Southsider Voice correspondent
B-17s began bombing runs over the Nazi-held territory in Europe in 1942 and earned the nickname the “Flying Fortress.” Maj. Paul Tibbets was one of the first pilots, and he would eventually drop the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, thus ending the war.
By June 1943, bombing raids from the 8th Air Force in England had 1,000 B-17s at a time, making raids in the daylight, and the British continuing the raids at night. Although heavily armored, fighter escorts for the bombers were strongly lacking, as they had limited fuel reserves. The losses to the Allies were staggering. It was not uncommon to lose 60 planes in raids over Germany. Prior to 1944 a crewman’s tour of duty was set at 25 missions.
It is estimated that the average crewman had only a one-in four chance of completing his tour of duty. The Memphis Belle was the first B-17 to complete a tour of 25 combat missions, and her crew was celebrated as heroes all over America. That plane is on display at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
With the development of the P-51 Mustang and other fighter planes, which could escort the bombers all the way to their targets and back, the war took a dramatic turn in favor of the Allies. Boeing produced 12,731 B-17s from 1936-45, and each one carried a crew of 10. Production costs in 1945 were $238,329 each; a fully operational B-17 today is estimated at $2.6 million. The planes were powered by four Wright-R 1820 Cyclone turbocharged radial engines producing 1,200 horsepower each. Maximum speed was 287 mph with a ceiling of 35,600 feet. The wingspan is 104 feet. Maximum takeoff weight was 65,500 pounds, and each plane had 13 50-caliber machine guns.
The Experimental Aircraft Association has restored this aircraft and is touring the country. Rides are offered, and the flight fees are used to reduce the costs on maintenance and restoration. The plane and its volunteer crew were at the Indy South Greenwood Airport June 28 through July 1.