In the lead-up to World War II, the U.S. Army Air Corps requested a large, multiengine bomber capable of high-altitude, daylight bombing missions. In response to this need, Boeing financed and designed the B-17 Flying Fortress, which –like many aircraft during World War II– was designed, prototyped, and tested in less than 12 months.
The first B-17 model, designed by E. Gifford Emery and Edward Curtis Wells, was powered by four engines and flew at a speed of 252 miles per hour, easily surpassing its competition. When Boeing first tested the B-17 prototype in 1935, Seattle Times reporter Richard Smith coined the name, the “Flying Fortress.” Boeing was quick to trademark and use the name, which accurately reflected the B-17’s massive size and powerful military capabilities.
It was the first Boeing with the large, distinctive tail for improved control and aerodynamics during high-altitude bombing. It also featured a flight deck instead of an open cockpit, and later models were armed with up to 4,800 pounds of bombs and nine .30-caliber machine guns.
The B-17 first saw combat in 1941, when the British Royal Air Force used several for high-altitude missions. As World War II intensified, B-17s were modified to carry more weaponry and were used by the Air Corps against the Japanese in dangerous mid-air fights as well as carrying out daylight bombing raids over Germany.
The Fortresses mainly flew in formation, and became legendary for their ability to remain in flight even after suffering severe damage to their engines and exteriors.
The B-17 also holds a reputation as an effective bomber after dropping over 640,000 tons of bombs, more than any other U.S. aircraft in World War II.
Throughout the war, the Flying Fortress served as a symbol for the United States’ success in air power. The government commissioned 12,731 units from 1935-1945. After WWII ended, the B-17 was retired from military use, although a few were later used for air-sea rescue and photo-reconnaissance.