A brief history of the B-17

America’s “Flying Fortress”

Few military aircraft have as storied a history as the B-17 bomber. From the beginning of its design process in 1934 to its introduction in 1938, the B-17 was intended to be a rugged aircraft with exceptional range and endurance. Originally commissioned by the U.S. Army Air Corps to replace the Martin B-10, the B-17 was envisioned by Boeing President Claire Egtvedt as an “aerial battleship.” History proves he wasn’t far off the mark. With a cruising speed of 182 mph, a range of 2,000 miles, and a service ceiling in excess of 35,000 feet, the B-17 could fly faster, farther, and higher than any comparable aircraft. Many B-17s sustained damage in combat that would have completely destroyed lesser aircraft, but still managed to return home with their crews alive and intact.

Just as important as its ruggedness, the B-17 was designed for quick, easy, and high-volume manufacturing. Through 15 design advancements, a total of 12,731 B-17s were produced for the war effort, culminating in production of 8,680 B-17G models, the same design as the Lacey Lady. Sadly, almost all of these once-magnificent aircraft have been parted out or sent to an ignominious death on the scrap heap. There are fewer than 40 intact B-17s left in the United States and only a dozen of those are considered airworthy. That’s a big part of what makes restoration of the Lacey Lady so unique and important.

The B-17’s armament was as impressive as it was unprecedented. In its final design, the B-17 carried 13 .50-caliber M2 Browning machine guns in eight positions (two in the Bendix chin turret, two on the nose cheeks, two staggered waist guns, two in the upper Sperry turret, two in the Sperry ball turret in the belly, two in the tail, and one firing upwards from the radio compartment behind the bomb bay). The normal bomb payload was 8,000 pounds for short runs and 4,500 pounds for long runs, but could be extended to a whopping 17,600 pounds in exceptional circumstances. B-17s dropped more bombs than any other aircraft in World War II. Of the 1.65 million tons of bombs dropped on Germany by U.S. aircraft, 705,000 tons (43 percent) were dropped from B-17s.

With its impressive record in battle, it is no surprise that the B-17 has become an icon of the American war effort. Hollywood has featured the B-17 in numerous films, including Test Pilot with Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, Command Decision with Clark Gable, Air Force with John Garfield, and Twelve O’Clock High with Gregory Peck. While these fictionalized accounts are fun to watch, we encourage you to visit our restoration facility and experience firsthand the awe-inspiring magnificence of this incredible aircraft. While restoration is underway, you can also visit our library and learn the real story behind the B-17. We have more than 3000 vintage and contemporary works that detail virtually every aspect of the war and we look forward to sharing them with you.

Artists of the day had fun with the term “Flying Fortress” as shown in this whimsical cartoon. Source: Wikipedia.

One of the most stunning examples of a restored B-17 is the “Aluminum Overcast.” Owned by the Experimental Aircraft Association, restoration took more than 10 years. Since becoming airworthy in 1994, the aircraft has logged more than one million miles in its extensive touring schedule. Source: EAA

Another well-known restoration is the “Memphis Belle,” one of the first B-17 bombers to complete 25 missions with her crew intact. In 1940, one B-17 bomber cost a little over $200,000 to produce, or roughly $3 million in current dollars. Recreating the entire fleet of 12,731 B-17s today would cost more than $38 billion. Source: LF Lamb, Flickr.

The “Lacey Lady” as she appeared in 1989 while still suspended above McLoughlin Boulevard. No one said restoration will be easy, but as the “Aluminum Overcast” and “Memphis Belle” have proven, it CAN be done. All it takes is a little help from people like you. Source: Foundation archives.