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The B-17 Flying Fortress, Part 2 – Crew

B-17G Aluminum Overcast owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association, Buchanan Field, Concord, CA, 2 May 2011 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

B-17G Aluminum Overcast owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association, Buchanan Field, Concord, CA, 2 May 2011 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Few World War II airplanes have captured the imagination like the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. I’ve enjoyed walking through many of these planes, and in 2011 I had the awesome privilege of flying in the Experimental Aircraft Association‘s Aluminum Overcast. You can read about my flight and watch a video here.

To celebrate the brand-new audio book version of my debut novel, A Distant Melody (Revell Books, 2010), I’ll feature the legendary Flying Fortress – a starring side character in the Wings of Glory series.  Yesterday I talked about the plane and today I’ll discuss the crew.

**GIVEAWAY** For a chance to win one of two audio book codes for A Distant Melody, please leave a comment below. You can earn two entries by commenting on both posts (B-17 Flying Fortress and B-17 Crew). Giveaway ends Sunday, March 15, 2020 at 10 pm Pacific Time. I’ll announce the winners on my blog on Monday, March 16, 2020.

Crew Loyalty

Both the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator were used by the United States Army Air Force as long-rage, high-altitude, four-engine heavy bombers. A friendly rivalry grew between crews of the “Fort” and the “Lib.” On paper, the B-24 seems to be the winner, with a higher speed, larger bomb load, and longer range. But fans of the B-17 not only liked its graceful lines and the ability to fly at higher altitudes, but its ruggedness. While the B-24 had a tendency to break up when ditching at sea, the B-17 was more likely to stay intact, and the survival rate from ditching was far higher in the B-17.

All-American, a B-17F almost severed in half by a collision over Tunisia. The pilot compensated for the lost and damaged controls and brought the plane home. Miraculously, even the tail gunner survived. (US Air Force photo)

All-American, a B-17F almost severed in half by a collision over Tunisia. The pilot compensated for the lost and damaged controls and brought the plane home. Miraculously, even the tail gunner survived. (US Air Force photo)

The Flying Fortress could take lots of damage and still get the crew home. The photo above shows the All-American, a B-17F almost severed in half by a collision over Tunisia. The pilot compensated for the lost and damaged controls and brought the plane home. Miraculously, even the tail gunner survived. Numerous stories like this brought fierce loyalty from B-17 crews.

B-17F of US 94th Bomb Group over Marienburg, Germany, 9 October 1943 (US National Archives)

B-17F of US 94th Bomb Group over Marienburg, Germany, 9 October 1943 (US National Archives)

Over time, the B-24 became favored in the Pacific for its range and bomb load, while the B-17 became the heavy bomber of choice in the European Theater.

The Crew in the Cockpit

Cutaway diagram of a B-17G Flying Fortress (Sarah Sundin)

Cutaway diagram of a B-17G Flying Fortress (Sarah Sundin)

This cutaway view of a B-17G shows the positions of the ten crew members.

The pilot and copilot sat at position #1 in the cockpit. Both started as lieutenants. The pilot also served as crew commander, in charge of discipline and morale. The copilot assisted the pilot in flying the plane and could take control if the pilot was disabled. During a mission, the copilot took responsibility for interphone communications with the rest of the crew.

Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress cockpit at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress cockpit at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Just behind the pilots stood the flight engineer/top turret gunner (position #4). A technical sergeant, this man knew the plane’s operating systems extremely well and took responsibility for repairs in flight. In combat he operated the top turret gun.

Crew in the Nose Compartment

Close-up view of nose of Collings Foundation B-17G Nine-O-Nine, Buchanan Field, Concord, CA, June 2013 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Close-up view of nose of Collings Foundation B-17G Nine-O-Nine, Buchanan Field, Concord, CA, June 2013 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

The nose compartment was separated from the cockpit by a narrow crawlway. The navigator, a lieutenant, sat at a desk at position #3, where he carefully charted the plane’s position and course using dead reckoning, pilotage, radio aids, and even celestial navigation. Although B-17s flew in large formations, each plane had to be able to find its way to the target and home if separated from the group. In combat, the navigator was responsible for the left cheek gun (in the B-17F) and for both cheek guns in later models of the B-17F and in the B-17G.

The bombardier also served in the nose compartment (position #2). A lieutenant, the bombardier was responsible for loading the bombs on the ground, arming the bombs in flight, and most importantly, for accurately aiming and dropping the bombs. He operated the Norden bombsight, a complicated piece of machinery that took into account the plane’s speed, wind speed and direction, and drift to more precisely hit the target. Later in the war, fewer bombardiers were trained, and a “togglier” served in most planes. The togglier released the bomb on the signal of the lead aircraft in the formation but did not operate the Norden. The bombardier operated the right cheek gun in the B-17F, the nose gun in the later B-17F models, and the chin turret guns in the B-17G.

Crew in the Radio Compartment

Heading back from the cockpit, we walk through the bomb bay along a narrow aluminum catwalk. On either side, racks hold bombs on the way to the target.

Behind the bomb bay sits the radio compartment, home of the radio operator (position #5), a technical sergeant in charge of the multiple radio communication and navigation devices on board the plane. In some models, the radio room contained a machine gun, which fired out of the roof to the rear. However, vision was limited and most groups did without the extra weight of this gun.

Close-up view of Collings Foundation B-17G Nine-O-Nine, showing (L to R) the waist guns (center) and ball turret (below), open bomb bay doors, top turret. Buchanan Field, Concord, CA, June 2013 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Close-up view of Collings Foundation B-17G Nine-O-Nine, showing (L to R) the waist guns (center) and ball turret (below), open bomb bay doors, top turret. Buchanan Field, Concord, CA, June 2013 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

Gunners in the Waist, Belly, and Tail

Four staff sergeants manned the guns in the ball or belly turret (position #6), to the left and right in the waist compartment (position #7), and in the tail turret (position #8). In addition to constantly watching for enemy fighter planes, these gunners also monitored the positions and condition of other planes in the formation. The ball turret was a cramped location, so the smallest crew member usually took this station.

My youngest son manning the waist gun in the Collings Foundation B-17G Nine-O-Nine, Buchanan Field, Concord, CA, June 2013 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

My youngest son manning the waist gun in the Collings Foundation B-17G Nine-O-Nine, Buchanan Field, Concord, CA, June 2013 (Photo: Sarah Sundin)

If you ever have the opportunity to walk through a B-17 – or fly in one! – imagine ten men at their stations, all wearing heavy high-altitude flight gear, including parachutes, life vests, and flak vests. Then imagine them at -40 degrees with flak and fighters in all directions. You’ll gain a deep appreciation for what our veterans did for the sake of freedom.

Today in World War II History—March 11, 1940 & 1945

British poster, WWII

British poster, WWII

80 Years Ago—March 11, 1940: Off Wilhelmshaven, British Blenheim bombers sink German U-boat U-31, which will be refloated only to be sunk again, the only U-boat to be sunk twice in WWII.

Britain begins meat rationing—each person to receive 1 shilling, 10 pence worth per week (about one pound); chicken, game, sausage, and meat pies are not rationed.

75 Years Ago—Mar. 11, 1945: Seventy German POWs escape from a camp at Bridgend, Wales—all will be recaptured by March 17.

US Navy begins using LCVP landing craft to ferry US Army troops across the Rhine at Remagen, Germany.

Emperor Bao Dai of Nguyen Dynasty declares Vietnamese independence from France, with Japanese support.

The B-17 Flying Fortress, Part 1

B-17G Flying Fortress Shoo Shoo Baby of the 91st Bomb Group (USAF Museum)

B-17G Flying Fortress Shoo Shoo Baby of the 91st Bomb Group (USAF Museum)

Few World War II airplanes have captured the imagination like the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. I’ve enjoyed walking through many of these planes, and in 2011 I had the awesome privilege of flying in the Experimental Aircraft Association‘s Aluminum Overcast. You can read about my flight and watch a video here.
To celebrate the brand-new audio book version of my debut novel, A Distant Melody (Revell Books, 2010), I’ll feature the legendary Flying Fortress – a starring side character in the Wings of Glory series. Today I’ll talk about the plane and tomorrow about the crew.
**GIVEAWAY** For a chance to win one of two audio book codes for A Distant Melody, please leave a comment below. You can earn two entries by commenting on both posts (B-17 Flying Fortress and B-17 Crew). Giveaway ends Sunday, March 15, 2020 at 10 pm Pacific Time. I’ll announce the winners on my blog on Monday, March 16, 2020.

Development

In 1935, the US Army called for a multi-engine, long-range, high-altitude heavy bomber. On July 17, 1935, Boeing introduced Model 299, which made its maiden flight on July 28, exceeding Army specifications. With plenty of machine guns, it was dubbed the “Flying Fortress” by a reporter. Although Model 299 crashed on an early flight, Boeing received a contract to develop the YB-17 in 1936.

Wreck of B-17C bomber at Hickam Field, Territory of Hawaii, 7 Dec 1941 (US National Archives)

Wreck of B-17C bomber at Hickam Field, Territory of Hawaii, 7 Dec 1941 (US National Archives)

Improvements were made with each successive model – the B-17B in October 1939, the B-17C in July 1940, and the B-17D in February 1941. The C and D models were involved in America’s entry into World War II – shot up on the ground in Hawaii and the Philippines and flying early bombing missions. Since a squadron of twelve B-17Ds was expected in Pearl Harbor early on December 7, 1941, when radar showed the approaching Japanese planes, the officer in charge dismissed the warning. Read the story here.

Combat Models

The B-17E rolled out in September 1941, the first model to sport the distinctive bell-shaped vertical stabilizer (tail fin). This model was used in the Eighth Air Force’s first combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe in late 1942. Further refinements led to the F model in August 1942. One of the most famous B-17Fs was the Memphis Belle, the first plane and crew to finish 25 missions in Europe.

Boeing B-17E in flight, 1942. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Boeing B-17E in flight, 1942. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Since no one expected dangerous head-on fighter attacks, the F model had weaker .30 caliber guns in the nose rather than the .50 caliber guns used in the rest of the plane. In addition, the nose guns could not be trained to twelve o’clock. The Luftwaffe quickly discovered this deficiency and adopted head-on attacks with devastating results to the Eighth Air Force. Desperation and ingenuity led airmen to shatter holes in the nose of the plane and suspend a .50 caliber gun with racks and retractable cords. Later B-17Fs incorporated a factory-installed .50 caliber nose gun and eventually a chin turret with two .50 caliber guns.

B-17 Memphis Belle and her crew, May 1943 (USAF Photo)

B-17 Memphis Belle and her crew, May 1943 (USAF Photo)

The last and most common model, the B-17G, entered combat in September 1943, but further refinements were made throughout the war.

Specifications

With a wing span of 103 feet and a length of 74 feet, the B-17G cut a graceful figure. Powered by four Wright R-1820 Cyclone engines, it could carry a crew of ten and a bomb load of up to 8000 pounds (but less on long-distance missions). The B-17G had a top speed of 302 mph and a ceiling of 36,400 feet. Depending on the model and theater of operations, B-17s carried ten to thirteen machine guns.

The B-17 was the first plane to use turbo-superchargers, which boosted engine performance at high altitude. The plane also featured the Norden bombsight, a complicated piece of machinery that allowed the bombardier to compensate for airspeed, wind speed, and drift when bombing. Purported to drop a bomb in a pickle-barrel, the Norden never reached that accuracy in combat, but did allow successful high-altitude, daylight strategic bombing.

Today in World War II History—March 10, 1945

Amphibious landing area, Zamboanga Peninsula, March 1945. (US Army Center of Military History)

Amphibious landing area, Zamboanga Peninsula, March 1945. (US Army Center of Military History)

75 Years Ago—March 10, 1945: British and Canadians clear the west bank of the Rhine in their sectors.

German navy completes evacuation of Danzig and Gdynia.

US Eighth Army lands at Zamboanga on Mindanao in the Philippines.

Today in World War II History—March 9, 1940 & 1945

Tokyo, Japan in ruins after aerial bombing, circa 10 Mar 1945 (Photographer: Kouyou Ishikawa; public domain via WW2 Database)

Tokyo, Japan in ruins after aerial bombing, circa 10 Mar 1945 (Photographer: Kouyou Ishikawa; public domain via WW2 Database)

80 Years Ago—March 9, 1940: French military intelligence takes possession of supply of heavy water at Norsk Hydro plant in Telemark, Norway with permission of Norwegians.

New song in Top Ten: “When You Wish upon a Star” from Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.

75 Years Ago—Mar. 9, 1945: On the night of March 9-10, US B-29s launch first major nighttime, low-altitude incendiary raid on Tokyo—97,000 are killed in the most destructive air attack of the entire war.

On Iwo Jima, US Marines repulse a large banzai suicide attack and reach the far coast, dividing Japanese forces.

At Fort Devens, MA, black Women’s Army Corps orderlies at the hospital go on strike to protest the lack of opportunity for technical training; 4 women choose to face court-martial for mutiny.

Today in World War II History—March 8, 1940 & 1945

US Navy Cdr. Thomas Gaylord administering oath to nurses commissioned in New York, 8 Mar 1945; Phyllis Mae Daley, US Navy’s first African-American nurse, second from right. (US National Archives: 80-G-4836)

US Navy Cdr. Thomas Gaylord administering oath to nurses commissioned in New York, 8 Mar 1945; Phyllis Mae Daley, US Navy’s first African-American nurse, second from right. (US National Archives: 80-G-4836)

80 Years Ago—March 8, 1940: Off the Dominican Republic, British light cruiser Dunedin and Canadian destroyer Assiniboine capture German freighter Hannover, violating Pan-American Neutrality; Hannover will become the first British escort carrier, HMS Audacity.

75 Years Ago—Mar. 8, 1945: German commandos from the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands raid Granville, Normandy at night and free 55 German POWs and capture 30 Americans.

Nazis kill 262 Dutch prisoners & civilians in reprisal for March 6 resistance attack at Woeste Hoeve.

US Navy swears in its first black nurse, Phyllis Daley.

Today in World War II History—March 7, 1945

Ludendorff Railroad Bridge at Remagen, Germany, March 1945 (US Army Center of Military History)

Ludendorff Railroad Bridge at Remagen, Germany, March 1945 (US Army Center of Military History)

75 Years Ago—March 7, 1945: US First Army seizes the intact Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine at Remagen; 8000 troops cross the first day.

The Ohio River floods Pittsburgh and Louisville, slowing war production.

Today in World War II History—March 6, 1945

Navy Ensign Jane Kendeigh, the first flight nurse to arrive on Iwo Jima. (US Marine Corps photo)

Navy Ensign Jane Kendeigh, the first flight nurse to arrive on Iwo Jima. (US Marine Corps photo)

75 Years Ago—March 6, 1945: US First Army takes Cologne (Köln), Germany; in retreat, Germans destroy the Hohenzollern Bridge.

Germans launch offensive to retake Hungarian oil fields—will have partial, temporary success.

Dutch resistance ambushes a truck at Woeste Hoeve, injuring Hanns Rauter, head of the Dutch SS.

Medical evacuation flights begin from Iwo Jima, but come under artillery fire; for first time ever, a flight nurse (Ens. Jane Kendeigh, Navy Nurse Corps) flies into an active battlefield.

Demolished Hohenzollern Bridge at Cologne, Germany, March 1945 (US Army Center of Military History)

Demolished Hohenzollern Bridge at Cologne, Germany, March 1945 (US Army Center of Military History)

Today in World War II History—March 5, 1940 & 1945

80 Years Ago—March 5, 1940: USSR declares Polish officers are enemies and sentences them to death; this will lead to the Katyn Massacre.

75 Years Ago—Mar. 5, 1945: German Army begins conscripting fifteen-year-old boys.

Today in World War II History—March 4, 1940 & 1945

“Kearsarge Pinnacles,” Kings Canyon circa 1930s. (Photo by Ansel Adams, US National Archives: 79-AAH-7)

“Kearsarge Pinnacles,” Kings Canyon circa 1930s. (Photo by Ansel Adams, US National Archives: 79-AAH-7)

80 Years Ago—March 4, 1940: Kings Canyon National Park is established in California.

B-29 Superfortress bomber ‘Dinah Might’ after making an emergency landing at Motoyama Airfield No. 1, Iwo Jima, 4 Mar 1945 (US Marine Corps photo: 112392)

B-29 Superfortress bomber ‘Dinah Might’ after making an emergency landing at Motoyama Airfield No. 1, Iwo Jima, 4 Mar 1945 (US Marine Corps photo: 112392)

75 Years Ago—Mar. 4, 1945: A B-29 Superfortress lands at Iwo Jima, the first of 2400 B-29s to use the airfields for emergency landings.

British Fourteenth Army takes Meiktila, Burma.