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Pima Air and Space Museum, Part 9

Having viewed all the aircraft parked outside (and photographed most of them), we entered one of the adjacent hangers to discover a B-17 Flying Fortress. This was one of the most produced bombers in WWII, with 12,731 built — but certainly was the most famous.

By the way, looking around one has to wonder how they got this bomber into the building — there are no large hanger doors anywhere. I was told that they poured the concrete pad first then once it cured, they moved the aircraft here and built the walls and roof around it.

Another tidbit, although we arrived after the guided tour began (and thus did not join the group), I later learned that the tour guide was formerly a pilot of a B-17 and provided great "behind the scene" stories. Sorry I missed it.

During the run-up to the U.S. entry into WWII, the Army Air Corps requested RFPs from aircraft manufacturers for a new heavy bomber. The B-17 prototype was Boeing's entry. Unfortunately, during testing the crew forgot to disengage the "gust locks", a system of devices integral to the design that held the bomber's movable control surfaces in place while the aircraft was parked on the ground. After takeoff, due to the failure to manually disengage all of the gust locks, the aircraft entered a steep climb, stalled, nosed over, and crashed.

The B-17 was thus formally eliminated from the competition. However, the USAAC was so impressed by the aircraft prior to the crash that they found a loophole in the regulations and ordered 13 prototypes for evaluation.

Testing of the prototypes convinced authorities that the B-17 was a worthy bomber and about 200 were in service prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. After that production ramped up and the B-17 became one of the primary aircraft weapons in the U.S. arsenal.

Oh, and that pilot error that nearly prevented the B-17 from ever seeing a government check — someone came up with the idea of using a checklist to make sure the crew never missed an important setting or check again — a practice that is mandatory in all aircraft today.

One problem faced by every heavy bomber is enemy fighter planes. The fighters are fast and maneuverable — the bombers are sitting ducks. Thus the B-17 incorporated a number of anti-fighter machine guns. Initially the aircraft had five but with feedback from the crew that number was gradually increased to 13. Additionally, based on crew feedback, armor was added to deflect the smaller caliber fighter weapons.

I did not see a sign but this machine gun dome appears to be a module for the position just behind the cockpit (see previous photo). This makes a lot of sense because the ground crew could load ammunition into the spares then swap out the returning module for the spare and turn the bomber around rapidly for its next mission.

In addition to machine gun defenses, the USAAC decided on a strategy of flying squadrons of B-17s in a tight formation. This made it much more difficult for an enemy fighter to pick off a single bomber since its neighbors in the formation could fire on the attacking fighter. This strategy helped the Allies gain air superiority and led to destruction of much of Germany's military, industrial and civilian centers.

This was the first aircraft at Pima where visitors could actually get inside (sorta). Note the two anti-fighter machine guns (one on each side of the B-17).

Farther forward were the racks containing the bombs to be dropped on the next mission.

Note that during the war, a much improved bombsight (the Norden) became available which used observed ground speed to achieve better accuracy from high altitude. Unfortunately, that accuracy could not be duplicated in combat but the USAAC found that if the lead bomber in the box formation used the Norden and the other bombers dropped their bombs upon visually noting the drop by the lead plane, overall accuracy was acceptable.

All the wartime B-17s were powered by four Wright R-1820 Cyclone 9 radial engines. These engines proved to be so durable that they were modified to increase horsepower during the entire war. Note that this engine is nearly as tall as a typical human.

Of course, with valuable aircraft sitting at bases in the U.S., England and the Pacific theater, security was incredibly important. This jeep with a machine gun mounted on the rear was an important element in that security.

Looking from a distance, these aircraft don't look all that big. But just go stand under the tail and you begin to appreciate their immense size. Of course, you then ponder how in the world these things could actually fly.

Last for today is the machine guns protecting the rear of the B-17. Something tells me that this was not a particularly safe place to be when the squadron was under attack. It took many brave airmen to fight for a free world — and we thank them for their service and mourn those who didn't make it home.

To be continued...

Life is good.

B. David

P. S., All photos and text © B. David Cathell Photography, Inc. — www.bdavidcathell.com