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B-17 walk through


Entrance

The B-17 walkthrough begins at the ladder near the nose of the aircraft. This small hatch was officially an escape hatch- the hinges at the front of the door had quick-release pins that could be rapidly pulled out and the door kicked away so that the bombardier and navigator stationed in the nose could bail out quickly.

Fans of the movie "Twelve O'Clock High" will know that this door was also used to enter the aircraft- without the ladder. Grabbing on to the top of the hatch, you can swing your feet up and into the aircraft, pulling yourself in after (and emptying the change from your pockets onto the ramp). It's not hard if you're in shape. In the movie, Gregory Peck had a famous scene where, overcome by battle fatigue, he couldn't swing himself up. You get to use a ladder.

Before entering, you can see the nose art. Not all bombers had it, and not all crews had their "own" aircraft they flew every mission. And in the case of 909, hundreds of men flew the aircraft during the course of the war. I believe the picture on 909 is England's King George riding on a bomb, thumbing his nose at the Fuehrer. The name "909" comes from the aircraft's tail number, which ends in those numbers. The bombs indicate bombing missions completed-- the original 909 was famous for completing 140 missions without an abort or serious crew injury. The numbers by the bombs are counting the number of missions at that point, the lines in some fins are marking every 10 bombs, and the B in some bombs indicate a mission to Berlin. The three swastikas indicate 3 German fighters shot down, with one outlined in black to indicate the pilot was known killed.



Nose

As you enter the aircraft, the nose compartment can be seen to the left. The navigator and bombardier were stationed here. The navigator had a work table and various navigation instruments, and the bombardier had his top-secret Norden bombsight, bomb bay controls, and devices to coordinate control of the aircraft with the pilot during the bomb run.

The famous Norden bombsights were reputed to be able to put a bomb in a pickle barrel from 20,000 feet- they couldn't, of course. Only a fraction of all bombs dropped in the war fell within 1,000 feet of the aiming points. Nonetheless, the Norden bombsight made the high-altitude daylight bombing possible, and bombardiers were required to sign a paper vowing to guard it from the enemy with their life, if necessary. They were often (if not always) removed after a mission, and had to be destroyed if the aircraft crash-landed in enemy territory. Today they can be purchased for a few thousand dollars from miltary collectables dealers.

There were two free-mounted cal. 50 machine guns in the nose, used by both men, and the chin turret controls. The bombsight is directly in the center of the plexiglass nose, in front of the chair. It looks down through a patch of optically clear glass. To the right of the bombsight is a tube with some handles on the end; this would swing down over the bombsight and provide control of the chin turret guns directly below the glass nose. The chin turret (guns under the glass nose) was the most obvious difference between the B-17F and B-17G models, and was added because the German fighters quickly discovered that head-on attack was an effective strategy. The two cal. 50 guns in the chin turret discouraged that.



Flight Deck


Turning to the right, after a short crawl you rise up into the flight deck, where the pilot (left seat), copilot (right seat), and flight engineer were stationed. The flight engineer would usually hang out between the pilots, monitoring the instruments. He would double as the top turret gunner, standing or sitting in a sling seat in the top turret between and just behind the pilots.

Much of the instrumentation you see is authentic, although panel layout is not exact, the intercom and radios are new, and there is no autopilot panel below the throttles. Pilots will recognize modern nav/com equipment, including GPS. This is the original fly-by-wire concept-- flight controls are connected to flight surfaces by cables, seen throughout the aircraft as you walk back. It flies like a truck without power steering-- with battle damage, it often took the strength of both pilots to control the aircraft.

Seem crowded? Not hardly. In wartime, these aircraft flew at 25,000 feet. You'd be unconscious in a few minutes without oxygen, and they obviously weren't airtight enough to pressurize like a modern airliner. All crew wore oxygen masks, and the space under the flight deck, and all around the top turret, was filled with large yellow oxygen canisters. They've been left out of the restoration to save weight, and because it'd be too hard for most visitors to get through the aircraft. To make it worse, the top turret also had two large ammo boxes hanging below the guns that are not installed today.

Bomb Bay

In the originals, the bulkheads had doors; 909 does not have them, although some restorations do. Walking to the rear, the next stop is the bomb bay. Some replica 500 pound bombs are seen on the aircraft's left. There would be attachments for 16 bombs. The exact weight and size depended on the mission; a typical bomb load might be 6,000 pounds of bombs. The platform on the aircraft right is used for modern-day storage.

The bombs could be released simultaneously or in sequence, depending on the mission. If you see the Confederate Air Force's German He111 bomber you'll note some interesting trivia-- German bombers stored and dropped their bombs vertically, pointed down, rather than horizontally like this. Why? ummm... one reason was that they didn't need to rack them like this, so there wasn't a chance of one jamming with potentially disasterous results-- which happened regularly to American bombers.

Yes, you have to walk across that little catwalk. No, fat guys didn't fly them. It was an even tighter fit with heavy flight suit and parachute, which you probably had to take off first. Now imagine doing it at 25,000 feet, -40 degrees, holding on to a portable oxygen bottle, with the doors open, and people shooting at you. and oh yes, you took your parachute off.

Radio Compartment

Exiting the bomb bay to the rear leaves you in the radio compartment, where the radio operator was stationed. These are authentic radios, although obviously without the original wiring. They don't work now. Radios were bigger back in those days, and they had various types for different needs. Exact configuration may have varied depending on the aircraft's mission-- there were radar aircraft, for example, that would carry equipment for that.

The radio operator also usually had a gun, stowed in front of the top hatch and rolling back into position on tracks to point out the top hatch. It's location wasn't very useful, and the main effect was to make him feel better. 909 does not have this gun installed, some restorations do; I don't know if the original 909 had one or not.

The plywood boards and (probably) foam cushions against the sides are recent additions required to carry passengers. I have seen original manuals describing additional seats in the radio compartment; I don't know if wartime ships had them or not. The same manuals showed a chemical toilet by the tail, and I KNOW they didn't have that...

Waist Section

Walking around the ball turret to the aircraft left (your right), you step down into the waist section. Two more enlisted men were stationed here as right and left waist gunners, each with one of the cal. 50 machine guns you see. Looking closely, you can also see the connections for the electric flight suits and oxygen masks (now only the boxes are there for show; neither system has been restored). It was typically -30 to -50 degrees at altitude, and although the flight deck had some aircraft heating, these guys didn't. All crewmen wore layers of clothing, including an electric flight suit that had a heating element like an electric blanket. Sometimes it even worked. Sometimes it didn't. Sometimes the wires broke and burned them- then they had a choice-- which hurts more, turn it off or leave it on?

Those cables along the ceiling are the flight control cables-- connecting the pilot's controls with the control surfaces. Every airplane like this has them, they just don't hide them here. This is the ultimate no-frills airline.

The four green plywood boards against the sides of 909 are a recent addition, installed several years ago at the request of the FAA in order to more safely carry passengers. Seatbelts clip into the floor at their base. In wartime, crew sat where they wished, often in the radio compartment.

Earlier models had open windows (like on the B-24), but the B-17G had plexiglass waist windows as you see here. Earlier models also had windows directly opposite each other. The gunners had to work together to keep from getting in each other's way, so the B-17G models staggered the waist guns like you see today. The ammo boxes you see forward of the windows might hold about 600 bullets-- maybe a minute's worth. They sometimes carried more ammo, but it was so heavy that wasn't really an option. In combat, they would fire bursts of a few seconds. The fighters were coming at them at maybe 300 mph-- they weren't in range for more than that.

What kept them from shooting their own plane? Self-preservation. The power turrets (top and ball turrets) had cutout switches that would disable firing if the gun was aimed at the airplane, but there was nothing at the waist guns. Keep in mind also that a good, tight formation called for 100 feet between aircraft. You were surrounded by your own airplanes, and probably would be pretty unpopular back at the base if you shot somebody up.

The empty shells were ejected loose into the aircraft, and would be (literally) shovelled out after the mission. It made footing a bit trecherous, particularly since that catwalk you're on is much wider than original, made wider for safety during visitor walkthroughs.

You're probably also noticing that the walls are kind of thin. Airplanes are always a compromise between weight and performance-- the more protection you have, the less bombs you can carry. Would this skin stop the 20mm cannon rounds used by the German fighters? Nope. It wouldn't stop the flak, either. Left off in the restoration, originally there was very limited armor in the aircraft. Mostly they prayed, or just hoped for luck.

Tail

The last stop inside the aircraft is by the rear hatch. The small gasoline engine by the door is an Auxiliary Power Unit, used for electrical power on the ground instead of running the engines-- for example, during the maintenance that might go on all night long between missions. The bench in front of the tailwheel is modern, used for storage. Originally, the tail gunner could crawl back to his station around the tail wheel; it's not possible in 909 because the area is filled with equipment and supplies used on the tour. He would sit on a bicycle-style seat, with an armor plate in front of him, and the guns in front of that. The turret on 909 is a B-17F-style rear turret; the improved "cheyenne" tail turret was introduced after the first 100-200 B-17Gs were produced. The rear gunner could get back around the tail wheel, or from the outside by using the small escape hatch to the rear of the main hatch you exit from.

The climb outside isn't as difficult as the climb in; it is often easier to exit facing out, grabbing the smooth door jam above the opening. Note that the door is easily removed-- like the front hatch, this has a quick-release mechanism allowing ejection of the door in a few seconds during emergencies. Many, many men did this- the aircraft was designed to be attacked, and bailing out came with the job. In reality, a lot of times men couldn't bail out of crippled aircraft. Maybe they were wounded, maybe they wouldn't leave wounded crewmates, and often they couldn't reach an exit in time. An aircraft out of control may have tremendous forces on it-- a B-17 in a spin may pin the crew to the aircraft by centrifigual force, with the aircraft often breaking up from the stress after about 7 turns. There were many cases of men surviving by being trapped, then thrown free after the aircraft broke up in flight



Ball Turret

Passing to the rear again, you see a large spherical object below and in front of you. This is the ball turret, best seen from outside the aircraft. There was a man inside this during combat; he had electric/hydraulic motion controls and two cal. 50 machine guns. The entire ball, with him inside, rotated 360 degrees around and 90 degrees from horizontal to vertical. In the B-17, the ammunition was fed into it from the two metal boxes above the ball.

Most frequently asked question on the tour: "how did he get inside?" He would not be inside for takeoff and landing- too dangerous if the gear failed. In flight, near enemy territory, the ball was hand-cranked 90 degrees so the guns pointed straight down and the hatch that can be seen outside the aircraft on the front side of the ball was rotated up inside. He opened the hatch, climbed in, his crewmates closed the hatch after him, and he rotated the ball back into position.

If they've opened the hatch to the ball turret, you can look inside when you get out of the aircraft, and see a picture of how he sat inside. If they haven't opened the hatch, tell them to get off their butts and do what they're there for-- let people see the airplane.

Dangerous? Yes and no. I've been told that statistically it was the safest position because he was curled up, making a smaller target, and was surrounded by fairly heavy metal. It was a problem if the aircraft got into trouble-- very few men were small enough to be able to wear a parachute in there. The first act of the crew when trouble hit was to help that ball turret gunner out.

Were they always small men? No. Some people swear only midgets were chosen; that isn't true. Often units would select the smallest men, but I think it varied by time, place and circumstances. There was a war on, and you did what had to be done. I'm 6 feet, and I fit inside. Barely.

Did they hate it? Not always. Some men liked it, because it was their own little private space they could control. And they had a great view.

Right about now somebody's starting to talk about that Steven Spielburg's Amazing Stories episode where the ball gunner got stuck, and the gear failed, and the guy drew the cartoon wheels..... Did people get trapped in there and get killed during belly landings? I'm sure they did. Did it happen a lot? No, it's one of those horrific things that gets exaggerated a little more every time people talk about it.

When they did know they had to make a gear-up landing, if there was time once the ball gunner was out, the crew would unbolt the ball and let it drop from the aircraft. During a gear-up landing, that ball would get pushed up into the fuselage, and break the spine of the aircraft, rendering it a pile of spare parts. If the turret was removed, the aircraft was usually salvageable. It took maybe 20-40 minutes to release it.

Robert Parkin claims ownership to all model photos built and photographed by him.

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Last Updated: 10/21/01