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Birthing a Boeing: 1942

Birthing a Boeing: 1942

December 1942. "Production. B-17 heavy bomber. A skilled team of men and women workers at the Boeing plant in Seattle complete assembly and fitting operations on the interior of a fuselage section for a new B-17F (Flying Fortress) bomber. About half of the workers at the Boeing plant are women. The Flying Fortress has performed with great credit in the South Pacific, over Germany and elsewhere. It is a four-engine heavy bomber capable of flying high altitudes." Photo by Andreas Feininger for the Office of War Information. View full size.


Shake, rattle and roll

Part of that is not because the aircraft wasn't stoutly built, but rather because they didn't have the modeling software that helps engineers understand eddy currents and such that induce vibration.

Flimsy is only skin deep

The aluminum skin on the fuselage may have been thin but the air frames of these planes were incredibly strong. This section was the nose and not constructed as heavily as the main body. The bombardier and navigator stations were here. The cockpit was elevated and behind the cross member. These planes could take a lot of punishment and keep flying. Anytime you see war footage of wings falling off it is generally because a bomb from a plane above has hit it. That and midair collisions were not uncommon in WWII.

Liberators were built somewhat weaker than Fortresses and tended to break apart just aft of the wing. But it still took direct hits from flak or 20 mm cannon to make it happen. I have great respect for the men who flew in these planes. Especially early in the US bombing campaign when losses were up to 10 percent per mission.

Flimsy vs. airworthy

@ Landtuna, even modern aircraft (combat and commercial) are still this flimsy. Maybe even more so, thanks to better numerical development tools which allow the designers to shave off even more unneeded material (and sometimes a bit too much).

And ballistic protection (vulgo: armour), although being somewhat lighter these days, is still used very sparingly. Simply because it also has to fly. Any weight used for that cuts down on crew, payload, fuel, range, ammunition, etc.

If memory serves right, the ailerons of the B-17 are pivoting on what looks like 1/2 inch bolts. Shocking, when you first see it. But perfectly adequate.

Besides, it takes a lot of steel to stop even a 7.92 Mauser.

B-17: Like a Tin Lizzy

Several years ago I took my Marine son for a ride in one of the remaining B-17's. I was completely unprepared for the flimsy construction of these aircraft. Up close they look very formidable but once in the air they shake, rattle and roll constantly. All the gunners had between themselves and the enemy fighters were thin sheets of aluminum. They were so exposed that veteran gunners used to install heavy sheets of iron between themselves and the outer skin of the aircraft. B-17's were neither pressurized nor heated so an 8-hour round trip from Britain to Germany seemed like an agonizing 24-hour day. Most of the crews were in their 20's and their chances of surviving the war were less than the average foot soldier.

Air vs. electric tools

If you look closely you'll see holes at the front of the tool where air is sucked in to cool the motor. Air tools don't need cooling so they only have exhausts ports. It is an electric drill.

Small World

Hey Mr. K, my dad was a WWII B-17 mechanic, too. Wonder if they served together.

Could be my father-in-law's

My father-in-law flew 30 missions in a B-17 as a bombardier. After reading history of the plane and what those crews went through, I'm always amazed he survived the war.

Flying Fortress

My late father was a WWII Army Air Corps engine mechanic on the big bombers. He unequivocally stated that the B-17 was the toughest plane he ever saw.

Re: Feeling Thankful

Those B-17s could take a beating. My father spent late '43 through very early '45 repairing damaged B-17s in England, like the ones gptgpt's father kept dragging home. His one major commendation was for being part of a detail that returned a record number of battle damaged aircraft (all B-17s) to service over some span of time (month, I think). That record wouldn't have been possible if the planes hadn't been able to keep flying and make it back to be repaired.

Bucking woman

The woman in the knit cap looks like she's holding a bucking bar, a tool held against the end of the shank of a rivet to flatten it (clamping the materials together, locking them in place), while another worker drives it from the outside with a pneumatic riveter. I was doing this 40+ years old, in an aviation mechanics program in high school (a very early magnet school).

It's essential to hold the bar straight and level with the rivet, so that the shank is bucked evenly, and not at an angle, or bent over. Otherwise you end up having to drill out the rivet and do it again - something you can't afford when you're trying to crank out aircraft out as fast as they did. I also see a riveter hanging over the sill of the window on the left.

A couple of other things I notice are the very long drill bit on that pneumatic drill (drilling through multiple sheets of aluminum far apart?). Also the thin .020" Alcoa aluminum sheet on the bulkhead. The thinnest sheet I can remember working with in high school was .030" "T6061-T6" (T6061 alloy with T6 heat treatment) on general aviation aircraft like Cessnas and Pipers.

A lot of the material here looks like bare (but probably anodized) aluminum, which someone else will likely prime later with green zinc chromate, and maybe paint with flat gray afterward.

Feeling Thankful

Feeling thankful for the men and women that built these birds. My dad flew in the B17-F in the war. They crash-landed or "used up" three or four planes during his time in England and somehow he came home without a scratch on him. Incredibly perilous times but the young men and women of that era were more than up to the task.


If you've never been inside a B-17, this is an idea of how small this "heavy bomber" was -- A Castle in the Air. Two favorite movies, "Twelve O'Clock High" and "Command Decision", are excellent looks into how these great airplanes served and about those that flew them. Hard to imagine being in there at 30,000 feet.

Memphis Belle moved to WWII Gallery- Air Force Museum

Perhaps the most Famous B-17....

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