A Virtual Tour Of The B-17

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.

Forward Section

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.

Flight Deck

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.

Engineer’s Panel

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.

Bomb Bay

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.

Radio Room

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.

Gun Positions

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.

Living History

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.

The names of donors are listed on the side of the plane.

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.

84 thoughts on “A Virtual Tour Of The B-17

  1. I would argue the B29 is the most recognizable aircraft of the Second World War. Unfortunately, so few are left now. One could have been saved, but a cack-handed attempt to launch it from a rough snow-plowed runway resulted in it burning to the ground.

    1. You could argue that…but you’d be wrong. It only barely took part in WWII, it was introduced in 1945 and didn’t even see combat in the European theater. Plus it’s most notable use (the atomic bomb) is _literally_ what ended the war.

      With fewer than 4K built, it’s probably more notable for all the planes that were spawned from it’s basic design than anything else.

        1. The reason the Lancaster was seen so much and is so recognizable is because it just sat there on the tarmack all day long. Whist the Americans risked their lives trying to save British lives by flying the day missions and getting shot down by the dozons.

      1. This article is about celebrating the B17 and what it acomplished not the Spitfire and not the B29 and aspecially the Lancaster that flew only at night when it’s safe. You can’t take nothing at all away from the B17 and it’s crews.

        1. Who cares. Britian would be talking German right now if it wasn’t for the B17. This article is about the B17 and it’s accomplishments. Not the friggin Lancaster you know the plane that only flew at night when is safe.

        1. I was lucky enough to take the family to the Derwent valley a few years ago, to see both the BBMF Lancaster and the Canadian, the only two flying.
          (The Derwent dams were used as practice for 617 squadron.)
          It was absolutely packed with aircraft enthusiasts, for a once in a lifetime experience. You can’t beat the sound of eight Merlin engines 😁

      1. The Lancaster only flew at night, when it’s safe. It’s funny how the Brits asses were on the lines and who flew daytime missions the U.S. Who took Utah and Omaha beach and spilled blood by the gallon, the U.S.! If you don’t agree Reply in German.

        1. The Germans were beaten back in the Battle of Britain. The Germans couldn’t even cross the Atlantic to engage Britain. The British were fighting alone for a while before Hitler was dumb enough to attack Russia, and then declare war on the U.S. It was a joint Allied effort but the Tommies certainly held them off until we were ready to attack. Battle of Britain was in 1940, DDay was in 1944,what exactly do you think they were doing for 4 years?

          1. The Americans volunteered to fly right by the Tommies side years before war was declared. They were also in China as volunteers. ….by so few.

          2. People on here are celebrating the B17 as it should be. Others are touring the Lancaster and one guy said the B29 was more recognizable then the B29. Here’s the facts. The B29 was put into service in 1945. The B17 was in 1939 so it had an exposure of 5 years before the B29. They made only 3000 B29s 1200 made it into service and 14,000 B17s. and 60% went down with a crew of 10 each. So Sir you are wrong. One year ago I went to England for two weeks. To hear the English talk about the war, they single handedly beat the Germans. They discount all the help they got. But here’s a reminder of the U.S.s help of those 14,000 B17s 60% went down so that’s 10,000 B17s times a crew of 10 so 10×10,000= 100,000 GIs died to save England just in the sky. So there should be gratefulness by the English. Do they have memorial holidays to thank the U.S……no they don’t.

    2. If they’d remembered to shut off the APU generator after getting the engines started it would’ve been OK. Or if they’d inspected and repaired the APU generator mountings so they wouldn’t have collapsed, allowing the hot exhaust pipe to set insulation material on fire.

      IIRC the guy who was behind this project also blew a huge amount of money rebuilding an F-104 Starfighter. Took him 11 years and he only got to fly it 11 hours total. He was attempting to set a low level speed record. The landing gear failed to extend and he had to eject. Doesn’t seem to be the sort of person who goes over every last detail on his aircraft to ensure everything is going to work and stay working.

      1. The reason that incarnation of Red Baron was so interesting was because he had borrowed the only intact F104 nosecone featuring hydrogen peroxide thrusters for attitude control because he was going to try for the absolute altitude record for air-breathing aircraft, and wrecked it during testing to ensure that the nosecone and controls were correctly integrated. (He did not return the equipment to NASA after the crash.) The Starfighter’s record wasn’t good: locally built versions, with good maintenance, being flown in non-combat training flights, had a nearly 50% operational loss rate in Germany and Canada. I think it’s amazing that Red Baron, built out of five wrecks and who knows how many salvaged aircraft, managed to fly for as long as it did.

      1. They made 2300 B29 aircraft. They were introduced in June of 1944. The B17 introduced in 1942 and 14,000 were built. Go ahead and argue that the B29 was more recognizable and you would be so wrong. It’s actually impossible unless you lived on Guam or the Solemen Islands. Don’t be ridiculous!

      1. Nothing wrong with outsourcing code to India, and the war of the management with workers unions:

        https://newrepublic.com/article/154944/boeing-737-max-investigation-indonesia-lion-air-ethiopian-airlines-managerial-revolution

        “much of the software on the MAX had been engineered by recent grads of Indian software-coding academies making as little $9/h, part of Boeing management’s war on the unions that once represented more than half of its employees.”

        So much for made in United States.

  2. The 1st time I ever saw one of these in person, I was shocked. I knew what the planes did, I knew people who were in them & I had some idea of the circumstances they did those those things. That anyone in that slow moving relatively small airplane EVER survived was amazing. I forget the % of crews lost in total, but it is a scary number.

    1. This will be a very unpopular reply but the B17 was a Flying death trap. The last place I ever want to be. To many guns to many men so the bomb load was only around 5000 lbs the Lancaster carried 18,000 lbs from 1943 onwards most B17s were shot down by flak gunners are no good against flak. Great plane but poor concept.

      1. It was a death trap not because of what you said. No it was a death trap because the Americans had to fly daytime missions whilst the Brits only flew at nights. The numbers of B17s that returned all shot up should tell you something, it just kept flying. The Americans saved the UK . And Market Garden is proof of the incompetence of Montgomery. The Brits would be speaking German now.

    2. Years ago, my dad went to one of those B-17 living history things. He told me that as he was looking around the parked plane, he came across an old man, crying. He was dressed in a leather bomber jacket and WWII vet’s hat, and my dad tried to help him. The old vet explained that he had been a waist gunner on a B-17, and that he tried to get up into the plane to see his old station, but couldn’t make it. He was distraught. My dad talked to him a bit, calmed him down, and offered to help him up. They worked together, the Silent Generation helping the Greatest Generation, and together they got up inside the craft so the old fellow could relive the glory days of his youth one last time and pay tribute to long lost comrades in arms.

      Way to go, Pop.

  3. Such a cool aircraft.

    FWIW, I think that the WWII era is where the more important advances in technology shifted from mechanical devices to electronics. Perhaps you might say the same about the US Civil War about precision machinery vs human power, though the definition is a bit more hazy (e.g. Gatling gun vs hand-loaded munitions).

    Nice HAD tail insignia, Hahaha.

    1. If you’re asking why there’s no pictures of them, clearly they are not open to the public. You can see the ball turret buttoned up, and there’s some kind of curtain covering the whole tail section.

      But they’re both obviously mentioned in the text.

  4. This fall I paid to take a ride in the “Sentimental Journey” . Once in a lifetime experience … at least for me as the B-17 has been one of my favorite WWII airplanes. My seat the the radio area just behind the bomb bay, but we got to walk around while in the air. To hear the plane come to life, the vibrations, the smells, the noise of those big radial engines. Then taxi, takeoff run, flying, and landing. Just was a great experience. Any those men had to sit in this tin-can for ‘hours’. Not pressurized, you could see the ground through cracks in the bomb bay doors. Of course we didn’t experience the ‘cold’ and all as we didn’t fly high enough to need oxygen or warm suits…. But you could ‘imagine’ what it must of been like.

    1. You would probably enjoy my father’s story which he told himself….old time radio guys interviewed him and they pieced it together and added sound effects. Google search radiovisions.net and click on ‘the Donald Burkness story’.

    2. Luckily I have had the opportunity to fly on the very plane, and it was a great experience. Making it all the more special is the fact that I got to be on this earth because this great plane brought the man that would become my father back 25 times in 1943-44. You mentions the hours spent in this plane – his last flight was the longest as the raids went farther and farther in as the war progressed, His records show 11 hours and 30 minutes into Poland and back. Enemy fighters once across the channel, then flak over the target, then fighters back. You also mentioned cold – he got frostbite on his leg when part of his electrically heated flight suit failed. If anyone gets a chance to go up in this plane, or any of the WII bombers for that matter, don’t pass up the chance – it brings some reality to the history we have only read about.

  5. They’re based out of my state (MA) and they come to my local airport (ORH) every year. They were just here last weekend! I always love going to check out their planes and equipment.

  6. I love these planes (been on this one multiple times)! I’m even one of the names on the plane. I also love the P-51 “Betty Jane” that they have! Such beautiful aircraft, this article totally made my morning!

    1. Got to go thru the 9o9…gave $ to keep her flying….After I came out, I cried…for all the brave who flew and went down…I salute them & thank BOTH them & the B17…btw, take your political correctness & shove it…These planes &;boys died for you to be fee…. Thanks boys !

  7. My great uncle, Jerry Walker, was the tail gunner on a B17. Headed back to England from a bombing run in a storm, and the seal around the gun was leaking, so as soon as they crossed out of enemy territory he came forward to dry off. One of the other crewmembers was cleaning his sidearm (which I understand they were not supposed to do while in flight), and they hit a pocket of turbulence, causing the gun to discharge and it hit him in the head :-(

    1. My sister’s Father-in-Law, was a B-17 pilot in the South Pacific.
      Sometime before being deployed overseas, he “borrowed” a B-17 and flew over his hometown.
      One observer said he flew lower than the church steeple.
      Another recognized him, and that is how he was fingered by the military police.
      He did suffer from alcoholism many years after the war.

  8. I knew a guy was was a US Army Air Corps veteran. He didn’t get to see combat because of a crash during a training flight. The older B-17’s were being cycled back to the US for repair but if they’d fly they’d often get used for training while awaiting their turn in the shop.

    Well this one should have either had priority for shop time, or scrapping. All four engines quit. He ended up busted up pretty bad. Years later, when he went to apply for Veteran’s benefits and VA medical care, they claimed he’d never been in the Air Force. Well of course not! The Army Air Corps wasn’t changed to its own separate branch of the military yet when he was in.

    Eventually they got things partially straightened out but would not account for the highest rank he’d reached before the crash. So his grave marker has the wrong rank on it.

    That’s why if you are in the military, right before you part ways with Uncle Sam’s service, make sure to get copies of ALL your records, medical and otherwise. Because if you don’t have them, you stand a chance of the VA trying to deny you served, or denying something else if you don’t have the proof.

        1. Nothing, I was responding to this comment…

          “That’s why if you are in the military, right before you part ways with Uncle Sam’s service, make sure to get copies of ALL your records, medical and otherwise. Because if you don’t have them, you stand a chance of the VA trying to deny you served, or denying something else if you don’t have the proof.”

          Veterans of the Armed Forces before then, did not feel they had to save all their records, because they knew that U.S. government had the information.
          So, a Veteran of one of the Gulf Wars would have reasonable assurance that the government has their records, those who served before that fateful fire, have very little assurance.
          When my father-in-law died a few years ago (Korean War veteran), we had to photocopy a copy of his discharge orders and fax it to the VA, before they would send an Honor Guard for his funeral.

          You’re welcome.

      1. If only we would have let the Germans keep their war factories alongside their civilians! 7 million Holocaust deaths would beg to differ on the German civilian’s complicity. There were some who tried to stop it, but the majority were on board with the ideology and they deserved their fate.

        1. My daughter toured the Holocaust Museum during a school trip to Washington, DC last year.
          Tonight, I was trying to explain how a bully government, that controls the media, with a bunch of mean, youthful supporters could effectively silence any opposition to its actions.

          I tried to let her know that it could happen again, even here in America.

  9. I’ve never had problems gaining VA services. If you need documents your county or state offices have the responsibility to get them for you, just which you need to contact for these differs from state to state but they’ll get them for you. Hope this helps. Thank you for your service!

    1. Yeah, I’ve promised myself next time the Tour comes through my local airport, I’m going to bite the bullet and do it. Not like the planes are getting younger, plus it seems like every couple years they bump the price up more anyway. Not that I can blame them, it’s certainly not cheap to keep these things in the air.

  10. In the Evergreen Air Museum across from that thing Hughes designed, is a B17, she also shares the floor with a pair of Piper cubs, one is dressed in her basic colors, Tweety Bird (or Canary) Yellow, and the other was dressed in Olive Drab. I believe they flew there. And if you can find it there’s a photo of a Flying Fortress living up to her nick name, she survived a Fox Four with a crowd of fighters from the Axis. She is one of the grand parents to the Buff, the other is the B29 Super of course. I’m still impressed Tom.

  11. I’ve walked through that plane way back in the day. It’s amazing how spartan the vehicle was, yet rugged. But then again, it was a rushed wartime development project. Still amazing what they did back then in such a short period of time with nothing more than slide rules and drafting tables. Nowadays it would take 30 years of committees and redesigns just to get the prototype(hint: V-22, F-35) that mission-creeped into being able to perform every military function ever envisioned and suck at them all. And by the time its fielded, it’s functionally obsolete and costs ten times what the proposal’s estimated per unit was. Of course, that kind of development paradigm makes for lucrative corporate welfare. And then, in due course, Congress withdraws funding so with all the money poured into development, having a limited number of produced units, the effective price per unit is further skyrocketed because Economy of Scale never comes into play. Happily, the Congressmen and women parachute out into padded management positions within those companies after they serve their terms. Ike nailed it on the head there.

  12. I know I’m days late to this party, but I wanted to say the Museum of Flight in Seattle has a B-17, and just after it was restored but before it moved to the Museum I got to go through it with my son’s Cub Scout den. I don’t recall who arranged the tour, but I’m forever grateful for the opportunity to go inside. Yes, it is very tight in there, especially for 6′ 3″ me. I’m probably too tall for any of the crew positions, and I can’t see crap without my glasses, so I’d have been one of the sad sacks on Omaha Beach. This virtual tour brought back memories, thank you!

  13. I have walked through that exact B-17 multiple times as it makes a stop near where I live for the Wings of Freedom tour. I’m happy to hear that they have panarama photos because I never could get enough time to look at all of the innards because it gets crowded and I have to keep moving.

    1. This is the saddest news. As my comment (somewhere) above noted, I’ve been on this plane multiple times and even had my name on the side. I’m genuinely heartbroken.

    2. I’m honestly still trying to wrap my head around it all, and the news keeps getting worse with every update.

      When I first heard about it, seemed like the plane had just skidded off the end of the runway and there were some minor injuries. Which had actually happened to Nine-O-Nine a few years after it was restored in the 80s. But then more details come out, and it became clear the plane was a total loss. That was a hard realization in itself, but then we find out that those injuries weren’t so minor, and that lives have been lost.

      Right now I’m not sure if I’ll be writing some kind of memorial post or appending something to this one. I feel like something should be said about this loss, but right now the facts aren’t all in and honestly I’m a bit too upset to really put my thoughts together the way I’d want to.

  14. A great description of Nine-0-Nine, Tom Nardi. I flew with her several years ago and got some fairly good video, both static and in-flight. I remember distinctly looking over the wings as those big radial engines pulled her through the air. Great memory, sad she’s gone along with several of her last passengers.

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