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World War II: Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress


Following "Black Thursday" in October 1943, which resulted in the loss of 77 B-17s, daylight operations were suspended pending the arrival of a suitable escort fighter. These arrived in early 1944 in the form of the North American P-51 Mustang and drop tank-equipped Republic P-47 Thunderbolts. Renewing the Combined Bomber Offensive, B-17s incurred much lighter losses as their "little friends" dealt with the German fighters.

Though German fighter production was not damaged by Pointblank raids (production actually increased), B-17s aided in winning the war for air superiority in Europe by forcing the Luftwaffe into battles in which its operational forces were destroyed. In the months after D-Day, B-17 raids continued to strike German targets. Strongly escorted, losses were minimal and largely due to flak. The final large B-17 raid in Europe occurred on April 25. During the fighting in Europe, the B-17 developed a reputation as an extremely rugged aircraft capable of sustaining heavy damage and remaining aloft.

B-17s in the Pacific

The first B-17s to see action in the Pacific were a flight of 12 aircraft that arrived during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their expected arrival contributed to the American confusion just prior to the attack. In December 1941, B-17s were also in service with the Far East Air Force in the Philippines. With the beginning of the conflict, they were quickly lost to enemy action as the Japanese overran the area. B-17s also took part in the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942. Bombing from high altitude, they proved unable to hit targets at sea, but were also safe from Japanese A6M Zero fighters.

B-17s had more success in March 1943 during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. Bombing from medium altitude rather than high, they sank three Japanese ships. Despite this victory, the B-17 was not as effective in the Pacific and the USAAF transitioned aircrews to other types by mid-1943. During the course of World War II, the USAAF lost around 4,750 B-17s in combat, nearly a third of all built. USAAF B-17 inventory peaked in August 1944 at 4,574 aircraft. In the war over Europe, B-17s dropped 640,036 tons of bombs on enemy targets.

Final Years of the B-17

With the end of the war, the USAAF declared the B-17 obsolete and the majority of the surviving aircraft were returned to the United States and scrapped. Some aircraft were retained for search and rescue operations as well as photo reconnaissance platforms into the early 1950s. Other aircraft were transferred to the US Navy and redesignated PB-1. Several PB-1s were fitted with the APS-20 search radar and used as antisubmarine warfare and early warning aircraft with designation PB-1W. These aircraft were phased out in 1955. The US Coast Guard also utilized the B-17 after the war for iceberg patrols and search and rescue missions. Other retired B-17s saw later service in civilian uses such as aerial spraying and fire fighting. During its career, the B-17 saw active duty with numerous nations including the Soviet Union, Brazil, France, Israel, Portugal, and Colombia.

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