The B-17 “Flying Fortress” is one of the most iconic aircraft of World War II. Built by Boeing, the four-engine bomber was the United States’ primary weapon of destruction in the air campaign to annihilate cities and bring Nazi Germany to its knees. Its combat performance was decidedly uneven, yet no one questions its primacy in the war.
The B-17E, the first mass-produced model, carried nine machine guns and a 4,000-pound bomb load. Its distinctive and enormous tail improved control and stability during high-altitude bombing. Crews loved its smoothness—“It flew like an overgrown Piper Cub,” said one pilot—and its ability to absorb enemy fire and keep flying.
“Without the B-17 we may have lost the war,” said General Carl Spaatz, commander of U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe.
Despite hundreds of hours of newsreel footage and its appearance in innumerable documentaries and big budget Hollywood films, however, no one has ever managed to capture what it was like to actually fly a mission in a B-17—dropping bombs on German cities while being attacked by Luftwaffe fighters and anti-aircraft fire.