13: The Flying Fortress And The Flying Boxcar


Hightower In 1938 Walt Disney released Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. It was the world’s first feature-length animated film and it was kind of a big deal. It did really well at the box office and it won an Oscar – even though an animation category didn’t yet exist.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s Disney went on to produce a string of now-classic films including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. These movies provided an escape for a nation still recovering from the Great Depression and fearing the start of a second world war. Production of animated features was eventually halted so that Disney and his team could tackle more serious subjects…




Hightower That’s Donald Duck from the short film, Der Fuehrer’s Face. It’s pretty straightforward propaganda and Disney produced several shorts like it. They also animated instructional films for the War Department to help train the young men who were being called upon to defeat the Axis Powers.


Of all the work they did for the war effort, Victory Through Air Power is perhaps the strangest. It’s basically an infomercial about strategic bombing. The seventy-minute film didn’t star Donald or Goofy or Mickey, but it instead featured a Russian-American by the name of Major Alexander Seversky.


Narrator With his background as a combat pilot, aeronautical designer, engineer, manufacturer and military strategist, Major Seversky’s advanced viewpoint and opinions are of vital importance to every citizen…


Seversky As the United Nations surround Nazi Europe with a ring of air bases, the present-day bombers such as our own Flying Fortresses and Liberators will be able to reach every spot of the Axis anatomy.


Air Power at last will be in a position to score a major decision, to bomb the enemy into submission, to knock Germany out of the war.


Hightower Much of what Seversky was arguing for had came to pass by the time the war ended in 1945. The two bombers he referred to – the B-17 Flying Fortress and the B-24 Liberator both played critical roles in defeating Nazi Germany.


Of the two planes, the B-24 would seem to be the better aircraft. It was more modern than the B-17. It could fly further and carry more bombs. During the war many more B-24s were built. But despite all this, the aircraft has largely been forgotten. It doesn’t live in our cultural imagination in the same way that the B-17 does. B-17s were featured prominently in a number of movies like Twelve O’clock High, The War Lover and Memphis Belle. Actually, there were two versions of Memphis Belle – the 1943 documentary and the 1990 fictionalized remake.


The story the B-17 and the B-24 is all about the relationship between form and function and meaning – issues that are all at play in architecture as well. And so even though buildings and airplanes don’t usually fall into the same category, that’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the thirteenth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.


I’m Brantley Hightower.


In the nineteen-twenties and thirties, military leaders struggled to develop ways of avoiding the quagmire of trench warfare that had defined the First World War. The idea that Seversky and others were proposing was to fly a fleet of bombers over the front lines of a war and then drop bombs on the enemy’s means of production and distribution. Once the factories that supported the enemy were eliminated, that enemy would have to surrender. Or at least that was the theory.


Of course, in order to pull any of this off you needed an aircraft that could fly a long distance while carrying a lot of bombs. In the mid 1930s the United States had no such aircraft.


And so in 1934 the Boeing Airplane Company was awarded a development contract to design and build an experimental long-range heavy bomber. When the design was unveiled to the public a year later, no one had seen anything like it.


A reporter for the Seattle Times was so impressed by the new bomber that he wrote:


Reporter “Why, it's a flying fortress!"


The name stuck.


At the time, the B-17 was the largest and heaviest aircraft the US had ever built. Its wings spanned over a hundred feet. Inside they were structured like a bridge truss over which were stretched layers of aluminum for additional stiffness.


Gary Boyd is the director of the Air Education and Training Command History and Museum program at Randolph Air Force Base here in San Antonio. He described the B-17 as a plane designed so well that it could even be considered over-designed.


Gary There was appreciation on the part of Boeing engineers from the very beginning that this aircraft was going to fly through harm's way and so it's over-engineered in a way that almost no other airplane was in World War II. It's a beautiful aircraft. It's a low wing monoplane. It flies better at slower speeds than almost any large aircraft has before or since. It's graceful. It can take a lot of punishment and is a wonder of engineering...


Hightower You’ll notice Gary used the term “beautiful” to describe the B-17. Nearly everyone I interviewed for this story used that same adjective. It’s not hard to understand why. As an object, the B-17 was an elegant Art Deco sculpture with a streamlined fuselage, tapered wings, and polished aluminum skin. Its landing gear consisted of two large wheels under its wings and a third, smaller one under its tail. This configuration caused the nose of the aircraft to point skywards when sitting on a runway. It made the B-17 look like it was poised and ready to take flight even when it was sitting still.


Almost thirteen thousand B-17s were produced over the course of the war, but close to six thousand of those were lost in combat. To keep a steady supply of replacement aircraft heading to Europe, Boeing partnered with Vega and Douglas – two competing aircraft companies – to manufacture B-17s in their factories.


A fourth company was also approached. Executives from Consolidated Aircraft traveled up from San Diego to visit the B-17 assembly lines at Boeing in Seattle. Here again, is Gary Boyd.


Gary They look at it and they see a design that is very mid-thirties, and very utilitarian, and overbuilt, and heavy and instead of building the B-17s, they decided to throw in their own entry.


Hightower Engineers at Consolidated Aircraft had sixty days to come up with a new design. They didn’t have time to completely start from scratch so they started by borrowing components from other aircraft they had already designed. For example they lifted the particular design of a wing - called the “Davis Wing” - directly from a flying boat they had in development. If the final product looked like a cobbled-together assembly of a bunch of different airplanes, it’s because that’s kind of what it was.


The first prototype flew just a little over a year after the project was conceived. The design would eventually be called the B-24 Liberator. Like the B-17, it was designed to drop a lot of bombs over targets that were very far away.


Gary Both of them approach the same problem differently. The B-24 is a newer design, faster, could carry more bombs, but it's harder to fly because that Davis wing, its penalty is that you have to continuously fly. It was a true statement during World War II that you could tell a B-24 pilot just based on the forearms and the biceps. They were very strong and robust people.


Hightower The wing of the B-17 was thick and broad whereas the wing of the B-24 was narrow and thin. Whereas the B-17’s fuselage was round in section, the B-24 was basically a rectangle with rounded corners. This gave the aircraft a somewhat boxy-appearance. The joke was that the B-24 was the box the B-17 was shipped in. Its shape also led to one of its nicknames – the “flying boxcar”.


This is a purely subjective statement, but in studying these two aircraft, there is something inherently beautiful about the B-17 whereas the B-24 often looks a little awkward. Its flat top and curved belly gives it a somewhat banana-like form. A front gun turret that was added to later versions of the B-24 only increased the somewhat dog-like proportions of its nose.


Still, I wanted to see if maybe I was missing something and so I spoke with someone whose job it is to make airplanes look beautiful. Among other things, Mel Brown is a professional aviation artist. Some of his paintings can be seen at the Pentagon and at the Air Force Academy. I asked him if he thought the B-17 was a prettier airplane to paint.


Mel Oh, yeah. And I have painted more B-17s than B-24s. I hadn't thought about it until you contacted me but it's true. B-17s - they just lend themselves to being beautiful in the air and on the ground and often times, that's what'll separate the artwork or illustration or photography of those same aircraft.


One of the things that I learned just like every other aviation artist, some aircraft you can depict anywhere, doing anything, and they look good.


Hightower The B-17, it turns out, is one of those aircraft that always looks good. But in war, looks shouldn’t matter.


Given its technical superiority, the B-24 should have been the better aircraft. It certainly looked that way on paper. But the reality was more complicated. For example, while the B-24 was a more efficient aircraft, it was also a lot harder to fly.


Ole Nygren worked for decades as a commercial pilot for Continental Airlines. When he retired from flying 727s and 737s, he started flying B-17s and B-24s. He did this for the Commemorative Air Force, a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring, flying, and educating the public about vintage military aircraft and their role in US history.


Ole The B-17 is a very stable airplane when you are flying cruise. The B-24, you had to pay a lot more attention to, especially the pitch will change if you take your eyes off the horizon or look away. The nose is either going to up or it's going to go down. It takes a little bit more to handle in flight.


Hightower During World War Two whenever they would fly missions over enemy territory, pilots of both B-17s and B-24s typically flew as high as possible to avoid being attacked from the ground. They also flew in tight formations so that guns from multiple bombers could defend against individual enemy fighters. Both of those things were much more difficult to do in a B-24. As a result they tended to fly at lower altitudes that decreased their performance.


Here again is Gary Boyd:


Gary The reality is even though the B-24 had a much more efficient wing and it could fly much greater distances, it didn't really factor in at all. They had virtually the same bomb loads, virtually the same ranges when it was all said and done. The greater bomb load that people talk about didn't really translate that well into the European air war. They both did superlative jobs in that air war and they both were just as likely to be shot down because when you're hit by an 88-caliber shell, you're going to go.


Hightower And a lot of them did go. Both B-17s and B-24s were shot down at roughly the same rates, but crews were much more likely to survive being shot out of the sky in a B-17.


Gary The B-17 was the most survivable of all the heavy bombers that crashed. You had about a 60% chance of getting out of your crew station, getting into your parachute, and surviving. The B-24, you only had about a 31 to 35% chance of getting out. You see the difficulties. The nose of the B-24, very utilitarian, very slab like. It was narrow and difficult to get out of the nose, the forward crew areas of the B-24.


I would say as a historian who's studied this my whole life, I'd rather be in a B-17 because I'd like to be able to get out again.


Hightower Gary also talked about the B-17’s near mythical ability to survive severe battle damage and still return its crew safely back to base. John Cotter is another pilot with the Commemorative Air Force. He sees this as being a big part of the lingering appeal of the B-17.


John The B-17 has romance associated with it just because it's so well known. Its beauty may lie in its strength, you know, calling it the fortress. All shot up and tail off of it, it'd bring the guys home and so there's beauty in that with the story.


Hightower John thinks another  reason that B-24s are less well known is because they could fly further than B-17s. Because of their range they tended to be stationed in more remote locations – further away from where news reporters would be able to see and write about what B-24s were doing.


John It was staged further North in England. It wasn't near London and so it wasn't close to the press. It didn't get all the notoriety, because a person in London, when they look outside, they saw B-17s every day probably, where the 24s were further north and then of course, down in Italy. They may not have received quite the press and I think that may have lent to the notoriety of the B-17 compared to the 24.


Hightower The ultimate effectiveness of strategic bombing was based on two key assumptions. One was that a large group of bombers were all but impossible to stop.


Seversky Bombers will always go through.


Hightower That’s Major Seversky again repeating a mantra that was popular at the time. But that assumption was based largely on the technology of the First World War. The Second World War saw the introduction of radar, and anti-aircraft guns and high-speed interceptor fighters that made shooting down bombers much easier. In the end, the bombers would still get through, but at an incredibly high cost. Weather you were flying in a B-17 or a B-24, you had one of the most dangerous jobs of the war. Gary Boyd described the staggering losses of the Eighth Air Force – the command charged with the strategic bombing of Germany.


Gary I always like to mention that the Eighth Air Force's casualty rate was higher than the Marines in the war. We always think of Iwo Jima but we forget the toll and the cost on the Eighth Air Force, almost 30,000 killed and another 50,000 plus wounded. That was a substantial part of World War II and it didn't win the war in the way it was supposed to.


Hightower Gary mentioned the second assumption about strategic bombing – that the destruction of an enemy’s industrial capacity could win a war by itself. It turns out it could not. The reality is that it strategic bombing could never completely destroy the enemy’s ability to fight. But in the Second World War it did erode it considerably. And in particular it did force Germany to reallocate resources that could have been put to use elsewhere.


Gary Daylight bombing is what drew the Germans away from the Eastern Front to allow the Russians and the Soviets actually at that point, to roll them up on the Eastern Front, which was really where the war was going on in the ground. The war in Europe is won in the Soviet Union because of the Eighth Air Force distracting Luftwaffe because the Germans had absolute air superiority and then had to let that go in order to defend the homeland.


Hightower Strategic bombing may not have won the war outright, but without it, the war wouldn’t have been won.


Gary We couldn't have won the war without having both designs. Both designs were essential to what it is we were trying to do.


Hightower Although designed as a bomber, the B-24 also proved valuable as a submarine patrol aircraft in the Atlantic. It excelled in any role where pure range and endurance was required. It was also more useful in the Pacific theater where the distances involved made the B-17 much less effective – even if it was more beautiful.


It’s like how we can all agree that a horse is more beautiful than a cow. But if you want to drink milk – or want to eat a steak – you kind of need a cow.


The B-24 would continue to play an important role in the Pacific theater until the last year of the war when a new bomber was introduced – the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.


The design of the B-29 borrowed elements from both the B-17 and the B-24. It could deliver a much larger bomb load to a target that was much further away, which is exactly what happened on August 6, 1945 when a B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Another B-29 dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki three days later. Less than a week after that, the Second World War was over.


Tim Brett is the chairman of the Parham Airfield Museum in Suffolk, England. The museum is located in the old control tower of Framingham Station 153, one of forty-six airfields operated there by the Eighth Air Force during the Second World War.


Back then Tim was a young boy. He said the typical British citizen didn’t think much about the beauty of the B-17 relative to the B-24. They were too busy surviving a war.


Tim It was the boys, the young kids that had the interest in the aircraft. And obviously if there was an airfield in the vicinity, all the young boys would go up there, and some of the young girls, would go up there and they'd watch the planes take off, they'd watch them land, they would actually go onto the airfields and make friends with the ground crews, and in some cases the air crews.


And there was a kind of great rivalry, if you like, with the kids. You know, if you had B-17s at the end of your village, then they were the best aircraft. And then if you had B-24s, then they were the best aircraft. So it was down to the children more than, if you like, the adults, to assign any sort of stages to them.


Hightower It was almost like a local sports team. If you live in New York, you’re a Yankees fan. If you live in Boston, you’re a Red Socks fan. The only difference is that no one shoots at the Red Socks when they travel to the Bronx to play at Yankee Stadium.


The danger to US bomber pilots wasn’t limited to the time they were over enemy territory. German interceptors would occasionally follow bombers back across the English Channel.


Tim They would specifically take off towards dusk from their airfields in France and Holland, and they would follow the bombers back across the channel to their bases.


And they would catch them at their weakest moment, i.e. they were wheels down, turning in onto finals to go into land where they were totally defenseless, and then the German night fighter would open fire. And not only would they destroy a bomber and most of the crew, if not all the crew, then the aircraft crashing on the runway would cause further destruction. So it's not just to down bombers, but to cause maximum destruction to the airfield as well.


Hightower This anecdote was of interest to me because, you see, I knew a man by the name of Isaac Leslie Hightower who flew B-17s in World War Two. Or to be more accurate, he was a co-pilot. He was also my grandfather and in April of 1943 he was shot down - over England.


Maybe it was because he was a really good co-pilot, or maybe it was because the B-17 he was flying was over-designed, or maybe it was because he was just really lucky, but for whatever reason my grandfather survived the crash. Three of his crew mates did not, but my grandfather lived. He lived to see the end of the war. He lived to come home and become my father’s father. He lived so that one day some 75 years later his grandson could have the luxury of producing a podcast episode about how beautiful his airplane was.


And you know what? I do think the B-17 is beautiful. And I’m not alone. Here again is Tim Brett.


Tim Yes. I think that when you look at it, it's got such nice, nice lines, if you like, compared to other aircrafts. And I think probably out of the B-24, and the B-17 – I think B-17 probably had the best-looking lines, if you like, that's aesthetically pleasing lines.


Hightower Gary Boyd, the objective historian, thinks it’s beautiful, too.


Gary People know when something is right. There's almost a genetic trigger. There's something about the way the B-17 was designed, in a utilitarian and rugged way without compromising on any of the aesthetics that you would have expected in the mid Art Deco period.


If you were to design an aircraft from scratch as an artist and try to encompass all these stations and things and utilities, the B-17 springs to mind as already being there. You don't need to go any further than that. It's probably the most beautiful, world wrecking airplane of all time. It was just right.


Hightower Theodore Kirkpatrick is well into his nineties now but when he was barely twenty years old he served as a gunner on a B-17. The name of the bomber he flew in was Snow White. He remembers her fondly.


Theodore She was just like a wife and we loved her, yeah. And we loved Snow White especially because we loved the latest models, it was all silver and it had the twin turret and we had been flying some of the other ones and so we knew some of the other difficulties with the older planes and so forth. Then we got a brand new car, just like you would, you got yourself a Cadillac out there, what would you think? Yeah, you'd fall in love with it.


So yes, I think it was a beautiful plane.


Thanks today Gary Boyd, Mel Brown, Tim Brett and Theodore Kirkpatrick as well as everyone I spoke with at the Commemorative Air Force’s Gulf Coast Wing including John Cotter, Jeff Foltz, Nancy Kwiecien, and Ole Nygren. There are only a handful of B-17s that are still flying and they operate one of them. It makes appearances at events around the country where you can tour or even fly in a vintage B-17. You can find out more at b17texasraiders.com.


The music today was by Chris Zabriskie with audio clips from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Victory Through Air Power.


Special thanks to Michael Corley who provided the voice of the 1930s reporter and to the nice old woman who just came by the studio to give me this lovely red apple…


Mmm… this is really good, although I do suddenly feel a little strange…


Evil Queen Now I am the fairest in the Land!


The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today – including some photos of both the Flying Fortress and the Flying Boxcar - at Hi dot Works.


Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.