The Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” is arguably the most recognizable aircraft of the Second World War. Made infamous by the daring daylight strategic bombing runs they carried out over Germany, more than 12,000 of these four-engined bombers were produced between 1939 and 1945. Thanks to the plane’s renowned survivability in battle, approximately 60% of them made it through the war and returned home to the United States, only to be rounded up in so-called “boneyards” where they were ultimately cut up and sold as scrap. Today there are fewer than 50 intact Boeing B-17s left in the world, and of those, only 11 remain airworthy.
One of them is Nine-O-Nine, a B-17G built in April 7, 1945. This particular aircraft was built too late to see any combat, although in the 1950s she was fitted with various instruments and exposed to three separate nuclear blasts for research purposes. It’s actually not the real Nine-O-Nine either, the original was scrapped after it completed eighteen bombing runs over Berlin. Without a combat record of its own, this bomber was painted to look like the real Nine-O-Nine in honor of its incredible service record of never losing a crewman.
Since 1986, Nine-O-Nine has been owned by the Collings Foundation, who operate her as a living history exhibit. The bomber flies around the United States with an entourage of similarly iconic WWII aircraft as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour, stopping by various airports and giving the public a chance to climb aboard and see the pinnacle of mid-1940s strategic bombing technology. History buffs with suitably deep pockets can even book a seat on one of the scheduled 30-minute flights that take place at every stop on the Tour.
I was lucky enough to have the The Wings of Freedom Tour pass through my area recently, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to experience this incredible aircraft first hand. The fact that I’m equal parts a coward and miser kept me from taking a ride aboard the 74 year old Nine-O-Nine, at least for now, but I made sure to take plenty of pictures from inside this lovingly restored B-17G while it was safely on the ground.
Entering the aircraft via a hatch in the nose, you’ll find yourself in a cramped mechanical compartment located beneath the cockpit. Here the ceiling is so low that sitting upright is impossible, and the only way to move around is by crawling around on your hands and knees.
There are myriad wires, cables, and hoses in this section, some of which have data plates explaining they were related to the B-17’s advanced (for the time) Norden gyroscopic bomb sight. In this section you’ll also see the first of many large yellow oxygen cylinders, the contents of which would have been pumped into the crew’s masks so they could survive flying at high altitudes in the unpressurized cabin.
From here you can peek into the nose of the B-17, which is where the bombardier and navigator would have worked. The navigator had his own wooden desk, complete with small articulated lamps that would have been used while scrutinizing the maps and fuel consumption charts necessary to figure out where the bomber was and how much time it had before it needed to turn back. The bombardier had what was essentially a small office chair anchored to the floor, where he would sit while looking down into the bomb sight. There was also a small panel that would have not only let the bombardier control functions such as opening and closing the bomb bay doors, but also displayed critical information such as airspeed and altitude.
Of course, both men would also have been responsible for manning the B-17’s defensive armament located in this compartment if the bomber found itself under attack. On either side of the nose there’s a .50 caliber M2 Browning machine gun that fires through a small forward-looking aperture, and directly below the bombardier’s seat there’s an externally mounted “chin” turret that could be remotely controlled from inside the aircraft. This electrically powered turret, designed by the Bendix Corporation, was made standard on the B-17G to fix a critical weak spot in the bomber’s otherwise excellent defensive capabilities.
Traveling through the crawlspace towards the rear of the aircraft, you can step up to the Flight Deck. This is where the engineer would have been stationed, and is home to a number of interesting features such as the aircraft’s primary circuit breaker panel. It was the engineer’s job to make sure the bomber’s various systems were operating correctly, and if necessary, attempt to make repairs while underway. But just like the navigator and bombardier, he also had the dual responsibility of operating a defensive weapon if necessary.
In this case, he could climb up into the top mounted turret and get a 360° view of the sky above the B-17. This was arguably the most valuable defensive position on the aircraft, as enemy fighters would tend to dive on the bomber from above. Overall, the engineer position on the B-17 was exceptionally important to the success of the mission. Should the engineer become incapacitated, the crew could quickly find themselves in a very bad situation.
Turning back towards the front of the plane and stepping up, you will find yourself in the cockpit. This elevated position gives the pilot and co-pilot the vantage point they need to fly the aircraft and visually confirm the status of the four Wright R-1820-97 “Cyclone” engines, each capable of generating 1,200 horsepower.
The cockpit of Nine-O-Nine looks essentially the same as it would have in WWII, though there are some modern concessions. The addition of some digital avionics in the dashboard are one of the very few (visible) historical anachronisms on the aircraft, which is a testament to how serious the Collings Foundation takes maintaining the illusion that this aircraft just returned home from its tour over Berlin. Sweeping modernizations and upgrades are no-doubt very appealing to the crew who has to operate and maintain this nearly century old aircraft, but they would detract from the overall experience. So the bombers dizzying array of buttons, switches, levers, and dials remain as they would have looked in 1945.
While the B-17 was occasionally used for VIP transport and reconnaissance, it was designed first and foremost as a bomber. In other words, every design decision was made to maximize how many pounds of explosive ordinance it could carry to the target. In light of this it’s incredible how small the bomb bay is, and how little payload it was actually capable of carrying compared to modern aircraft.
For example, a heavily loaded B-17G could drop 8,000 pounds of bombs on the target, but that would be pushing it. In comparison, the Boeing B-52H Stratofortress currently in use by the United States Air Force has a payload capacity of better than 70,000 pounds; which is more than the fully-loaded weight of its WWII predecessor. Put simply, the reason the sky over Berlin was filled with thousands of B-17s is because each one might only be carrying a dozen or so 500 lb bombs.
After making the precarious trip through the bomb bay’s narrow walkway, you arrive in the radio room. This is easily one of the most spacious and comfortable areas of the aircraft: with enough headroom to stand up straight and niceties like windows, chairs, and even a wooden door the radio operator could close to try and keep things quiet.
In earlier versions of the B-17, there would have been another .50 caliber machine gun mounted here, but this was removed by the time the G version rolled off the assembly lines as it proved to be an ineffective firing position. That allowed, at least in theory, the men who worked the radio equipment to concentrate fully on communicating with the rest of the formation and keeping the flight crew informed even in the heat of battle. Towards the end of the war, this room would see more advanced hardware installed, such as chaff dispensers to confuse enemy radar.
Behind the radio room, the B-17G is effectively a hollow tube. There’s little in the way of machinery or electronics here, but even still, it was one of the most important compartments on the aircraft. That’s because this is where the four men who’s only responsibility was defending the bomber against enemy fighters were stationed.
The two waist gun positions allowed defending against attacks from the sides, and the rear gunner could keep fighters off the lumbering bomber’s tail. But there was perhaps no gun position more infamous than the Sperry Ball Turret located underneath the B-17. The man who operated this gun position, generally the smallest person on the crew, had to ball himself up into a fetal position just to fit inside.
Once he was in position, the door would be closed behind him and he would be isolated from the rest of the aircraft. The turret was lightly armored, and a favorite target for enemy pilots. If the turret failed and couldn’t be rotated back into the correct position for him to re-enter the B-17, his only chance at survival would be to open a small hatch and allow himself to fall out. Unfortunately, the space inside the turret was so tight that most men couldn’t wear a parachute.
Most people probably imagine the B-17 as being a fairly large aircraft, and with a wingspan only a few meters shy of the Airbus A320, it certainly isn’t small. But while climbing the tiny ladder leading into the aircraft’s front hatch, I had the same feeling that I get when my daughter asks me to go down the slide with her at the playground: this contraption clearly wasn’t built for me.
Which is true, of course. These planes were designed to be crewed by trained young men in peak physical condition. While I’m still young enough that I certainly would have won an all-inclusive vacation package to Europe in 1940, my “training” regimen consists of YouTube and McDonalds.
There were several moments aboard Nine-O-Nine where I looked at the small gap or low-hanging ceiling ahead of me and wondered if I could actually get through. It strains belief that men were able to navigate inside of this craft while it was in flight and under enemy fire. But they did, and the world forever owes them a debt of gratitude for it.
We’ve all experienced aircraft of the Second World War vicariously through films, television shows, books, and video games. But nothing compares to squeezing yourself through the bomb racks on the way to the radio room, or crawling under the flight deck. These first-hand experiences are why the Wings of Freedom Tour is such an incredible program, and if it ever comes your way, I highly recommend taking the trip out to the airfield and see for yourself what life was like for the crews of these historic aircraft.