The Bomber is Born

The 1920s lacked the materials, engines and designs but they witnessed the formulation of bombardment policies that made the planes of the '40s possible.

TO many an American, the Army Air Forces' heavy bombers are the "miracle" weapons of this century. Their matchless punishment of Axis targets has awed the man on the ground. Amazed at the hitting power of the Fortresses and Liberators, laymen often view the big bombers as a heaven-sent wartime development.

Airmen know better.

The bomber was born out of 20 years' hope and heartbreak. America's big bombers grew because an idea gave them wings. US airmen call this idea precision bombing — the one method of leaping the enemy's outer defenses and blasting his industrial heart from the sky.

The big bomber was in many Air Forces minds even before World War I ended. Brig Gen William Mitchell believed his pilots could have bombed Germany to defeat had the war lasted into 1919. A few men saw the plane as a powerful new weapon, It could detach itself from ground bases, far beyond the range of artillery shells, and destroy the enemy's vitals. The idea was ahead of the implements to give it striking power and the implements themselves were not equally developed. A crude bombsight appeared almost as soon as someone hurled a stick of explosive over the side. Yet until bombardment objectives were clear there was little reason to improve the planes and equipment.

US airmen soon came to believe that the airplane could operate independently. They looked at the oceans and imagined war would come to America when an enemy battle fleet approached the East or West Coast. Air Forces planners saw a specific objective and the need for a specific plane — a land-based, long-range bomber to sink battleships. Only a big plane would have enough fuel capacity and bomb load.

The Army Reorganization Act of 1920 established the Army Air Service as the nucleus of the Air Forces that would lead the world in developing heavy bombers.

Air Service pilots in 1920 flew 9,000 miles from New York to Nome, Alaska, and return in four DeHavilland planes of World War vintage, thus pioneered the air routes of North America.

In 1921, the Air Service engaged in intensive bombardment training at Langley Field. Pursuit, observation and bombardment operated as a tactical team. The Navy turned over several captured German ships as bombing targets for Army and Navy planes. A joint Army-Navy board umpired the maneuvers.

As preliminary bouts, Army planes sank a German destroyer and, joined by Navy aircraft, the ex-German cruiser Frankfurt.

Sinkings of smaller craft boiled down to one issue: Could planes sink a battleship? The Ostfriedland, once pride of the German Navy, had an underwater structure equal to the best United States capital ships of 1921. Six Martin bombers finished her in 25 minutes. The Ostfriedland rolled over, mortally wounded, and sank 60 miles east of the Virginia Capes.

Bombs of 2,000 pounds sank the dreadnaught, yet the Air Forces had 4,000-pound monsters available. Our policy always has been to use the smallest bomb that will do the job. Britain's famous blockbusters are nothing new.

Two months later, Army planes sank the outworn USS Alabama in Chesapeake Bay. Our planes on 1923 maneuvers smashed the battleships Virginia and New Jersey with a high percentage of hits from 11,000 feet. The significance of sinking these outmoded battleships was not immediately clear but this much was certain: Five years after the Armistice, precision bombing had arrived. Now the Air Forces needed better planes.

A bad guess at progress was the Barling bomber. This was a great triplane, powered by six 400 hp Liberty engines, with an 11-man crew. The big, lumbering crate established endurance records, attracted the curious at air shows, merely proved a blind alley. It developed stiff joints and finally was scrapped.

Good airplanes were hard to find. Materials were flimsy. Designs were wrong. Engines were heavy. The Barling engines weighed 1,100 pounds each.

Airmen spent the '20s looking for a bomber that would fly far and fast and clean. As early as 1922, McCook Field, near Dayton, had a preview of the future. The Gallaudet bomber, a low-wing monoplane with a single engine, was defeated by two things: poor materials (the wing was built of sticks, wire and tape) and heavy engine.

Seeking monoplanes for better visibility and firepower, the Air Forces developed biplanes as stop-gaps. McCook pilots in 1925 tested the LB-1, a biplane with 66-foot wing span and one 800 hp engine — the first Keystone bomber.

The Engineering Division wanted more engines in order to maintain level flight with one engine in emergencies. And, the airmen added, more powerful engines, please. The year 1927 found Huff-Daland, Curtiss, Atlantic and Martin all feverishly building two-engined planes.

Men like Maj Gen Mason M Patrick, Chief of the Air Corps, still thought progress was too slow. "We want something practical," he urged. "We do not want larger, or strategic, or night bombers. We want a bomber that is a bomber."

Specifically, Air Forces engineers wanted a plane that could reach 15,000 feet, cruise 300 miles at 125 mph, and carry 2,000 pounds of bombs.

The Curtiss Condor, or XB-2, was a 1,200 hp, twin-engined biplane. This biggest and fastest US bomber of 1929 didn't excite the men who would plan the Flying Fortress.

"Our organization, training and policy," declared one group commander, "should strike the enemy air power at the roots and not among the branches."

Air power had sunk battleships (anchored and obsolescent). Flights to Alaska had spurred long-range planning. The Barling bomber had forced airmen to seek better materials than sticks and wire. A "perfect" bombsight had not yet been found. And training men to aim bombs was limited to tactical units. Plane designers still were bucking the problem of bombers to be "crated and shipped to our foreign possessions."

Yet Air Forces pioneers had come far beyond the "nuisance" bombing of World War I. The greatest thing they did in the '20s was to state the two aims of American bombardment:

  1. Precision, because there were no planes, bombs or men to waste.
  2. Long-range, because an invader must be stopped as far from our shores as possible.

The '30s were the years when the Air Forces actually put these two aims to work by better planes, finer precision instruments, improved bombs and highly trained manpower.

The most pressing need of Air Forces planners, as they took stock in January, 1930, was a bomber that could keep war out of America. Wright Field research pointed toward one basic type: an all-metal low-wing monoplane, multi-engined for staying power, a land-based plane able to fly hundreds of miles over water if necessary, drop its bombs and return home.

The American bomber was open to bidders.

Henry Ford made the first offer — an all-metal, high-wing tri-motored plane. Boeing at Seattle submitted its Model 215 as a "heavy" bomber. Keystone, Fokker, Martin and Douglas also were busy.

In test flights, air officers found Ford's design "basically at fault," the Boeing bomber "a remarkable advance." Then the Air Forces flew Martin's experimental B-10. In it America owned the world's fastest and most powerful low-wing, all-metal, twin-engined bomber — the successor to the famed old Martin of 1921 that had dropped the "bombs heard 'round the world" and sunk the Ostfriedland.

Air Forces doctrine defined Army aviation's primary mission as bombardment. Airmen wanted a twin-engined monoplane that could carry 2,000 pounds of bombs and fly 200 mph in a 400-mile radius. The B-10 came nearest the mark and Martin won the bid.

Foreign nations, equally shrewd at bargains, were keen to buy the B-10. The War Department refused offers from Britain, Russia, France, Japan and Turkey for a year, then permitted debt-worried Glenn Martin to sell his bombers abroad, minus guns or other "interesting" equipment.

In early 1934, Maj Gen Benjamin D Foulois, Chief of the Air Corps, ordered Wright Field to standardize the B-10 immediately. Air pioneers negotiated with Martin and Boeing for real bombers.

The air chiefs rounded up 10 tested B-10s and took off from Washington on the now historic Alaskan flight of midsummer, 1934. Then-Lieut Col Henry H Arnold, now commanding general of the Army Air Forces, led veteran pilots in the most thumping proof yet of long-range planes. The Air Forces suffered no loss of ships or personnel, repaired their aircraft in the wilderness, surveyed much of Alaska for future bases.

The Martins climaxed the Alaskan adventure by flying nonstop from Juneau to Seattle, 943 miles over water in 5 hrs, 40 min.

Alaska's strategic nearness became a fact.

American airpower could defend the territory. Enemy air power, based on Alaska, could attack the United States.

Kinks in the B-10's were ironed out in Martin's B-12, the best long-range military plane airmen had in 1934. The B-12 was still serving the British over Africa in 1940 — a long run for any airplane.

Prior to 1935 the big-bomber champions had little more than faith to guide them. In 1935, however, two momentous things happened.

First, the GHQ Air Force was established.

Second, the first Flying Fortress was test-flown at Wright Field.

American air power was designed to halt invasion, and bombardment in 1935 was visualized in these terms:

These demanded a big plane, but size was incidental — the result of more fuel, more men, more bombs, more engines.

Maj Gen Frank Maxwell Andrews, a lieutenant general at the time of his death in the European theater, took charge of headquarters at Langley Field, VA, and around him he gathered the nation's top air strategists. One bombardment and pursuit wing at March Field, CA, was commanded by the present chief of the Army Air Forces, Gen Henry H Arnold. Another bombardment wing, under Brig Gen Conger Pratt, was based at Langley. Pursuit was concentrated at Barksdale Field, LA. Wright Field remained the Air Forces' laboratory at Dayton, OH.

GHQ strategists immediately launched a 10-year program of bigger, faster, longer-ranged bombers.

A few weeks after the GHQ Air Force set up shop, Boeing's Model 299 — not yet called the Flying Fortress — flew out of hiding at Seattle. This four-engined, midwing monoplane weighed 16 tons, had a 104-foot wing span and performed brilliantly in preliminary tests.

On October 30, 1935, air officers filled Wright Field with hope and nervousness: the Boeing XB-17 was to fly officially. Maj Pete Hill, chief of the Flight Testing Section, warmed up the engines of the huge aircraft. The tail controls were too big to operate unless the slipstream from the engines was blowing into them. On the ground, spring locks gripped these controls until the pilot released the locking pins.

Hill eased the brakes and the XB-17 began to move. Just as he gunned the throttle, Hill pulled the lever to unlock the tail controls, which froze. Rigid and helpless, the bomber rose at a sharp angle. The ship stalled, then crashed and burst into flames. The co-pilot escaped to tell what had happened. Hill and a Boeing engineer burned to death.

Boards of inquiry found Boeing, the Air Forces and Hill equally blameless. The Air Forces ordered 13 more B-17s. Up from the ashes of that first model, the Flying Fortress rose on faith, guts and hard-headed, planning.

In December, 1936, a worried airman at Seattle penned a letter to his boss.

"Dear General," wrote Maj John D Corkille, Air Forces representative at Boeing. "One of the eastern papers this morning stated that the B-17 was too large for Army pilots to handle. Any pilot who has flown heavy planes can fly it. This plane will take off short, land short, will carry heavy loads and is very fast. It is the last word in airplanes."

From "the general," Henry H Arnold, at that time assistant chief of the Air Corps, came reassurance: "I agree with you about the B-17 and things are not as bad as they seem, so cheer up and don't worry too much about what you read in the papers."

In the next few months, Fortresses flew higher, faster and farther, with heavier loads than any other military plane. Langley Field pilots took them to Buenos Aires, to Rio, Bermuda, and Bogota, Colombia.

Wright Field had ordered a 14th B-17 for "static testing." In 1938, however, a heavily-loaded Fortress stalled without warning, spun through overcast, landed safely on bent wings. The B-17 had withstood more strain than its designers claimed. No laboratory could have proven more.

The Materiel Division rushed the test model to flying status and installed turbosuperchargers. The YB-17A, rescued from a dull life on the ground, became the first stratosphere bomber.

Meanwhile the Air Forces, which never has put all its eggs in one basket, sought another four-engined bomber as teammate to the B-17. Consolidated Aircraft got the nod with a land-based cousin of its giant flying boats.

Within nine months, the Consolidated B-24 grew like a well-designed house whose builder watches the trails and errors of other men. From early Martin to late Boeing, Consolidated profited from aviation's past.

All through the summer of 1939, while the B-24 was building, the B-17 celebrated the Air Forces' 30th anniversary by smashing the big-bomber records of the world for speed, load and altitude. The first B-17B set a non-stop, transcontinental record.

Then war made record-breaking the business of victory. And war forced the world's airplanes, ready or not, into the air.

General Arnold recognized this. He knew that minor design changes must not freeze production. His motto: Get 'em built.

He also watched the future that must safeguard the present. "No foreign country," he said, just before Poland fell, "should ever have an experimental airplane with greater range than an experimental bomber of our own."

The Fortresses' record-breaking flights had given the Air Forces a whopping birthday present. On December 29, 1939, Consolidated had its Christmas present ready and test-flew the new big bomber successfully for 20 minutes over San Diego. Its official flight came two months later. The B-24 had slimmer and higher wings, a fatter fuselage than the B-17, twin tails instead of the Fortress' single "dorsal fin."

In remarkably brief time, the B-24 had emerged from the drafting board to a perfect take-off — but in that time war blew the lid off plane production and the sky was the limit.

The Air Forces, airplane companies and the nation's auto-makers went into a huddle to reduce man-hours per plane and adapt assembly-line methods to bombers. The runways came to Detroit. The Wright Brothers' bicycle shop had been swallowed in Willow Run.

Well before Pearl Harbor Fortresses and B-24s were battling for Britain. Fortresses struck the Brest docks, bombed Hamburg, attacked Nazi convoys in the Mediterranean. Equally valuable were the new B-24s, which the British named the Liberator — a fighting word at a time when German power had swept Europe.

Two formations of B-17s sped to the Philippines just before Pearl Harbor. By no means the 1943 super-bomber, they battled Japs from the Indies to Australia. Combat missions tested guns and armor. Power gunnery was improved. More gunners were trained. Within weeks, the deadly "stinger" in the Fortress' tail was killing every Jap in range.

A Fortress brought Colin Kelly a hero's fame. Another evacuated General MacArthur from the Philippines. A third, flown by Capt. Hewitt Wheless, fought off 18 Jap Zeros, bombed its target 500 miles from base, limped home the last 400 miles on two engines.

For the Wheless exploit, airmen could thank Wright Field's Materiel Division, which condemned the Fortress' original fuel system as "a pile of junk." Air engineers knew nothing could save a bomber with fuel lines aflame.

Today's Flying Fortress — the B-17F — is bigger, faster, tougher. Yet its design was born in Model 299 that crashed with Pete Hill in 1935.

Fortresses and Liberators are our preview of tomorrow. They're the most efficient, most versatile stop-gaps in history, the "last of the small bombers," as General Arnold called the Fortress not long ago.

Seeking bombing skill to match their planes, airmen checked practice bombing scores and found some eye-openers. They proved, for instance, that if bombing errors are cut in half, efficiency is raised four times. A bombing force that became twice as good at hitting one target could hit three more targets.

America's pioneer airmen have taught fledglings one basic law: Every bomb must pay its way. Students hit the target or they don't win wings and commissions. Hits on one ship, one drydock, one power plant can hurt the enemy. Why waste time and bombs on bad guesses?

This article was originally published as part of the October, 1943, "Special Issue US Air Forces At War" issue of Flying magazine, vol 33, no 4, pp 108-110, 252.
The PDF of this article includes photos of a B-17 from 2 o'clock high, a photo of a B-24 from 2 o'clock low, and a sidebar of 6 photos of: DH-4, Martin bomber of 1921, Barling bomber, Keystone LB-6, Boeing B-9, and Martin B-10.
Photos credited to Army Air Forces, Illinois National Guards.