On August 20, 1935, the first B-17 flew from Seattle to Wright Field, Ohio, in 9 hours and 3 minutes to compete for the Army Air Corps strategic bomber contract. With an average cruising speed of 252 miles per hour, the prototype B-17 was much better than the others and Maj Gen Frank Andrews suggested an order of 65 aircraft after only witnessing the first flight. Andrews believed the Boeing model was best suited to implement the new strategic daylight bombing doctrine. However, tragedy struck on the second flight of the competition. On October 30, the flying fortress took off and immediately entered a steep climb. The high angle of attack eventually led to a stall and crash onto the airfield grounds. The pilots had forgotten to disengage the gust, or elevator locks. Shortly after this, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Malin Craig cancelled the Boeing order. In the subsequent investigation the Boeing team realized the complexity of aircraft had become too great for pilots to manage unassisted by standards and protocol. Thus was born the first pre-flight checklist and this was quickly adopted across the Army Air Corps.
A year and a half later the Army Air Corps hosted test flights of a redesigned B-17 called the Y1B-17. The new aircraft was mostly the same except powered by the much larger Wright R-1820 engines and a redesigned landing gear. On December 7th, 1936, five days after its first flight, the new Y1B-17 suffered a mechanical failure on landing causing the brakes to fuse and collapsing the nose gear. While no one was killed, the accident initiated a congressional investigation that nearly ended the program.
After a couple more years of testing the B-17 went into production and entered the US Army Aircorp in the early 1940s.
The B17 was built by Boeing from the mid 1930s until 1945 with the first entering the US Army Air Corp in 1941, although there were a few early reconnaissance missions that used early versions of the aircraft.
More than 12,000 were built. Most were manufactured at the Boeing factory in Seattle but about 2,750 were built by Vega airplane corporation at Burbank airport and another 3000 were built at the Douglas factory in Long Beach California. If you ever fly out of Burbank and you park in the main parking garage you’re sitting on top of the old B17 assembly line!
Today there are only a handful flying and we just lost one last year to an unfortunate accident in October 2019. Seven lives were tragically lost during an engine-out emergency landing that fell short of the runway.
Flying to B-17’s from KMYF
There are several local options for fly-in B-17 viewing. The Sentimental Journey, at Falcon Field, is currently the only airworthy B-17 in the Southwest region and rides are available by appointment with the Commemorative Airforce (https://www.azcaf.org/plane/b17g-flying-fortress/).
KSNA, Lyon Air Museum “Fuddy Duddy”
KCNO, Planes of Fame Air Museum “Piccadilly Lilly II”
KMER, Castle Air Museum “Virgin’s Delight”
KRIV, March Field Air Museum “Starduster”
KFFZ, CAF “Sentimental Journey”
KPSP, Palm Springs Air Museum