Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress History

In service from beginning to end of the U.S. participation in World War Two, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was evolved in 1934 for a USAAC design competition for an offshore anti-shipping bomber. In 1935 the prototype was completed, as the Boeing 299, and flew for the first time on 28 July 1935, powered by four 750 hp Pratt & Whitney Hornet engines. A change of powerplant, to 1,000 hp Wright Cyclones, was specified for the thirteen Y1B-17s and one Y1B-17A that were then ordered for evaluation; after trials, these were placed in service as the B-17 and B-17A respectively.

The initial Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress production batch comprised thirty-nine B-17Bs, with modified nose, larger rudder and internal improvements. They were followed by thirty-eight B-17Cs (higher-powered Cyclones and revised armament), twenty of which were supplied to the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1941 as the Fortress Mk I. The B-17D, forty-two of which were ordered for the USAAF, was generally similar, and most American B-17Cs were later converted to D standard. It was the B-17E which first introduced the huge, sail-like fin and rudder that characterised all subsequent Fortresses, and the much-improved defensive armament on this model included, for the first time, a tail gun turret to cover the blind spot to the rear of the bomber. Five hundred and twelve B-17Es were built by Boeing, including forty-five which became the Fortress IIA of the RAF.

American B-17Es, serving in the United Kingdom, made the first raids on European targets by the U.S. Eighth Air Force in August 1942, and this Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress version also served extensively in the Pacific theatre. The next model, the B-17F, was sub-contracted to Douglas and Lockheed-Vega factories which, with Boeing, built three thousand four hundred and five. Nineteen of these were converted to F-9 series photographic reconnaissance aircraft. The same three companies combined to build eight thousand six hundred and eighty examples of the last production model, the B-17G; eighty-five of these became Fortress IIIs with RAF Coastal Command and ten others were converted to F-9Cs. The B-17G was characterised chiefly by its ‘chin’ turret with two additional 0.50 in machine-guns, a feature later added to many B-17s in service.

The Fortress’s principal sphere of activity during World Ward Two was in Europe, where the E, F, and G B-17 models were the mainstay of the U.S. heavy day bomber attacks on enemy targets.

After the war came other photo, training, drone-director, search/rescue and research Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress versions, including many used as engine and equipment testbeds. In 1970, 25 years after first flight, one of many civil Forts used for agricultural or forest-fire protection was re-engined with Dart turboprops!

Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Specifications
Aircraft Type:
bomber airplane
wingspan: 103 ft, 9 in
length: 74 ft, 4 in
height: 19 ft, 1 in
empty: 36,135 lb
gross: 65,500 lb
Power plant:
4 × 1,200 hp Wright Cyclone R-1820 supercharged radial engines
maximum speed: 287 mph
ceiling: 35,600 ft
maximum range: 3,400 mi
13 × 0.50 in calibre machine guns
4,000 lb of bombs
Service dates:


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