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What It’s Like to Ride in a B-17 Flying Fortress

Operation Pike B-17
Operation Pike. Image of B-17. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Ah, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. One of the most iconic warbirds of WWII, and one of America’s Big Three heavy bombers of that conflict, along with the Consolidated B-24 Liberator and the B-29 Superfortress.

I would rate the “Flying Fort” as my #3 all-time personal favorite warplane, behind the B-52 Stratofortress and the Douglas SBD Dauntless, and just slightly ahead of the P-51D Mustang.

So, you can scarcely imagine just what a thrill it was when I got to take a ride in my #3 fave back in August 2020.

B-17G Brief History and Specifications

What can I write about the general history of the B-17 that hasn’t already been written? Made her maiden flight on July 28, 1935, and entered into operational service with the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC) in April 1938. Dropped more bombs – 640,000 tons dropped on Germany and its occupied territories alone, i.e. not even counting the tonnage dropped upon Imperial Japanese-occupied territory – than any other aircraft during WWII. Third-most heavily produced bomber of all time, behind the Luftwaffe’s Junker Ju-88 and the aforementioned B-24 with a total of 12.731 produced. B-17 crews ended up tallying 17 Medals of Honor. 

The final edition of the Flying Fortress to be produced was the B-17G. The most distinctive feature of the G model was the chin gun turret, which provided the bomber additional protection from frontal attacks by enemy fighters; earlier models of the Flying Fort such as the B-17F (the version used for the infamous “Black Thursday” bombing raids against the Schweinfurt ball-bearing factories) and the B-17E (such as the legendary “Memphis Belle,” the first heavy bomber to return to the U.S. after flying 25 missions over Europe) only had a single machine gun on each “cheek” of the nose section, manned by the bombardier and navigator, for such frontal protection purposes.

The heavy armament of the B-17 definitely made the plane worthy of the “Flying Fortress” sobriquet. The G model in particular had a total of 13 Browning M2 “Ma Deuce” .50 caliber machine guns; the four aforementioned cheek and chin guns, two staggered waist guns, two in upper the Sperry turret, two in the Sperry ball turret in belly, two in the tail and one so-called “dorsal” gun firing upwards from the radio compartment behind bomb bay. Luftwaffe fighter pilots tasked with shooting down these bombers likened the experience to trying to attack a porcupine. 

The plane hosted a crew complement of 10 and sported a fuselage length of 74 feet 4 inches, a height 19 feet 3 inches, an empty weight: 36,134 pounds, max takeoff weight of 65,500 pounds. Maximum airspeed was 302 miles per hour (263 knots), with a service ceiling of 36,400 pounds and a max range of 3,259 nautical miles. Payload was 8,000 pounds’ worth of bombs. 

“Sentimental Journey” Brief History

“Sentimental Journey,” the particular B-17 I got to ride on – so many thanks to the Airbase Arizona chapter of Commemorative Air Force (CAF), to which I’m a proud donor – is one of the G models, and now one of only four worthy Flying Forts left in the world after the tragic midair collision between B-17G “Texas Raiders” and a P-63 Kingcobra during the the CAF Wings Over Dallas airshow. The CAF info page tells us this about Sentimental Journey’s particular history:

“Sentimental Journey was originally manufactured and delivered to the U.S. Army Air Forces for war service in 1944 where she flew missions in the Pacific Theater. After the war she flew for training, testing and at-sea rescue missions and was eventually sold for surplus and used as a fire bomber. In 1978 the aircraft was purchased by a Commemorative Air Force (CAF) member and donated to the newly formed Arizona unit of the world-famous CAF. She was meticulously restored and is today maintained in tip-top condition and operated by all-volunteer crews from the membership of CAF Airbase Arizona.” 

Taking My Own Personal “Sentimental Journey”

‘Twas on August 29, 2020, nine days after my 45th birthday, that I had the tremendous honour and pleasure of hitching a ride in Sentimental Journey, using the Hagerstown Aviation Museum in Hagerstown, Maryland. As if that weren’t already too cool for words, it got even better: I had paid $475.00 for one of the “cheap seats,” i.e. either one of the gunner or radio room seats in the main part of the fuselage. However, a couple of my would-be fellow passengers no-showed, so the delightful CAF folks gave me a belated birthday gift in the form of a complimentary upgrade to the nose section – an $850.00 value!

My seatmate in the nose section, a fellow Air Force veteran named Chris, was himself a bombardier during his flying days (I don’t recall if he was on the B-52, the B-1B “Bone,” or both), so I was more than happy to let him take the bombardier’s seat whilst I sat in the navigator’s seat.

One of the lasting impressions I got of touring the inside of the B-17 was just how goshdarn cramped the interior of the plane was, especially when compared with a modern-day commercial airliner. Old newsreel footage and Hollywood feature films alike made the interior look much more spacious than it does in real life. But then again, I had to remind myself that whilst the Fort was a heavy bomber by WWII standards, it’s barely longer, and actually carried fewer bombs, than more modern fighter jets such as the F-105 Thunderchief and F-15E Strike Eagle. 

We had a pretty lengthy idling and taxiing time (7 minutes and 45 seconds according to the timer on my video recording) whilst those Wright R-1820-97 Cyclone Turbo-Supercharged Radial engines spooled up and warmed up; the purring and roaring of those Wrights was a song my heart could feel. And once we got up to our cruising altitude of 1,000 feet, the view was also simply incomparable. Words can’t do it justice, but hopefully the still photos and videos I’m sharing herein will do a better job of it. 

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS)

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).