Without a doubt, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is the most-recognized and well-known aircraft to emerge from World War II. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which was an aggressive publicity campaign by the War Department, which resulted in the superb wartime classic propaganda film “Memphis Belle” (not to be confused with the modern film of the same name), and a year-long tour of the United States by the actual “Memphis Belle” and her crew.
But, despite the hype that was associated with this aircraft (Liberator crews sometimes groused about there being 11 crew members on every B-17, including a publicity officer), there were very solid reasons why the B-17 Flying Fortress holds a revered place in history and in the hearts of those who flew her. It was, first and foremost, a supremely functional and extremely rugged aircraft. No other aircraft to served during WWII has come away with as many documented cases of surviving extreme battle damage and making it home. Designed during peacetime, the aircraft was not rushed to the drawing board and emerged as wonderful aircraft to fly. The Fortress was a very stable and forgiving aircraft, truly a “pilot’s aircraft” in all respects, and was a pleasure to fly. It can be trimmed to fly hands-off for any normal flight regime and, while slow to maneuver, is quite responsive to the controls for such a large craft. While aerobatics are prohibited officially, there are many documented cases of B-17s being put into spins, rolls, stalls, and other acrobatics by instructors and pilots who flew the type. Pilots who flew all of the major American bombers of WWII — the B-17, B-24, and B29 — state almost universally that the B-17 was a joy to fly as compared to the other types.
Production of the B-17, which totalled 12,731 of all types, was eclipsed by that of the B-24 Liberator, a later aircraft hurriedly designed with the single intention of getting as many bombs on target as possible, with little regard to aesthetics or handling characteristics. In fact, over 6,000 more Liberators were built than B-17s, a numerical advantage of 50%. To this day, however, the Flying Fortress continues to outshine the Liberator as the flagship of the United States Army Air Forces and a symbol of victory and American ingenuity and know-how. It was that kind of airplane.