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What is a B-17?

By Josie Myers
Updated May 23, 2024
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A B-17 is a single wing four engine aircraft that was used primarily during World War II. The model used for wartime had nine machine guns and 4,000 lbs (1,184 kg) of bombs. It was heavily armored to withstand the ever-increasing power of enemy fire.

The B-17 was originally called Model 299 and was the result of a United States Army Air Corp (USAAC) competition. The 1934 contest called for a replacement to the Keystone biplane bombers that were in service at the time. Boeing developed the B-17 based on the requirements of the competition: a range of at least 1,020 miles (1,641 km), with 2,200 miles (3,540 km) preferred ; a speed of at least 200 mph (322 km/h), with 250 mph (402 km/h) preferred; and the ability to carry at least 2,000 lbs (907 kg) of bombs.

When the B-17 was unveiled to the press, the armory so impressed them that it was dubbed the "Flying Fortress." The B-17 was armed not only with 4,000 lbs of bombs, but also with five .30-caliber machine guns that were contained within clear bubbles. Those who manned the bubble under the plane were called "belly gunners." Instead of the open cockpit that had been standard to previous Boeing planes, the Flying Fortress had a contained flight deck.

The British Royal Air Force was the first to use the B-17 for combat purposes. At the time, the United States had not yet been involved in the overseas conflicts and did not require the use of such heavily armed aircraft. By the time the United States entered World War II, the bomber was in large production and became an integral part of the United States military.

The ability to deliver both bombing efforts and precision gunning gave the B-17 a reputation as a killer, while its resilience was unmatched. The Japanese called it the "four-engine fighter" since most fighter planes had one to two engines. Reports from the field claimed that a B-17 would often return from a campaign with chunks blown away from the fuselage, but still in flight.

Aside from their deadly reputation, the B-17 played an important role in women's rights. The B-17 was the primary aircraft in use by the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots). More than 1,000 women were part of this elite group of pilots and delivered essential air support over the course of World War II.

There were nearly 13,000 B-17s produced between 1942 and 1945. Some of the most famous include Memphis Belle, Texas Raiders, and Nine-O-Nine. As of 2009, there were approximately 14 B-17s still in flying condition. Some were housed in museums while others toured the world as part of air shows and exhibitions.

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