In 1934, the Air Corps visionaries, led by Billy Mitchell disciples Hap Arnold and Tooey Spaatz under the command of Major Generals Frank Andrews and Oscar Westover, were able to secure just enough money (with the help of a few friends in Congress) to start the development of a new, modern, multi-engine bomber. They hoped this new bomber would put the U.S. on par with Europe. They set out the following requirements in a competition for airplane manufacturers: the new bomber had to be able to fly at 10,000 feet at speeds of 200 miles per hour with a range of 2,000 miles, meaning the bomber would have to stay aloft for ten hours without refueling. No plane in the United States had that capability at the time.
Three companies entered the competition. The Martin Company offered up the B-12, an updated model of the plane used in the Air Mail debacle. Douglas came up with the new two-engine DB-1. And in Seattle, the much smaller Boeing Company, facing bankruptcy, decided to gamble everything and put its best designers and researchers into the effort. The company filed its proposal for the new bomber on August 8, 1934, a month before LeMay headed for Hawaii.
Under the leadership of the brilliant design team of E. Gifford Emory and Edward Curtis Wells, the first prototype of the B-17 came out of the factory at Boeing Field, amazingly only eleven months later in July of 1935. Taking a plan from draft paper to an actual airplane in less than a year is unheard of, even today with the benefits of computers and advanced technology. The teams of engineers at Boeing were using paper, pencils, and slide rules.
The B-17 went far beyond the requirements of the competition, and jumped light years ahead of every other airplane in the world.
It was the first all-metal bomber with an enclosed cockpit, powered by four 750 horsepower Pratt and Whitney engines. Its sleek lines, futuristic design, and capabilities of flying much higher and faster—235 miles an hour—carrying more bombs, dazzled the procurement officers, who decided immediately after the first flight on July 28, 1935, that the Air Corps should buy sixty-five B-17s. The Boeing plane far outstripped the much smaller and less powerful Douglas and Martins planes. During that first flight, a reporter from the Seattle Times, Richard Williams, saw the five 30inch 7.62 mm machine guns facing out from the plane in all directions and dubbed it a “flying fortress.” Boeing saw the value in the name and quickly copyrighted it.
If ever a plane was built that was air-worthy, it was the B-17. While it was more advanced than any other plane, its brilliance lay in a much simpler design and parts. It was easier to build, sturdier to fly, and required less maintenance than any other plane at the time. The new bomber could take a profound battering from enemy anti-aircraft guns and fighters as well as from wind, heat, cold—almost anything—and it would bring back its crews when other planes would have gone down. The B-17 was a marvel. But it had a disastrous beginning.
On its second flight, the test pilots forgot to disengage the gust lock, a brake that holds the plane in place when it is parked on the ground—a forgivable mistake considering it was only the second time the crew had ever flown it. But even simple mistakes by test pilots are unforgiving. The plane went into a stall just after takeoff and crashed, killing everyone on board. Boeing and the B-17 were immediately out of the competition. The Air Corps gave the contract to the Douglas Air Craft company for 133 of its twin engine B-18 Bolos. That should have been the end of the B-17.
But the Air Corps officers who had seen the B-17 could not let it go. They persuaded their congressional friends not to abandon the Boeing project. Generals Andrews and Westover managed to keep Boeing in the game with a limited contract to produce thirteen more B-17s. It was hardly what Boeing had hoped for, but it kept the bomber and the company alive. In the meantime, Boeing’s engineers redesigned the B-17 with even more powerful engines and added other improvements. The crash also spurred the institution of the “check list,” still used today by all pilots to prevent potential problems before takeoff.
The planes were delivered to Langley Field on March 1, 1937, where they quickly became the hot ticket in the Air Corps. It was the plane everyone wanted to fly. Scuttlebutt about the new bomber traveled as far away as Hawaii, where LeMay heard about it. It would become the predominant plane in the Air Corps after Douglas ran into manufacturing problems and its plane was stalled on the assembly line. Despite that humble initial order of thirteen planes, more than 12,000 B-17s would be built by the end of World War II.
Over seven decades after World War II, pilots still talk about the B-17s with a particular fondness. They even insist that the plane had a special smell unlike any other. Later, some crewmembers credited the B-17 with bringing them through the war alive, as if it were a living, breathing being. “Flying the B-17 was unlike flying any other plane. It was a joy,” recalled Jacob Smart, who commanded a squadron of B-17s during the war. Jim Pattillo flew both B-17s and B-29s in World War II. “The B-29 was a complicated precision instrument,” Pattillo remembers, “but the B-17 was as easy as getting into the family car.” General Arnold placed this particular plane in the pantheon of all aircraft: “It had only one predecessor of equal importance in air history”—the Wright brothers’ plane.
At this time the Army Air Corps came into the possession of a device that, along with the B-17, would revolutionize bombing— the Norden bombsight. It would prove to be one of the great inventions and greatest secrets of World War II. The U.S. did not even share the bombsight with the British for fear that it might fall into enemy hands. It was developed by an eccentric Dutch engineer, Carl Norden, who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1904. Norden developed the bombsight for the Air Corps while he worked for the Sperry Corporation.
A bomb does not fall in a straight line from a moving plane. It follows a parabolic trajectory as the various forces of physics— speed, gravity, and inertia—carry it on its long journey to the ground. The bombsight computed all these factors to guide the bomb to its target. It used a series of gears, gyroscopes, and ball bearings that the bombardier would look through over a target. By inputting the speed and altitude, the bombsight could calculate the trajectory of a bomb. The bombardier even controlled the flight of the plane through the site during the time over the target. The U.S. would eventually buy 90,000 bombsights from Norden at a cost of $1.5 billion between 1933 and 1945.
As the pilots, navigators, and bombardiers were grappling with this new technology, the classes U.S. Army Air Corps officer Curtis LeMay attended reminded him of the school he had set up in Hawaii—the instructors did not know much more than the students.
By 1937, the military push by Germany and Japan finally caught the attention of the War Department. But because of the isolationists’ strong hold in Congress, the Air Corps, along with the rest of the U.S. military, had to go about a buildup in surreptitious ways. The Air Corps understood that it needed to impress the public with the importance of funding its planes and technology. So it set up three air exercises in the late 1930s. By today’s standards, they sound simplistic. Back then, they were not.
The first demonstration was really a continuation of a long, simmering rivalry between the Navy and the Air Corps. It was called Joint Air Exercise Number Four, but it became known as the Utah Exercise. It was a competition of sorts. The Navy continued to hold on to its jurisdiction over open water as Washington saw the Air Corps only as a defensive arm of the military. So in theory, the Air Corps existed in case an army invaded the continental United States, which was unlikely. The Army itself saw the main thrust of any future air war only as support for ground troops, but there were those within the Air Corps who wanted to show that the B17 had significantly changed the paradigm.
The rules of the exercise were simple. The Air Corps was given twenty-four hours to locate a battleship, the USS Utah, which would be sailing somewhere off the coast of California between Los Angeles and San Francisco—roughly 120,000 square miles— and hit it with water bombs. The Air Corps could not conduct its own reconnaissance. It had to rely on position reports from the Navy. Eight B-17s would be used in the drill, along with a larger number of B-10s and B-18s. The Navy was betting its ships were invulnerable to airplanes, and the Air Corps was saying it could destroy ships from the air. Bob Olds, the commander of the Air Corps fleet, chose LeMay as his chief navigator. The B-17s flew across the country in August 1937 and set up their headquarters at the Oakland airport.
At noon on August 12, the Navy sent its position report to the airport, which radioed it to the B-17s already over the Pacific. LeMay quickly made the calculations and determined that they were actually quite close to the ship. The lead pilot, Major Caleb V. Haynes, brought down the planes through the clouds, but to their surprise, they saw only open water. They set up a search—spreading out the planes and looking for the ship—but they were unable to locate the Utah before dark, when the exercise ended for the day. Olds furiously asked LeMay why they had not found the ship. “I don’t know, Sir,” LeMay responded honestly. “I think we got to where they were supposed to be.” After a few more calculations and a celestial reading, LeMay was convinced that he had been right. “We weren’t very far off. Maybe two or three miles.” Olds asked why he was so sure. “If it’s right,” LeMay responded, showing his charts, “here’s where we are now. And we’re headed straight to San Francisco.” Olds was not happy and grumbled that they still had tomorrow. But he added, “I want the Utah. You’d better find it for me. You were selected to fly lead navigator because I thought you were the best in the group.”
LeMay could not have felt good about any of this, yet he remained convinced that he was right. He was so confident about it that he calculated exactly when they would hit San Francisco on their course homeward. When the time came, LeMay left his seat at the navigator’s table and came back up to the cockpit where Haynes and Olds sat in the pilot and co-pilot seats. As they came over in the dark, there, as LeMay had predicted, were the lights of the city.
“By God, you were right,” Olds said. “Then why didn’t we find the Utah?”
“Maybe,” suggested LeMay, “they gave us the wrong position.”
Because of heavy fog, the planes had to bypass Oakland and fly on to Sacramento where they spent the night. LeMay slept under the wing of the plane in the hangar. Early the next morning, Olds, who spent most of the night on the phone, came over to LeMay and woke him. “The Navy now admits they were one degree off on the position they sent us,” he said. “One degree! That’s sixty miles. No wonder we couldn’t find the son-of-a-bitch. Come on, let’s have a cup of coffee.”
Like the day before, Olds did not wait at the hangar for the Navy to radio in its position. As soon as it was light, he took off so the planes would be out at sea when they received the coordinates. When the information came in, LeMay made his calculations. Then he came back to Olds and Haynes with the bad news. There was no way they could get to the ship before the noon deadline. He figured out that they would be about sixty miles away when the clock struck twelve. Olds was furious. The air seemed to have been sucked out of the plane—everyone on board just sagged. With nothing else to do, Olds ordered the planes to fan out, make sure they were in sight of one another, and fly towards the coordinates anyway. He hoped that the planes could at least locate the Utah, even if it was after the deadline.
Then, with about ten minutes left before the deadline, a huge battleship came into sight. They were not completely sure it was the right battleship, so they looked for markings. The sailors on board appeared to be just loitering on the deck and not in any great worry of an imminent attack. When they saw the correct flag, the bombardier asked permission to drop the water bombs the plane was carrying. Olds gave him the OK, and in the ensuing “attack,” the B-17s scored three direct hits and several near misses.
As dejected as the men onboard the planes had been just minutes before, they were equally jubilant after the ship was hit. The airmen watched the sailors scurrying around in a frenzy. Then the planes headed back to the coast as LeMay charted a course, this time to March Field in Riverside. Along the way, LeMay figured out why they were able to hit the Utah before the deadline. Once again, the Navy had sent out misinformation. For the second day in a row they were off by one degree, which would account for the sixty-mile differential. But this time, the one degree mistake was in their favor. The euphoria of the air crews was short lived, however. An order came out immediately after landing that the entire exercise would remain classified—there would be no publicity whatsoever. The Navy had its way in Washington. The story would stay within the military. The Navy then attacked Olds and the bombers with what now sounds like the weakest possible argument. It said that since the planes came in suddenly out of the clouds, the ship did not have time to perform any evasive maneuvers. “The exercise doesn’t prove a thing,” the Navy said. Rather than explain that planes coming in out of nowhere was precisely the problem that ships would face in the future, Olds had another suggestion. He challenged the Navy to one more test on the following day: let the B-17s target the ship from a higher altitude at a prescribed time, allowing the Utah to take any evasive action it desired. Boxed into a corner, the Navy agreed. The following day, the B-17s came in at 8,000 feet on what turned out to be a picture-perfect clear day in the Pacific. The ship took evasive action, but to no avail. It was hit again. And again the entire event was kept from the general public.
Following the Utah exercise, the Air Corps realized that, in order to help the American public understand the growing importance of air power, it needed to come up with a public relations campaign. In January 1938, the U.S. State Department announced that as a gesture of goodwill, the B-17s of the Air Corps would fly to Argentina for the inauguration of the country’s new president. Franklin Roosevelt was sending a message to Berlin and Tokyo: the United States had the most advanced, state-of-the-art bomber in the world with a capacity to fly long distances.
The flight to South America was an unqualified success. It received a great deal of press coverage, and the people of South America were excited to get anywhere near the planes. The event did not go unnoticed in the Axis capitals. The B-17s had flown fifteen hours over oceans without refueling on their flight from Miami to Lima. Berlin was now in range of England.