Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress: Owners' Workshop Manual, 1935 Onwards (All Marks)

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Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress: Owners’ Workshop Manual, 1935 Onwards (All Marks) by Graeme Douglas. Zenith Press, 2011, 160 pp.

Writing a book touted as an Owners’ Workshop Manual for an aircraft that, according to author Graeme Douglas, has reached “something of an iconic status” (p. 9) certainly would not be easy. Douglas, however, proves himself equal to the task. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is part of a series of aircraft books released by the original British publisher (Haynes Publishing). Anyone hoping to own and operate a B-17 will certainly require a good deal of information about it. Douglas does not claim to have written an all-encompassing study of the four-engine bomber; rather, he uses his more than 30 years of experience as both a B-17 ground-crew member and volunteer restorer to give readers rare insight into today’s challenges of flying and maintaining this aircraft.

To tell the story of the legendary Boeing B-17, the author divides his monograph into four main areas: the bomber’s development, its use in combat, technical aspects, and details about operating and sustaining B-17s that have survived. In 1934 the Boeing Company financed development of a four-engine platform as its entry in the Army Air Corps (AAC) competition for a new bomber. Known as the Model 299, the aircraft performed well but was eliminated from competition when the test version tragically crashed after the pilots failed to remove the control locks before takeoff. Fortunately, the AAC recognized the 299’s superior performance and signed a contract with Boeing for 13 test-and-development aircraft, thus marking the birth of the B-17. Douglas then briefly discusses the major models (B through G) and assorted unique variants (e.g., transport, photoreconnaissance, and special mission).

Beginning with the British Royal Air Force’s initial efforts to use the B-17 to bomb Fortress Europe, the author examines the aircraft’s combat experience in both the European and Pacific theaters, dedicating an entire chapter to the events of a typical mission and including a wealth of photos of B-17 crew members manning their positions. He then turns to the heart of the book: a technical assessment of both the B-17’s anatomy and its four powerful Wright Cyclone engines. Beginning with the fuselage, Douglas describes the major components—heavily supplementing the text with both photographs and technical drawings—and addresses system operations, including any wartime changes made to the system. Though specialized, the author’s approach does not alienate readers who lack a strong technical background.

Douglas concludes his work by reviewing the challenges of maintaining two surviving B-17Gs—the Mary Alice and the Pink Lady. After a nearly 20-year restoration effort, the Mary Alice is on display at the American Air Museum at Duxford, England. Indeed, the author helped restore the bomber to its present status as one of the “faithful and fully equipped examples of a static Fortress” (p. 115). Until its recent retirement, the Pink Lady was one of only two B-17s flying in Europe and the only potentially airworthy variant that had seen combat. After relating its aircrew’s experiences flying this vintage B-17 on the modern European air-show circuit, Douglas concludes with a discussion of current maintenance procedures.

As one might expect of a book of only 160 pages, the degree of detail is somewhat deficient. To compensate, the author includes numerous insightful inset articles that provide considerable information on topics ranging from the seemingly trivial (Boeing’s part-number system and instructions for reading an aircraft data block) to the essential (the B-17’s technical specifications, the Norden bombsight, or the Pink Lady’s combat history). Finally, a large number of both historical and present-day pictures and diagrams serve as an excellent complement to the text.

The author has made a solid and enjoyable contribution to the vast number of books about the B-17 Flying Fortress. Inclusion of Owners’ Workshop Manual as a subtitle is a marketing ploy that no book of this length can fully live up to. That point aside, Douglas’s blending of broad-brush discussions and detailed sidebars of specific topics works well. Furthermore, the photos and technical diagrams accent and clarify the text. Clearly, this book does not target members of the academic or engineering communities; rather, it is intended for readers who want to know more about the technical aspects of the B-17. In that regard, Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress definitely delivers bombs on target.

Lt Col Dan Simonsen, USAF, Retired
Bossier City, Louisiana

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."