby” after the popular song sung by the Andrews Sisters in the 1943 film, “Three Cheers for the Boys.”  The plane flew 24 missions between late March and late May, 1944, when it was damaged and forced to land in Sweden.  In the 1960s it was discovered in France, and was donated to the NMUSAF which had it restored by an Air Force team at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.  They restored the plane to its original identity, but the sheet metal was deemed not presentable in the aircraft’s original bare-metal finish, so the plane was given the olive and gray camouflage of earlier B-17s that this one never actually wore.  Apart from that, the restoration was to a high standard and to airworthy condition, and the plane was ferried to the NMUSAF for display in 1988.  

B-17G 42-102737

Though delivered in March 1944, this B-17 does not appear to have made it to a combat theater.  When photographed by Dick in 1947, it was at Keesler Field.  It does not appear to have been an instructional airframe, but what purpose it was serving is not clear.  It was unusual for a B-17 still to have its gun turrets by this date.  According to postwar B-17 authority Dave Tarrant, the red-painted cowlings often indicated an instrument trainer.

B-17G 43-38635 “Virgin’s Delight”

Castle Air Museum.

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B-17G 44-6393 “Starduster” “2nd Patches” “Return to Glory”

This B-17G was converted for use as a VIP transport and was the personal ride of General Ira Eaker, who gave it the name “Starduster.”  Eaker had commanded the U.S. air forces in the Mediterranean theater near the end of World War II and prior to that had been a key force in organizing the Eighth Air Force bomber command.  Reportedly, he used this airplane in Italy during the war as well as after the war in the United States.  After Eaker’s 1948 retirement the aircraft served several different roles with the USAF including the intriguing 1130th Special Activities Group in Asia.

After retirement in 1956, the B-17 went to Bolivia where it hauled freight as CP-627 and, when rebuilt following a crash and incorporating parts of another B-17, CP-891.  The plane was acquired by the March Field Museum in 1981 and was initially painted to represent B-17 42-30092 “2nd Patches” of the 346th Squadron, 99th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force in Tortorella, Italy, circa 1944.  The plane got its name from the large pieces of a natural-metal B-17 used to repair it after a crash in 1944.  Today the plane has been rebuilt back to bomber configuration and is marked as “Return to Glory.”  It still wears 15th Air Force markings but the new name and nose art are not authentic. 

B-17G 44-6787 “Cannon Ball”

Used as a VIP transport for an Air Force General John K. Cannon, commanding general of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe when Dick took this shot in the 1948-51 period, this B-17 took the name “Cannon Ball.”  Of interest on this aircraft are the propellers, which are a style associated with early B-17s, and not the fat paddle blades associated with almost all wartime and postwar aircraft. 

B-17G 44-8095

Delivered too late to see action, this B-17 ended up at Keesler Field as transport or possibly an instructional airframe, where Dick photographed it in 1947.  It was not preserved.

B-17G 44-8543 “Chuckie” “Madras Maiden”

This Lockheed-built B-17 was built too late to see combat but served in the USAF and later with civil U.S. agencies through 1959 as a research aircraft.  It was a freight hauler in the 1960s and a firefighting tanker in the 1970s.  By 1980 a Texas owner restored it to 832nd Bomb Squadron, 486th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force markings and began flying it to airshows, named “Chuckie” after his wife.  After a brief stint in Virginia with the Military Aviation Museum, N3071G was acquired in 2013 by the Erickson Collection and has been repainted as “Madras Maiden”, Madras being the location of that collection. 

B-17G 44-8846 “Pink Lady”

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B-17G 44-83514 “Sentimental Journey”

Commemorative Air Force.

B-17G 44-83542 “Piccadilly Princess”

Fantasy of Flight.

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B-17G 44-83546 “The Movie Memphis Belle”

After retiring in 1982 from service as a fire tanker, N3703G was acquired by California collector David Tallichet and restored in military colors as seen in the first photos in this gallery.  In the early 1990s it was flown to England to participate in the filming of the feature film “Memphis Belle,” and it has retained its movie paint throughout its subsequent career as an airshow warbird.  Currently it is on loan from the Tallichet estate to the 1941 Historical Aircraft Group at Geneseo, New York.

B-17G 44-83559 “King Bee”

Strategic Air & Space Museum. 

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B-17G 44-83563 “Fuddy Duddy”

Lyon Air Museum’s B-17 N9563Z, based in Orange County, California, was a cargo hauler and then a firefighting tanker from the 1960s to the 1980s.  After some years delighting airshow crowds near its bases in upstate New York with the National War Museum, it was acquired by Lyon in 2006.

B-17G 44-83575 “Nine-O-Nine”

Collings Foundation.

B-17G 44-83624 “Sleepy Time Gal”

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B-17G 44-83684 “Piccadilly Lily”

Planes of Fame.

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B-17G 44-83735 “Mary Alice”

The Imperial War Museum’s B-17 is in its American Air Museum at Duxford.  It has undergone a refinishing since this 2000 photograph.

B-17G 44-83738 “Preston’s Pride”

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B-17G 44-83785 “Shady Lady”

Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum.

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B-17H 44-83793

The B-17H was a model of B-17 converted to air-sea rescue configuration.  Dick must have taken this photo after 1954, because there are T-34 trainers visible in the background which did not enter service until that date, and the “O-” (obsolete) prefix to the tail number was not implemented until 1954.  The Fortress appears to be in the mostly red paint scheme of a QB-17 remotely piloted drone aircraft, but I have not seen a record of this particular B-17 being used in that program.  B-17 historian Dave Tarrant tells me that these photos are the first evidence that 44-83793 was converted to a drone, in which role it was likely shot down as a target later in the 1950s. 

B-17G 44-85693

This B-17 was assigned to France Field in the Panama Canal Zone, where Dick photographed it taking off in early 1948.  It was not preserved.

B-17G 44-85702 “Super Stud”

Base hack and general transport at France Field in the Panama Canal Zone, “Super Stud” was scrapped in 1950.

B-17G 44-85718 “Thunder Bird”

Lone Star Flight Museum.

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B-17G 44-85740 “Chief Oshkosh” “Aluminum Overcast”

Registered N5017N, the Experimental Aircraft Association‘s B-17 was donated in 1980 after retiring as a sprayer. 

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B-17G 44-85778 “Miss Angela”

Palm Springs Air Museum.

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B-17G 44-85784 “Sally B”

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B-17 G 44-83872 “Texas Raider”

This B-17 went to the Navy PB-1W, serial 77235, then flew in civilian life as N7227C.  The Commemorative Air Force acquired it in the 1960s and it has been a stalwart of the collection ever since.  It is marked as an aircraft of the 533rd Squadron, 381st Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, based at Ridgewell, a village near the English coast northwest of Colchester.

B-17G 44-85828 “I’ll Be Around”

After serving with the Coast Guard at the end of its military career, this B-17 was registered N9323R and experienced the typical trajectory of being used as a transport and then a firefighting tanker.  In 1980 it flew a short distance from its last firefighting base to the Pima Air and Space Museum, which has restored it in the markings of the 390th Bomb Group and the serial 42-31892.

B-17G 44-85829 “Yankee Lady”

Michigan-based B-17 N3193G visits many eastern U.S. airshows under the care of the Yankee Air Museum.  The red tail with the triangle-L represents the 381st Bomb Group based at Ridgewell, England, with the codes GD signifying the 534th Bomb Squadron.  The Yankee Lady name and nose art are inauthentic, made up to fit the museum’s yankee theme.  Yankee Lady is the highest-serialled and likely latest-built B-17 survivor worldwide, delivered only in August 1945, even after the surrender of Japan.  After the war it was used for photographic surveying and then fire-fighting.  Yankee Air Museum completed this beautiful restoration in 1995. 

Modeling Notes (with links to targeted eBay searches):  The Academy range of B-17s in 1/72 scale runs from the early, small-tailed B-17B all the way through the B-17G.  While not perfectly accurate, they are as good as any others on the market.  The runner-up, Hasegawa, has a few accuracy issues also and is available only in the F and G versions.  In 1/48 scale, the Monogram B-17G from the 1970s was a wonderful example of that company at the top of its game, with a full interior.  Less good, but still buildable is the 1/48 Revell B-17F.  In 1/144, you can get a partly-built B-17G from F-Toys or a B-17F from CafeReo; there is also an old Crown/Minicraft B-17G that is better left alone.


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