The B-17 Flying Fortress, Part 2 – Crew
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.
The legendary Flying Fortress is a starring side character in the Wings of Glory series. Yesterday I talked about the plane and today I’ll discuss the crew.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Your books bring the history to life and makes me feels like I’m right there with the characters.
Thank you for this oppportunity! I really enjoy listening to your books on audio.
Sarah, thank you for the pictures of these planes. Just looking at all that equipment makes my head spin. To think that young men were flying these airplanes successfully definitely makes my respect for them rise significantly.
I love your,I would love to be able to revist these books via audio .
Very interesting! I’m so happy this book is available on audio!
I enjoy WWII era books both fiction and nonfiction. Sarah Sundin does a wonderful job of research and pulling me right into the story, when I start a book of hers I can’t put it down. The B-17 was an awesome plane and I enjoy the books about it.
If you enjoy books about the B-17, be sure to read A Higher Call by Adam Makos
I love your books and I’m so glad there will now be audio versions!
I enjoy the WWII era stories both fiction and nonfiction. This generationof people overcame and adapted. The crews of the B-17 were some of the best at this.
This is one of my favorites! That first scene on the train? Perfection. Your research, as always, is impeccable!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading A Distant Melody several years ago and would enjoy listening to the audio.
A non-fiction book that is one my all time favorites is A Higher Call by Adam Makos
Thanks so much for this tour and info about the B-17 and B-24’s ! Gave me a new perspective on what it must have been like to be in one.
Thanks for this great article!!! My cousin Bud Rose flew his P-51 mustang (named Rosebud!) to support and protect the B-17’s on their bombing missions over Europe. He became an ace and thankfully came back home safely to finish his career in the Air Force as a Colonel at the Pentagon, retiring in the 80’s. Sadly, he passed away in 2012, and to my knowledge didn’t speak about his service during the war (as many were reluctant to do) Thank you, Sarah, for keeping the history of this time alive!
I love Sarah’s books! I would love to have the audiobooks to listen to on my commute to and from work. Being a mom of three and a nurse that works full time, my commute seems like my only time I have to “read!”
I never realized how many crew members there would be on a B-17. I enjoyed looking through your photos and reading the details provided about each. Thank you for another chance to win the audio version of “A Distant Melody”!
Love your books. Because I love and enjoy History and the way you present it in your books is Amazing.
Your historical fiction honors and teaches.
Thank you for sharing your experiences and your stories!
Ok, I watched the video and it gave me chills. I am so amazed at the people and machinery it took to win that war.
Thank you for letting us fly along with you!
I hadn’t realized I could be so fascinated by a military plane! Thanks for explaining each of the crews positions.
I’m thankful for all of those who served for our freedom!
Such cool history! Thank you for all your research and photos.
I love how all the research you do comes through in your stories!
Thank you for all that you share and make history come alive! Would love to win a print book!
Sarah, planes and crews aren’t my area of expertise at all. But I love how you work them in so meaningfully to the human story. History is important and writing about it realistically helps readers learn while being entertained. Dana
Saw a B17 at the Air Force Armament Museum, Elgin AFB, a couple years ago. Very impressive!
This is so interesting I love learning about the different equipment and vehicles that were used in the war it must be better near to do research for your books. I love audio books thanks for the chance.
Thanks for all the wonderful information!!!
What a fantastic post! I’ve seen one of these before and they’re such incredible pieces of machinery. I can’t wait to hear this one on audiobook!
Thank you for sharing the details. Very interesting!
Wow! Thank you, Sarah, for sharing about the B-17 crew. I had never read about this before. 10 men at their bombing/firing stations, the elements and conditions they flew in, the risks involved, the tiny quarters they were restricted too, the skills that were required…it surely does give me a deep appreciation for what our veterans did for the sake of freedom. Thank you for the chance to win an audio book copy of A Distant Melody!
Something even more amazing about the crews of these planes? Think back to 25 years earlier, when planes were so flimsy and small that many pilots didn’t even have parachutes. If their plane was hit, they’d bought it. How much technological changes had taken place in about two decades! And how much information the crew members were tasked with learning and applying!
I enjoyed your article about the B-17 Crew, and thank you for the opportunity to win the audio book of “A Distant Melody”.
Wow, I don’t think I would like to be in the nose! I’ve read a little of the description before but your photo brings it to life. Thanks for the chance to win!
Sarah, I loved this book and I’ve read the series.
I love all your books. I would love to win the audiobook, I have the ebook.
Thanks for the opportunity.
I am very excited to learn some history of the B-17
I love your books. The info on the B-17 and her crew was wonderful. My father-in-law was a pilot for a B-17 in WWII so this series was like getting a peek into his life since he died before I entered the family.
My boys put together a model of the B-17 that was really a special project for them to share.
Thank you for the great article. The pictures are fantastic.
I’m so excited to listen to another one of your books ❤
Love seeing the pictures.
I keep hoping for more audiobook selections. I was sad they didn’t offer enough of your books that way. Love them for road trips
Thanks for sharing with us all.
Love the History that you post. So happy that your books will be on audio!
Thank you for the pictures and video showing what life inside a B-17 was like. I had a chance to walk through a Lancaster bomber as a teenager, and I haven’t forgotten the experience. It gave me a deep appreciation for the veterans of Canada and what they went through. I am thankful to be able to learn more about what American veterans went through, and I admire the men and women who served in Canada’s and the US’ s armed forces. They gave us the right to live in freedom, and continue to defend that right today. Thank you men and women in the forces!
I love love love all of your books! Thank you for all the time and care you put into each book to make it so historically accurate as well as so absolutely engaging to read. I always feel as if I am a part of the story! I think this series is one of my favorites if only because it was one of the first I read of yours, and then I kept watch for any and all books to come out next! Please keep writing! We will all keep reading!
Love the history!