On July 28, 1935, the plane that would become the B-17 “Flying Fortress” first took to the skies.
Immediately, the plane started breaking records.
An icon of World War II, the aircraft gained an ironclad reputation for both its staggering offensive output in addition to its durability and resilience in the heat of battle.
“Without the B-17 we may have lost the war,” said US World War II General Carl Spaatz.
For 10 years, the B-17 was the main bomber that flew over Europe.
Relive the legacy of this iconic American warplane from a prototype to its eventual enshrinement in military museums in the slides below.
The Boeing Model 299, which would later be known as the B-17, was built as part of a United States Army Air Corps (precursor to the Air Force) competition to create a bomber that could fly faster than 200 mph, with 2,000 lbs of bombs, and a range of over 1,020 miles.
The development of the 299 was completely paid for by Boeing with no reimbursement promised from the US government. The competition and the sunk costs represented a make or break trail for the young aircraft manufacturer, Boeing.
Despite a record-setting 2,100 mile flight from Seattle to Ohio, Boeing lost the competition after crashing the prototype due to a technical error.
However, as war brewed in Europe, the need for a long-range strategic bomber like the B-17 became apparent. In 1940 twenty B-17s were delivered to Britain's Royal Air Force, which were hastily deployed and performed poorly.
The tail of the aircraft was then reinforced to sturdy the ride at high altitudes, additional 50 calibre machine guns were added to turrets behind and below the aircraft to defend against fighter planes during bombing missions. The result was the B-17E, or the 'Big Arse.'
The B-17E was the first mass-produced model of the plane. It featured nine turret-mounted machine guns, heavy armament, and could carry up to 4,000 pounds in bombs. Each newer version that came along would be more and more heavily armed.
The various version of the B-17 flew with a crew of about 10 airmen, who praised the plane for its ability to withstand heavy fire, even losing engines, and still complete missions with no casualties to the passengers. The unsung heroes of this operation were the ground crews and mechanics, who routinely made tattered B-17s safe again and again.
Over the course of the war, B-17s dropped 640,036 tons of bombs over Europe in daylight raids alone, mainly targeting Axis airfields and arms factories.
The name 'Flying Fortress' refers to the many machine gun turrets located along the sides, top, front, tail, and bottom of the aircraft, which would help defend the plane from enemy fighter planes.
Thanks to its many turrets, the B-17 was over twice as effective at downing enemy aircraft compared to similar bombers of the time. The famed 91st Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force alone confirmed 420 enemy planes shot down, 238 were probably destroyed, and 127 were damaged.
Today, fewer than 100 B-17 air frames are in operational condition. Towards the end of World War II, the B-29 Super fortress would begin to take over, and later the B-52, but the B-17 remains an indelible symbol of the US war effort that cost so much to so many.
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