There were 12,731 Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress” planes built during World War II to fight in the war effort against the Axis powers.
More than 5,000 were shot down, and another 5,000 were scrapped due to damage. The Army Air Force lost 1,800 more of the aircraft to training accidents. Today, 39 B-17 Flying Fortresses are located in museums, while nine surviving planes remain airworthy and operational.
The B-17 Flying Fortress “Texas Raiders,” one of the last active B-17s, is visiting Purdue University Airport for public tours this week, through today (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.). This B-17, along with its volunteers, is a part of the Commemorative Air Force.
Tour guides will tell you all about the B-17, now long out of combat missions, continues to serve as a tribute to the role of the United States and its veterans in the second World War. The plane and its crew fly around the country, participating in tours and air shows. Despite more than 70 years of flying, this B-17 is still going strong.
The Flying Fortress was responsible for dropping more bombs on Nazi Germany than any other aircraft during the war. The plane during WW II consisted of 10 crew members, with jobs such as pilot, navigator and gunner. The ages of the men on board ranged from 17 to 22 years old, the age of most college students now.
The pilots on board had to manually adjust the components of the plane. Most modern-day aircraft are fly by wire, meaning that a pilot tells a computer how to adjust the control surfaces, while older aircraft like the B-17 connected the pilot directly to the plane’s controls through cables and hydraulics.
The aircraft was non-pressurized and cruised at 25,000 to 30,000 feet. Because of the altitude, temperatures could dip below -45° on a summer day flying inside the plane, down to extremes of -60° during the winter.
The men on board had to do their best to keep warm. They risked frostbite at those temperatures.
“They even would wear electric underwear to keep warm,” said Kevin Michels, a flight crew volunteer with the B-17 Flying Fortress Texas Raiders from Colorado.
Each B-17 could be equipped with thousands of pounds of bombs, but not every bomb reached its target within a half-mile radius. Only 20 percent of bombs dropped actually reached their intended destinations.
“They would have to carpet bomb, which means flying as low as possible and dropping bombs to improve accuracy,” explained Michels.
During the onset of U.S involvement in the war, the Germans had the upper hand in the skies, with more fighters available than the U.S. The Germans were able to shoot down the bombers before they even reached their targets. Only 33 percent of men starting their first tour of duty returned home.
The B-17’s main defenses were the ball turrets on board. The man operating the turret was responsible for shooting at enemy aircraft, but the gunner’s machine guns were often no match for enemy fighter aircraft.
However, by June of 1944, the American P-51 Mustang fighter plane was able to escort B-17s and combat enemy aircraft. Completion of the first tour of duty rose to 74 percent, signaling a shift in power during the war. Slowly, the tides began to turn in favor of the Allies, with the B-17 proving itself as a vital asset to take out strategic and tactical enemy positions as the war reached its end.
Now, the B-17 continues to fulfill its role in a different way.
West Lafayette is just one stop on this B-17’s flight. The Texas Raiders have more flights and air expos scheduled across the country. People have come from all around to tour the inside of the plane, which contains almost entirely original components.
Bill Straussburger, an Army Vietnam veteran from Lafayette, was just one of the many who stopped to see and later fly in the plane.
“I had two friends from Lafayette that were on a B-17 during World War II,” he said. “Their plane crashed during the war.”
Straussburger showed a book, “Bail out over the Balkans,” which detailed his friends — B-17 pilot Richard Munsen and gunner Cletus Reiss — as they tried to return to the Allies from Nazi-controlled Yugoslavia.
Straussburger is just one of the many people who have stopped to pay remembrance.
In May 2020, the B-17 Flying Fortress Texas Raiders will be participating in the Commemorative Air Forces Arsenal of Democracy, which will be a ceremony commemorating the end of the war in Europe (VE Day), at the WW II memorial in Washington D.C.
The ceremony will consist of a flyover of 165 aircraft from both U.S. and World War II Allied military. WWII veterans will be honored for their sacrifice, said Nancy Kwiecien, coordinator and volunteer of the Texas Raiders. The planes will fly in chronological order from earliest use to latest.
The B-17 Flying Fortress Texas Raiders will be in the midst of it all.
For more information, go to www.B17TexasRaiders.org.